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Battle of BC was a Super Smash Bros. tournament that saw more than 1,750 people pack into the Vancouver Convention Centre.Nem Sumeragi/Handout

For a while, the competitive gaming industry was only levelling-up.

Convinced that esports – video-game tournaments played live online and in person for cash prizes – could be the spectator sport of the future, traditional leagues from the NFL and NBA started investing millions in the space in 2018, and crypto companies jumped on board, too. Soon, the pandemic intensified interest, as people staying indoors sought online entertainment.

Meet the faces of gaming in Canada

Then things changed – quickly. As pandemic restrictions eased, viewership decreased, investors saw underwhelming returns and pulled out (it’s notoriously hard to monetize content people expect to access for free on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch), and some esports organizations didn’t make it. But to the 540 million people who watch esports, the majority of them under 35, it isn’t just a $2.1-billion global industry, it’s a lifestyle. When you’re passionate about watching pro esports players compete in popular games at the highest level, you will do what it takes to keep your communities alive.

That much is clear at the Battle of BC, a Super Smash Bros. tournament that saw more than 1,800 people pack into the Vancouver Convention Centre and 900,000 tune in online this May to watch top international talent duke it out for a $20,000 prize pool. The competitive Smash Bros. scene epitomizes the tenacity of esports fandoms to survive without resources. Nintendo, the title’s publisher, doesn’t support Smash Bros. leagues the way game developers such as Riot Games and Blizzard help fund and formalize the communities around League of Legends or Overwatch.

Rather, competitions like BoBC are purely grassroots, explains organizer Kevin Dhir, who hosts the annual event through his production company, Galint Games. “A lot of Smash Bros. tournaments do go in the red because the people running them are just happy to run them for the sake of the community,” says Dhir. Galint offers its esports event organization services to a range of clients; Dhir hopes this business model will help him continue scaling up BoBC sustainably. And even though the economic downturn means there were fewer Smash Bros. tournaments on the global circuit this year, attendees were sanguine about the future of competitive Smash: “We’re like an esports cockroach,” says Ben McCaughan, a 29-year-old competitor from Campbell River, B.C. “We’re never dying.”

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900,000 tune in online this May to watch top international talent duke it out for a $20,000 prize pool.Nem Sumeragi/Handout

Jeremy Wang, a.k.a. Disguised Toast (or simply “Toast”), is a 32-year-old Taiwanese-Canadian Twitch streamer and YouTube creator who reinvests the money he earns through his popular channels into DSG, a professional team he started in January that plays first-person shooter Valorant. “Right now, organizations are going bankrupt and a lot of people are losing their jobs,” says Wang. Indeed, The Guard, a gaming league owned by the Los Angeles Rams, went bankrupt and laid off its entire staff this February. The crypto crash took some esports organizations down with it, and FaZe Clan, which went public at US$13 a share last July, is now seeing its stock plummet. “I wanted to see if I could hop in and help out a little, because people are trying to pursue their esports dreams and it’s only possible if someone is willing to pay their salaries.”

Wang is the sole financial backer of his team, and despite operating at a loss – he says he’s surpassing his initial budget of US$500,000 a year – he’s committed to trying out his esports strategy until at least 2026. That involves cultivating new gamer talent, but also using his influencer platform to elucidate the challenges of monetizing an esports team to his audience in real-time. He’s also hoping to let game publishers know that, “‘We’re going to do it no matter what. But we are in trouble. For the longevity of this entire ecosystem, we do need help.’”

Of course, there is always merch – and many esports leagues have wholeheartedly embraced selling branded lifestyle products, from streetwear to energy drinks to skincare, as a way to boost income, deepen their connection to fans and show investors that they’re more than just slick on screen. For example, the esports organization Team Liquid released a collection in collaboration with the anime Naruto, including a twill jacket, cargo pants and a printed skirt.

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Competitive gaming may be here to stay, but for the industry and culture to reach their fullest potential, advocates need more than skill and strategy – they need support.Nem Sumeragi/Handout

But a sustainable future for esports in Canada may be less about lifestyle branding and more about how it actually shows up in our lives, according to Melissa Burns, CEO of Esport Canada, a nonprofit advocating for students from elementary school through postsecondary pursuing competitive gaming. To start, we need to shed old stereotypes about gaming being a male-dominated niche (89 per cent of Canadian students play games daily, and 48 per cent of gamers identify as female) and that gamers are necessarily sedentary and unhealthy.

“Top players train like athletes,” says Burns. “They have sleep schedules and nutrition plans – we want our students to recognize that in order to do well in this thing that they love, it includes a balanced lifestyle.” Burns also hopes that with access to the right opportunities, Canada’s young esports players can grow into a strong community of fans who deepen their attachment to pro leagues by competing in rec leagues, too. Think of how important NHL playoffs are to your local beer-league hockey teams. Says Burns, “The strength of those communities is really what grows your fan base and provides spectators that help to monetize professional leagues.”

Competitive gaming may be here to stay, but for the industry and culture to reach their fullest potential, advocates need more than skill and strategy – they need support.

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