Esports academy brings training, friendly competition to new Edmonton players

The online world of competitive esports can be a cutthroat, toxic and lonely environment. But a new Edmonton business is aiming to change those attitudes.

Not all kids are football players, pianists 'or whatever your after-school program is'

Spud Farm Academy owner Ayton MacEachern (foreground) and member Tom Howe. (Kim Nakrieko/CBC)

The online world of competitive esports can be a cutthroat, toxic and lonely environment. But a new Edmonton business is aiming to change those attitudes with a social space that offers skills training and a friendlier game environment.

Long-time gamer Ayton MacEachern opened Spud Farm Esports Academy in September 2018 in a basement space just off Whyte Avenue. MacEachern's idea was to provide esports newbies with the same opportunities available to kids in other sports.

"Not every child out there is a football player, or a piano player, or whatever your after-school program is," MacEachern told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Friday.

Spud Farm, he said, is helping newcomers grow their skills in a positive environment. And for those whose skills are good enough, a lot of opportunities are out there.

Esports is basically defined as games of skill and strategy played online — alone, in pairs or on teams. MacEachern explained that League of Legends is an esports game but Minecraft is not, because people play it in different ways and there isn't one clear objective or skill to develop.

As an industry, esports has ballooned in recent years, drawing millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships and bringing thousands of fans to packed arenas from Toronto to Vancouver.

In September, a new esports franchise in Toronto announced Chris Overholt, a former longtime head of the Canada Olympic Committee, as its first CEO.

Sportsmanship, good attitude stressed

But that's the big leagues. For average or new players, the atmosphere can be solitary and ridden with "toxic" smack-talk from other players, said MacEachern.

That negative attitude isn't allowed at Spud Farm, he said, where tournaments end in a sportsmanlike manner with handshakes and a chorus of "Good game."

MacEachern said good sportsmanship is part of Spud Farm's vision of learning how to play.

Thousands of eSports fans filled Toronto's Air Canada Centre in August 2016 to attend the League of Legends Championship Series Summer Finals. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo )

"You can get a lot out of sitting down with a teammate and learning strategy and communication. Even just learning lessons about if you're going to be gaming all day, what kind of diet should you eat? Making sure you're stretching. Not being toxic," he said.

Thirteen-year-old Tom Howe is one of Spud Farm's members. His game of choice is Fortnite, one of 2018's most popular video games with more 200 million users. Tom plays alone but also as part of a competitive team with a partner.

He said the coaching from Spud Farm has helped him step up his game and learn about teamwork.

"Just like in any other sport, it's going to help you with the things you struggle on and it's going to help you with the things you're good at," he said.

MacEachern is passionate about gaming — video games have been a way to relieve stress and a way to deal with his ADHD — but cheerfully admits he isn't very good.

That's where the name Spud Farm came from, he said.

Tom Howe, left, says the coaching at Ayton MacEachern's Spud Farm has improved his skills. (Kim Nakrieko/CBC)

"Everyone used to call me Spud because I'm a potato," he said. "It's kind of slang for being a really bad shot. But I kind of considered it a mark of honour because they still wanted to play with me, we still had fun. I had a good attitude, even though I've never been very good."

While Spud Farm is the only facility in Edmonton that offers training, MacEachern said, the concept isn't usual.

In Montreal, a high school has begun offering esports training as a "concentration program," the equivalent of teen athletes getting time and flexibility in school to pursue elite sporting opportunities.

For MacEachern, the academy at 8225 105th St. is about making competitive gaming open to anyone who wants to try.

"There's nowhere you can go where, if you want to get better you can get training, or if you just want to try and play and just have fun. And I do believe in-person is a lot more fun.

"Right now my main thing is to do some good in the community, I guess."