eSports (finally) feeling the love in Canada

Video games are no longer child's play. In fact, they may very well be the next great cultural craze.

Viewership rivals baseball's World Series and the NBA Finals

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

Video games are no longer child's play. In fact, they may very well be the next great cultural craze.

When Riot Games announced that Toronto would host its North American League of Legends (LoL) Championship Series Summer Finals in August, the eSports event at the Air Canada Centre sold out in less than a day.

The home of the Maple Leafs and Raptors was taken over by 15,000 fans for what, at its most basic, is an online game of capture the flag featuring swords and sorcerers. It may sounds crazy to some, but what Canadians experienced at the ACC is only a taste of a much larger global phenomenon.

While many think of video games as the pastime of basement dwelling teenagers, they have now taken centre stage at some of the world's most iconic stadiums. Properties like LoLCounter Strike and Dota2 have thriving international championship circuits, with astonishing prize pools up for grabs, such as Dota2's $20 million US this past August.

According to SuperData, a research firm that monitors eSports, total 2016 viewership exceeds 216 million. These figures, which are comparable to cable TV, have caught the attention of some of the world's largest companies. Amazon, for instance, paid just under $1 billion, in 2014, to acquire Twitch, a popular eSports streaming service.

But Amazon isn't the only one eager to gain. These eSport events, if not the players themselves, are often sponsored by companies such as Coca-Cola, Google, American Express, Red Bull and Ford.

The influx of major advertisers mirrors the influx of fans – where there are eyeballs, there are sponsors. Last year's LoL finals drew 36 million online viewers. That's higher than the 2015 World Series finale (12.2 million) as well as Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals (30.8 million).

A Canadian story

While Canada is slowly catching up to the rest of the world in terms of mainstream recognition of eSports, the awakening will be a pleasant one. Canadians aren't only competing, but thriving at the highest levels.

At the recent LoL event in Toronto, three Canadians were present in a tournament which pitted North America's top four teams against each other to determine who qualifies for the world finals.

But since teams are divided by international regions, instead of countries, Canadian players aren't always celebrated, says Reiyyan (Rei) Nizami, team manager for the University of Toronto's League of Legend's Association.

Except at the ACC, when all three – draped in Canadian flags – received standing ovations from the sold-out crowd.

The best known of these players is Jason Tran, aka "WildTurtle", whose team Immortals was narrowly eliminated from advancing to October's finals which will take place across the U.S. from New York City's Madison Square Garden to the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

For Nizami, the real treat was seeing rookie sensations Andy "Smoothie" Ta and Vincent "Biofrost" Wang, Nizami's former teammate, take centre stage.

"It's crazy to think that no one knew who Biofrost was eight months ago," Nizami said. "Now he has over 51,000 followers on Twitter and is probably rookie of the season."

While still niche, fans are already following the exploits of WildTurtle, Smoothie and Biofrost just as they would Sidney Crosby or LeBron James. After all, in their eyes, the comebacks, upsets and excitement, even if led by a series of fantastical computer controlled characters, are no less amazing, except for one exception—those behind the keyboard are often far more relatable, since their stardom is directly fuelled by fan engagement.

Logging in

This doesn't mean anyone can just join the competitive circuit. Like any other sport, the majority eventually get relegated to the sidelines.

According to Riot, players start to fall out of the top rankings at the age of 25. That's because the hand-eye coordination that's required to play at the elite level is intense.

"You're not running across a field and sweating, but top player are making in excess of 400 actions per minute, so your brain is constantly working," Nizami said.

Achieving this level of endurance requires training. Professional teams not only live together in gaming houses, but practice upwards of 10 hours per day. Burnout is a constant issue, one that teams try to mitigate by hiring nutritionists and sports psychologists.

To ensure a constant supply of players, Riot has also created a collegiate league to serve as a feeder system where students compete for tuition money.

Nizami says approximately 300 colleges enrolled last year. Some American schools have even started handing out scholarships to attract top LoL players.

Nizami hopes Canadian schools will follow but says "we haven't gotten a lot of love."

But after the success at the ACC he hopes this is finally about to change. "When we started [the UofT chapter] we were only 20 guys, now we're in the thousands."