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Toronto Ultra team they battle Paris Legion during the Call of Duty Major III tournament at the Mattamy Athletic Centre in Toronto on June 3.Photos by Eduardo Lima/The Globe and Mail

Chris Overholt knows what some people will think when they hear about what he did at Maple Leaf Gardens last weekend. Back in February, 1999, he was an executive with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, and was at the final game the Leafs played there. He understands the iconic hold the building still has in the Canadian sports imagination. Which is why, when the pandemic began to lift and an opportunity finally came for him to make a statement about the future of sports, he believed the 90-year-old building on Toronto’s Carlton Street would provide the ideal stage.

And so, over the course of four raucous days, Overholt and his colleagues at the Toronto-based e-sports company OverActive Media greeted thousands of fans and dozens of athletes – or eAthletes, if you prefer – at the historic arena, for Canada’s first major live tournament of the first-person shooter video game Call of Duty.

“It’s the ultimate irony, don’t you think?” he said in an interview a few days before the tournament, noting he had helped market and sell the Leafs’ move to the Air Canada Centre more than two decades ago. “And now, to have the chance to go back and do this? It’s great.”

eSport fans play video games at one of various booths offering free play to the public attending the event.

The Call of Duty League Toronto Ultra Major III, as the tournament was dubbed, was a dazzling bit of showmanship that brought together 12 teams to compete for a $500,000 prize pool in an arena tricked out with nightclub lighting, wafting dry ice and a booming sound system that made the place feel more like a concert venue than a sports coliseum. Sponsors’ booths dotted a fan zone at the back of the arena floor. A slick broadcast on YouTube, which peaked at about 100,000 viewers, raked in an estimated 1.5 million total hours over the four days.

OverActive, and the e-sports industry itself, needed the weekend to go well. For years, tens of millions of dollars had poured in from eager investors. Pro sports teams who were worried about the aging demographics of their own fan bases snapped up equity in e-sports companies.

Executives from some of those teams rushed in, too, including Overholt, who had served in the front offices of the Florida Marlins and the Miami Dolphins, then spent eight years as chief executive of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) before joining OverActive as president and chief executive in the fall of 2018. Mitch Marner, the Toronto Maple Leafs winger and avid Call of Duty player, came on as an equity investor in OverActive and brand ambassador.

Even the pandemic seemed to help e-sports’ fortunes, when billions of people suddenly found themselves with a lot more time to sit in front of screens, with no traditional sports to watch. Last year, OverActive announced plans for a 7,000-seat multipurpose venue, to be built at Toronto’s Exhibition Place near the shore of Lake Ontario, which could hold up to 200 events a year including concerts and e-sports matches featuring its own teams.

The match between the London Royal Ravens and the New York Subliners.

But now the industry, which so often features games full of violence and mayhem, is in its own street battle for survival. Though professional e-sports operations serve as flashy marketing for multibillion-dollar video game companies such as Activision Blizzard, which publishes Call of Duty, the share prices of many e-sports companies, which have paid tens of millions of dollars to buy franchises in leagues, are down 50 per cent or more from their IPOs of just a few years ago, and not just because of the current chill in the tech sector. Profits are elusive. And while fans are just as passionate as before, that can be difficult to translate into a sustainable business model.

None of which you’d know from the upbeat chatter last week at the OverActive Media HQ in Toronto’s Liberty Village, a former industrial district that is now a showpiece of the new media economy boasting animation studios, shoebox condos and the Canadian headquarters of both Instacart and Vice Media. There, in a neon-lit, open-concept event space known as the Red Bull Gaming Studio, where the company’s Toronto-based teams, Toronto Ultra (Call of Duty) and Toronto Defiant (the game Overwatch) sometimes practise – fuelled by the popular energy drink, natch – about 100 people from ad agencies and sponsors listened to a series of snappy presentations about the industry’s prospects.

An executive from the ratings agency Nielsen noted that the average age of NBA fans is 39; for NHL fans, it’s 44. E-sports fans? 27.

Fans of the Toronto Ultra watch the match against the Paris Legion.

Charles Rolston, the senior director of client services of the marketing firm Navigate, showed a handful of slides that framed the changing media landscape in stark terms. Only 25 per cent of Gen Z regularly watch TV each month, he said, but one-third of them spend at least six hours a day on their phones. “Our research shows the average consumer is bombarded by between 4,000 and 10,000 advertisements per day.”

Still, he explained, “Gen Zs want to be influenced by someone relatable.” E-sports athletes – who, after all, do not look like rare physical specimens kissed by the gods, or even kissed by 2,000 hours a year at the gym – “are a lot more relatable to them than the seven-foot centre in the NBA.”

And OverActive says that sponsors are piling in, including Bell (which holds a board seat on OverActive), Kraft Dinner, Zenni Optical and Paradox Customs computers.

Nobis, the Canadian luxury outerwear company, was a first-time sponsor at the Major. True, the company’s $1,200 jackets may not seem attainable for the average 27-year-old e-sports fan. Still, the retailer “wants to be part of young culture,” explained Alyson Walker, OverActive’s chief commercial officer, who previously worked at Bell, MLSE and the COC.

