Anthony (Methodz) Zinni is a professional e-sports player who has experienced the thrill of gaming live on stage in front of thousands of cheering fans. He has competed with teammates for millions in prize money all over the world, from London to Paris and Los Angeles, in the wildly popular video game Call of Duty.
He is relishing the idea of playing live in Toronto, inside a new 7,000-seat performance venue proposed near the downtown at Exhibition Place. Developers are hoping it could open in 2025.
The venue would fill a gap for a mid-size performance space in the city, and add bricks-and-mortar validity to e-sports – once a subcategory of sports culture, quickly growing into its own industry.
The design for the new multiuse theatre-style venue is impressive. The sweeping space-defying clamshell curves of the building seem to be in keeping with modern graphics-wowing computer games. The theatre, which promoters hope is booked 180 to 200 nights a year and which will be attached to a new hotel tower, would draw major music acts, galas, awards shows and other events. And a big goal: It would become a global epicentre for e-sports.
That’s the idea being pitched to city and provincial officials by Canadian e-sports and entertainment company OverActive Media (OAM), owners of four teams that compete for big prize money in popular video-game leagues. OAM owns Spain-based MAD Lions franchises in the League of Legends European Championship and Counter Strike Global Offensive. It also owns Toronto Defiant of the Overwatch League, and Toronto Ultra of the Call of Duty League – both leagues with teams based in big cities with deep-pocketed owners who ultimately want to play home-and-away games just like teams in traditional North American pro sports.
The venue would be a home arena for the Defiant and the Ultra. It would have amenities such as locker rooms and player lounges, house their practice facilities and OAM’s offices, restaurants and spaces for fans to play games and mingle with the e-sports players.
The design illustrations – created by global architecture firm Populous – have been kept from public eyes until now as OAM worked to brief city, provincial and federal politicians and get some informal support, which they’re now confident they have. The illustrations show a performance venue and hotel tower built together adjacent to BMO Field, at an estimated cost of $500-million.
“I saw the rendering, and I think it’s far and away the best e-sports facility I’ve ever laid my eyes on, and I’ve seen a bunch,” said Zinni, 23, who plays for Ultra in the Call of Duty League, in which players make six-figure salaries, plus prize money and often more from live-streaming and product partnerships. “It’s going to be a great place to experience the adrenaline rush of e-sports. These are popular games played all over the world, and people want to watch the top players at their craft, just like basketball fans go to watch Kyle Lowry.”
As the world still grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to remember what it was like for thousands to gather inside for an event. But OAM is betting big on a time when people can unite again.
OAM saw a gap in Toronto’s entertainment scene: no modern mid-sized performance venue between buildings such as Roy Thomson Hall, which seats up to 3,000, and Scotiabank Arena, which holds up to 20,000 for concerts and games for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Raptors.
OAM turned to Populous, which has experience with e-sports designs, including a 3,500-seat e-sports venue under construction for the Philadelphia Fusion of Overwatch League, and Esports Stadium Arlington, a 2,500-seat e-sports facility in Texas that transformed a large part of a convention centre.
“We can solve a market problem and create an opportunity for our business. That takes us into an entirely different conversation than anybody else who’s making a play in the e-sports space,” said Chris Overholt, president and CEO of OAM, who previously held positions with the Raptors, Miami Dolphins, Florida Panthers and the Canadian Olympic Committee.
“We will compete for some of the premium music acts,” Overholt says. “We can build a destination that’s iconic – a place where Bay Street folks can enjoy great events, and it’s also equally a space for a new generation of sports fans.”
OAM, which employs 80 people globally, has an eclectic ownership group. It includes Pittsburgh Penguins part-owner Mike Kimel (also the co-founder of Chase Hospitality Group), tech entrepreneur Sheldon Pollack, Bell, Maple Leafs forward Mitch Marner and R&B recording artist the Weeknd.
E-sports is a growing industry fuelled by eager game-loving consumers, especially attracting a young demographic, around the world. Global e-sports market revenue is projected to reach almost US$1.6-billion by 2023, according to consumer-data company Statista. This new Toronto venue would bid to hold global e-sports championships and events.
Before the pandemic hit and both leagues opted to play online, the Defiant was scheduled to play at Thomson Hall and the Ultra at the Mattamy Centre, both with about 3,000 fans. Only the first Defiant event had gone on sale and it was sold out.
OAM hired Bob Hunter, a former MLSE executive who worked on projects including Scotiabank Arena, BC Place, BMO Field and the Raptors practice facility, to steer the project. OAM wanted to make this a multiuse venue flexible to play host to a variety of events.
“It’s going to be like Roy Thomson Hall on steroids,” Hunter said of the design. “The technology infrastructure will be extensive. We’re dealing with the biggest brands, like Cisco and Microsoft, to ensure that if you’re a gamer, it’s going to be an amazing experience.”
Overholt said it’s too early to discuss who the investors and financing partners will be on the project. He did confirm that OAM is working securing a naming sponsor.
The location for the new venue is a 4.5-acre piece of city-owned land at Exhibition Place. OAM approached the city and the board of the Canadian National Exhibition, which holds its annual fair there.
Councillor Mark Grimes, chair of the Board of Governors of Exhibition Place, said he was “blown away” when OAM showed him the concepts. Grimes said both Toronto Mayor John Tory and Ontario Premier Doug Ford both liked the idea, too. Don Boyle, CEO of Exhibition Place, said, “We are thrilled at the potential to host this 7,000-seat performance venue and hotel. This development aligns perfectly with our recently approved master plan.”
The project still has several hurdles. The Exhibition Place board will vote on it in early March and the project would need to fit in with the board’s master plan for Exhibition Place, go through city planning and secure building permits. Grimes said it won’t involve tax dollars.
“It’s an absolutely unbelievable, fabulous concept and I think it’s a great addition to our waterfront,” Grimes said. “A half-a-billion-dollar investment in our city and Exhibition Place at this time is great.”
Overholt projected the hotel and venue would take about 30 to 36 months to build.
Editor’s note: This version corrects the tile of Mark Grimes and clarifies that the board of Exhibition Place will vote on the project, not the board of the CNE