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Patrick Johnston: Esports’ gaming gladiators starring in digital — and real — arenas


Thousands of people young and old, screaming their lungs out in a stadium.

It’s an image with which we’re all familiar.

But in this picture, there’s something different: Instead of players moving about on a field or sheet of ice in the middle of all these fans, there’s a collection of young people, wearing headsets, wired into computer screens in front of them.

Yes, esports is exactly as you’d imagined it. These are the gladiators of the future and, more and more, of the present.

In the crowd are faces both young and old. If you looked only at the stands, you might think you were at a hockey game.

“It’s like a Canucks game,” Nathan Yamanaka declares. The nine-year-old boy, who lives in Langley with his parents Niki and Gord, is the quintessential modern kid: He plays minor hockey and also is an avid video gamer.

His dad Gord agrees. Father and son attended The International, the championship tournament for the video game Dota 2, at Rogers Arena in 2018.

“Back in the day esports, they weren’t as prominent, but now you see how big the events are, they’re going to have families there,” he says. “It parallels going to a sporting event when we were kids. We’re lucky to have both.”

‘Sports right now’

That’s the thinking behind Canucks Sports and Entertainment’s big push into the world of esports. It’s more familiar as an event than you might think and, yes, they think there’s big money to be made in this new (virtual) arena.

“This is sports right now,” says Tim Holloway, Canucks Sports and Entertainment’s director of esports.

CSE launched its interest in esports last year with the Vancouver Titans, who play in the Overwatch League. Their second season starts in early February.

They’ve now added the Seattle Surge in the Call of Duty League, which launches this weekend.

Two summers ago, with the NHL expansion team-driven renovation of KeyArena in Seattle set to begin, The International was in search of a new home.

The Canucks put up their hand.

“That’s the fastest sellout Rogers Arena has ever had and it was a six-day event,” says Holloway. “That really got the ball rolling.

“You actually went and saw this and what it was and the noise and the passion behind it. And that’s when I was like, ‘Whoa, this is remarkable.’ ”

The Yamanakas were blown away not just by the presentation in the arena or the actual game action, but were also impressed by how close they could get to the stars.

“He got autographs from some players and the casters,” Gord says of his son’s experience. “I don’t think there’s any sport where you can meet the broadcasters so casually. You can meet them at the International, they’re right by the stage, you can go up to meet them, they talk to you. And the teams were right there in the boxes and you could get them to sign right there.”

Nathan recalls being interviewed by one of the in-game hosts and seeing himself on the big screen.

“I got a signed jersey from one of the teams, too,” he adds.

‘That’s Bumper!’

Just a few weeks later, Holloway and the Canucks’ owners, the Aquilini family, plus senior management from CSE went to the inaugural grand final of the Overwatch League, which was held at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Again, a huge crowd. The potential to get in early on a movement that looked like it was set to expand rapidly was so clear.

CSE signed on with the Overwatch League (OWL), run by Activision Blizzard, the game’s producers, for a 2019 expansion franchise.

The Titans were an instant hit even if they didn’t play any home games in their first season. The team was based in Burbank, Calif., for its first season, but are hosting two homestands at Rogers Arena this year, on May 16-17 and July 4-5 .

Last summer, a fan event at the Cambie Street location of Best Buy drew a big crowd.

“The line was all the way up Cambie,” he says. “Bumper (one of the Titans players) came out to hand out some free stuff and people went nuts. ‘That’s Bumper! That’s Bumper!’ That’s what we need to work on and what we will be doing.”

On social media, the Titans estimate their potential reach as more than one million sets of eyeballs.

In actual game play, they were a hit, too: The Titans made the 20-team circuit’s 2019 grand final, losing out to the San Francisco Shock.

In setting up the Titans, CSE initially partnered with Luminosity Gaming, a Toronto-based esports gaming outfit, which had expertise in running teams in a broad range of games.

Over the following months, CSE also partnered with Enthusiast Gaming, a well-established Canadian esports media company, who would go on to merge with Luminosity.