The Call of Duty “fan base is very much rooted in all things sports, music, fashion, lifestyle, pop culture. So there’s a ton of overlap with sports fans.” E-sports “creates opportunities for connection – connection to the team, connection to the players, both online and in person – and then, as we do in traditional sports and media – weaving in brands that can make that better.”

Fans of the Toronto Ultra celebrate their victory against the Paris Legion.

On Saturday afternoon, in the upper arena of the Gardens (now known as Mattamy Athletic Centre, home of the Toronto Metropolitan University’s Rams hockey team), below the rafters from which the Maple Leafs’ (long ago) Stanley Cup victory banners used to hang, fans thumped thundersticks and broke into chants of “Let’s Go Ultra! Let’s Go Ultra!” The deep lilac Ultra team colour bathed the room, cut by shafts of white light. A crane camera swooped over the crowd.

Up onstage at one end of the arena, two teams each of four players hunched behind their computers: It had the effect of making it impossible for spectators on the floor to actually see the players in person. But no matter. A massive screen above the teams displayed the frenzied game action – audiences see a bird’s-eye view of where all the players are on a live map, in an animated landscape – hear, and feel: explosions vibrated the viscera of fans, as commentators offered an excitable play-by-play.

The matches unfold quickly, paced for the modern attention span, and last less than an hour: No 4½-hour lazy baseball game pace here.

In the first best-of-five match of the day on Saturday, against the Minnesota Rokkr, Ultra went ahead 2-0, lost the next two and then pulled out a thrilling victory, the crowd leaping to their feet ecstatically, high-fiving each other.

Afterward, just as in traditional sports, Ultra spoke to the media. The team is young: Jamie Craven (a.k.a. Insight), a 22-year-old Englishman; Tobias Juul Jensson (a.k.a. CleanX), a 21-year-old Dane; Cameron McKilligan (a.k.a. Cammy), 22, from Scotland; and Ben Bance (a.k.a. Bance), a 24-year-old Englishman. Bance said players can’t actually hear the crowd (they wear headphones, so they’re immersed in the game), but the cresting roar does make a difference.

Toronto Ultra team members Cameron 'Cammy' McKilligan and Benjamin 'Bance' Bance are greeted by the public as they enter the arena.

“It kind of gives you confidence as you’re playing. If you don’t know what’s going on [because players see only their own shooter’s perspective], you hear some screams. It’s like, hey, he’s made a good play! I’m backing that up and making a good play as well. I think it affects the other team more than it does us, because when you’re getting smoked and you hear the crowd scream, you kind of get in your own head a bit.”

Out on Carlton Street, fans gathered to vape and dissect the Ultra-Rokkr match. Brent Heath, a 22-year-old from Brampton who wore a purple-on-white Toronto Ultra hoodie, said he had been playing Call of Duty since he was about 8; the Major was the first time he’d seen the game played live. The thrill was just like watching traditional sports, though he acknowledged he doesn’t watch a lot of those. “To gamers, it’s the same thing, right? Two teams have to get to a total number, or capture this many things, and that’s how you win, right? So it’s just like a sport, if you think about it. And there’s a community behind it.”

His friend, Kishan Khedu, 22, who wore a white-on-purple Ultra hoodie, said the ease of access to e-sports was one of the things that kept him watching. “I can just go on YouTube, go on Twitch, I don’t really have to pay for a channel or sign up. Everything’s for free, I can just sit there and watch it.” As a car mechanic, he says, he can follow along with the action when he’s at work, just by listening to the play-by-play, which isn’t the case with traditional sports. “I can understand exactly what’s happening without a visual representation of what those players are doing, because for the most part we’re probably doing the exact same thing, just not on that professional level.”

Fans watch a match between Los Angeles Guerrilla and Optic Texas.

Overholt believes fans such as Khedu and Heath are the magic bullet for e-sports. “We’ve got a great young audience in this city that we think we can attract and nurture over time,” he said. “We can build core franchises here in Toronto that the city grows to love.” He understands the wariness of those in older generations, and says it reminds him of the skepticism he faced more than 25 years ago, when he was selling packages of Toronto Raptors tickets to corporations.

Still, he acknowledges that those comparisons can cause trouble, and may have led to unrealistic expectations for the e-sports industry.

“But let’s also remind ourselves,” that the pro leagues have also had their financial challenges, and have had about 100 years to get to this point in their evolution. “You know, the California Golden Seals were one team in the NHL, right? There is a reason that the Lakers are referred to as the Lakers because they didn’t start there, right? So, there’s been an evolution for those traditional sports leagues, with some bumps and with some very colourful owners and business circumstances and so on that I think we’re starting to see emerge a little bit in the early stage industry that is the e-sports space. And that’s okay. Being an early adapter and being a leader in a relatively early stage industry, you have to be on board for some of what comes your way.”