Video games are often a casual pastime best used to unwind after a day of work or school. But some Canadians are taking their skills on the competitive circuit, chasing tens of thousands of dollars in prize money.
This weekend, their skills are being taken to a wider audience — and bigger screen — than ever before in this country.
On Sunday afternoon, Cineplex and World Gaming are holding their first-ever Canadian championship finals at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto. Top gamers from across the country will be flown in to compete in the popular first-person shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 for $50,000 in cash and prizes, including a crisp $20,000 for the champion.
It's a bit of a thrill to see something that's normally on your modest TV blown up on a giant movie screen and the event could attract a diverse audience, if the regional finals last month are any indication.
But there are still some challenges that could stop this kind of event from appealing to the full range of movie-goers.
Not your usual night at the movies - Call of Duty championships at Cineplex Scotiabank Theatre. Finals this Sunday. pic.twitter.com/JGrR5xQzE7— @Jon_Ore
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The titles on World Gaming's website will be familiar to most North American players: Call of Duty, Madden NFL 16, NHL 16 and NBA 16 cut across the meaty mainstream of video games.
They hope to attract people who already play the most popular games on consoles and might be willing to join a tournament (it's free to enter) — or cough up the $9.50 ticket price to watch the elite players blow each other up live on the big screen from the comfort of their cinema seats.
The finalists this Sunday are the winners of 24 regional tournaments held in movie theatres across the country, from Burnaby, B.C., to St. John's, last month.
They included one that I checked out in Toronto, won by Matt Faithfull, a 19-year-old Missisauga, Ont., resident known online as Royalty.
Most of the players and the event itself were pretty casual by international e-sports standards. League of Legends finals can fill stadiums in Asia and the U.S., with teams vying for millions of dollars in prize money, even though the game itself doesn't have much mainstream appeal.
Dee Motton and Alex Robb, who competed in the Cineplex regional event in Toronto, started out as avid gamers but weren't necessarily interested in playing for money until others reached out to them.
"I just ended up getting picked up playing for a clan called PMS, or Pandora Mighty Soldiers," says Motton, better known by her online handle XLadyDivine.
"I went out to a first event with them, and I got hooked on the environment, and the competitive level." Since then she's travelled from her home in Alliston, Ont., to events across the continent, sponsored by e-sports group Sway Gaming.
After only two years of playing pro, Robb takes gaming so seriously he lives in a house in Kitchener, Ont., with his teammates and trains whenever he's not working at his other job.
"It takes a lot of time to be good enough to be at the top," he says." Think of it as a full-time job, that's how many hours a week you're putting in."
Aimed at 'rabid gamers'
World Gaming CEO Rob Segal has no illusion that curious or bored moviegoers will fill up the theatre at this weekend's event.
"Most of the people who are attending today are rabid gamers that have been competing in their basements or with their friends," he says. But the importance of dispelling the dudes-in-a-basement trope is not lost on him.
"This really helps legitimize it, and I think gamers respect and appreciate that."
The marketing goes straight for the intense vibe gaming is usually known for. Loud music, big explosions and phrases like "U Mad, Bro?" dominate the trailers on Cineplex and World Gaming's YouTube channels. A host points to the competitors' seats, lined up in front of the theatre screen, as "battle stations" in one video tour.
A quick look around the theatre for the regional tournament, though, revealed a cross section of gamers that's already more diverse than the "rabid gamer" stereotype.
The crowd, filling a little more than half the theatre, cut across gender, age and ethnicity like the audience for just about any other summer blockbuster movie.
Many players' parents were also in attendance cheering on their kids, giving it a tinge of a community hockey game feel. No surprise, really, since most of the players were in their late teens to early 20s.
The tournament's structure attempted to make things easier for spectators to follow by running one-on-one matches instead of the more typical four-on-four team modes. And generally, it helped.
Usually the theatre showed four players' screens at once flipping from one group of players to another roughly every 30 seconds. Occasionally a single player's screen was blown up to full size.
Call of Duty on the big screen. Quite a sight, but fast camera movements gave me "seasickness" in about 45 minutes pic.twitter.com/Ivk4T37kbh— @Jon_Ore
But with the action moving so fast, it was difficult to get a sense of any single match from start to finish. It felt like watching hours' worth of highlight reels with only a rudimentary idea of the ebb and flow of each match.
The audience didn't seem to mind, however, cheering loudly at multiple tense standoffs and crack headshots during the four-hour event.
Motion sickness for some
Other problems might prevent Call of Duty from reaching the widest audience possible. For one, it's rated M for players 17 years and older — the equivalent of an R-rated movie. Unless you're Deadpool, that can limit your audience and ticket sales.
More pressing is that games with a first-person camera, especially those with quick and twitchy movement like Black Ops 3, can cause nausea in as little as 30 minutes for some players — and for some audience members, myself included. According to the Guardian, this affects between 10 to 50 per cent of gamers.
Games with a fixed camera, like most sports games, will not have this problem for would-be audiences.
The Cineplex experiment won't approach the top tier of e-sports just yet. But it hopes to grow its slice of the gaming pie with countrywide e-sports events at its theatres on a quarterly basis, with additional smaller events taking place throughout the year.