The newly expanded Enthusiast, which Holloway describes as the “mothership” for CSE’s esports ambitions, is now headed by Adrian Montgomery, the former president of Aquilini Entertainment. CSE doesn’t own Enthusiast, but is in a close partnership.

After the merger was made official in September, Enthusiast’s founder and president, Menashe Kestenbaum, called the merger a push toward dominance of the industry.

“Our vision when we founded Enthusiast was to build the largest, vertically integrated esports and gaming company in the world,” he said in a statement. “The merger with Aquilini GameCo and Luminosity was a strategic decision that positions us as a dominant player in the gaming industry and unlocks access to Luminosity’s 60 million dedicated esports fans and one of the largest esports franchises.”

The merger was about bringing in on-the-ground expertise and a whole lot more, Holloway says.

“What helps us is Enthusiast Gaming just had their big expo, it’s called the EGLX, in Toronto. And that sold out the Toronto Convention Centre for three days,” he says. “So what that gets us is their network, their gaming network, and their influencers and obviously, guys like Richard Sherman.”

Sherman, the National Football Football League star cornerback, isn’t just a brand ambassador, but is actually a shareholder, Holloway says.

“This isn’t just him wearing a T-shirt for a photo, he’s put dollars and cents on the table. He sees the the remarkable growth and the opportunity.”

And Sherman’s not the only high-profile name from traditional sports throwing his weight behind esports.

There are investment bankers who have put money into OWL, but there are also faces from more traditional sports involved: Sports heavyweights Robert Kraft and Stan Kroenke, sports media giants Comcast, former NBAer Rick Fox and Andy Miller, part-owner of the Sacramento Kings, are investors in OWL.

“What got them hooked, as very competitive traditional sport owners or players, is the passion around it and anyone that’s gone to a live event — or anyone that will go to a live event in Seattle and Vancouver — they’ll feel that right off the bat,” Holloway says.

The potential reach of esports surely draws their attention, too. Globally, there are an estimated two billion people who play video games.

‘A real audience’

Vancouver lawyer Jon Festinger knows plenty about traditional sports as well as esports — he was once general counsel for the Canucks, and in recent years has written about video-game law as well as studies emerging media.

Now, he’s a professor at the Centre for Digital Media in Vancouver as well as an adjunct professor at the University of B.C.’s Peter A. Allard School of law.

“It’s a real audience,” Festinger says of who is watching and following esports. “It may seem strange to those who watch traditional sports, but to an alternate audience it’s not new and different. The comparison I make is why do we watch hockey instead of playing it? The mindset is really no different.”

There may be buzzy growth potential for esports, but there are still many challenges, most of them familiar. Just look at the experience of how most new leagues struggled to establish themselves over the past century.

“Witness the XFL,” he says, pointing to the Vince McMahon-run football league, which launched with plenty of buzz but played just a single season 18 years ago .

“Major League Soccer has made huge strides, but it’s taken a long time.”

And a league like OWL, where the actual creators of the game are also running the competition, are rare — roller derby in the 1930s and arena football in the early 1990s are the best examples.

In building the Titans, Holloway credits Luminosity’s Steve Maida with identifying Team RunAway, from South Korea.

The whole squad, who won the amateur Overwatch Contenders League in 2018, was signed on.

The 2019 season had the Titans based at a studio in Burbank, Calif., with the players living in a house together. That made for some real lessons, Holloway acknowledges.

“I think that definitely made Canucks Sports and Entertainment a lot stronger and well rounded, dealing with those kind of trials and tribulations that come up,” he admits.

‘Homestands’ format

The upcoming 2020 season will be big. The Overwatch League is moving to a city-based “homestands” format, essentially three days of play between teams in the league, rotated through the various home cities.

If the format sounds a bit like the Canada Sevens, you’re not wrong. There’s a lot for fans to take in over the three-day event — if there’s a game they aren’t interested in watching in the stands, there will be plenty going on around the arena.

Originally, OWL’s leadership was looking at running a more traditional home-and-away schedule, where one city would visit another at a time. But after running three-day events in places like Atlanta, Dallas and Los Angeles, the vision changed.

Spending three days in one place meant the cities themselves got to play a starring role. It also forced the weekend’s host to think about how to set up their venue.

Alfred de Vera, who has worked for the Canucks’ communications department for seven years but who now is focused solely on CSE’s esports department, says the L.A. homestand was notable.

“I like Overwatch, but I wasn’t prepared to watch five games back to back,” he says.

The L.A. games were played at a studio in Burbank, one that had once been used by Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.

“We were there for six hours but we were entertained,” says de Vera. “There was like a Bud Light lounge where you could hang out and watch esports on one and watch college football on another. It was open to all fans.

“There was maybe a dozen or a dozen and a half things to do in that space that would occupy you if you didn’t want to watch, you know, San Francisco vs. Philadelphia, or whatever.”

It’s a trend that’s even sprouting up at Canucks games, de Vera adds. While there are many fans who come to Rogers Arena to watch every second on the ice, there are also now fans who are looking for a different experience, like it or not, one that’s as much about the company as it is about the on-ice action.

“It’s a social thing,” is the lesson, he says.

“I think that’s where esports is in my opinion, it’s taking that to another level.”

The challenge for hockey, he admits, is finding a happy medium.

Youthful demographic

In determining how they’re going to do their game presentation and set up the arena itself, Holloway says that they’re looking outwards, trying to engage with their fans in the Lower Mainland through their social media channels to learn about what people want to see and experience when they go to Rogers Arena.

It’s a youthful demographic that follows esports, something that tantalizes OWL’s leadership and its current and prospective investors.

According to Nielsen’s per-minute viewership data, the 2019 OWL grand final’s global audience averaged just over one million people. In the U.S. alone, viewership in the 18 to 34 demographic average 182,000 per minute, up 11 per cent from 2018.

The reality of most traditional sports is their viewing audiences are only getting older, so the potential for growth that advertisers and broadcasters see in the youthful face of the average esports viewer is obvious.

The micro commerce already built into modern video games is another potential area for growth. A portion of purchases made by gamers inside the Overwatch environment, things like buying OWL jerseys for player characters, is used to fund OWL’s prize pools.

Getting in on the ground floor is already proving to be a booming proposition.

Fees to join Overwatch League were in the $20-million range.  As a comparison, the CFL’s expansion team in Halifax will pay a league entry fee of $9 million.

Overwatch is particularly massive in Asia and South Korea, but OWL counts teams in Toronto, London, Seoul, Paris plus 11 teams in the U.S. and four more in China.

“At the grand final in Philadelphia, there 85 credentialed media and these weren’t just blogs that had 100 followers. These are major sites across the world, in China and South Korea, and the U.K, France,” says de Vera. “The Washington Post had writers there. ESPN, too.”

‘This isn’t a business fling’

Call of Duty has a long-standing loyalty with North American gamers. And it’s predominantly played on these shores with Playstation 4. Activision Blizzard is growing its esports footprint by launching the Call of Duty League this year.

To help with the launch of CoDL, Activision Blizzard hired Johanna Faries away from the NFL to serve as the league’s commissioner. She had previously been the NFL’s vice-president of club business development.

“This isn’t just a business fling,” Holloway says. “This is a sport. It’s happened. It’s happening.”

Esports will be a medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games. It’s potentially a trial sport for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. But as it gets bigger, Holloway is conscious that it can’t lose its do-it-yourself spirit, the one that grew from kids playing at home or in their dorms.

“What I love about working with the grassroots community is that they’re very, very hesitant of losing what brought esports to where it was and and that unique touch, if you will. And I think that’s how it will be successful in that, which is what we’re still working on, we’re still learning from it.”

Traditional leagues are loath to ignore esports’ potential for growth among younger audiences, Festinger says, before recalling a point he made once to an executive who worked in traditional sports.

“My son would rather play FIFA (EA Sports’ world-famous soccer game) than watch the real thing.”

pjohnston@postmedia.com

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