At a time when the COVID-19 pandemic was shutting down all major, minor and recreational sports leagues, one area offered an option for people begging for their competitive fix — Esports.
Now, as life transitions post-lockdown and sports are back on the roster, Esports — short for electronic sports — is growing as a hobby and career path.
The Alberta Esports Association (AESA), a hub for Esports activity within the province which is also responsible for creating a community and interacting with policy makers, has seen a rise in interest, even now as ‘regular’ sports return.
“Over the last 17 years we have gone from parents’ basements to formal event centres,” says Ryan Coutts, AESA’s business development specialist.
Coutts says the pandemic forced many organizations to start looking at Esports as a real option, because there weren’t many others available.
“Now we’re starting to see a lot of professional teams, professional leagues, players making a career either as a player, team manager, team owner or coach,” says Coutts.
The Calgary Sport and Social Club was one of those that decided to give Esports a chance during the pandemic. Jon Diment, the director of operations and development, says the pandemic forced most traditional sports to shut down, prompting the club to offer something online.
“We transitioned into offering Esports because that was something that was rising,” says Diment. “We had an internal interest and it fit along with the other league formats that we offer with our more traditional sports.”
Diment says they could have offered Esports sooner, but when gaming was still in its online infancy that would have required a large upfront investment.
In the early years of Esports, tournaments were run using Local Area Networks — everyone competing in person, each with their own equipment all interconnected in the same space.
“In previous years, before online gaming was as large, it was always the logistical challenge of having LAN parties and basically the hardware to do a tournament where everyone was there in person,” says Diment. “We just don’t have 20 Xboxes ready to go.”
The Calgary Sport and Social Club offered Call of Duty, NHL and FIFA tournaments throughout the pandemic, which Diment says they were running non-stop. He believes Esports allowed individuals to communicate, and the demand for content increased once providers like ESPN began broadcasting matches.
“The days where you are playing solo and doing a campaign type story in your basement has kind of dwindled. Everything tends to be online based competition in gaming for the most part.” says Diment.
Former Esports competitor and current coach Jimmy Lin, who grew up playing in local Calgary tournaments, says Esports is now just like any other job.
“I think if someone was like, ‘Oh I play games for a living’ or ‘Oh I’m a streamer’ I think everyone would kind of get that,” says Lin. “Fifteen years ago if I said that they were like, ‘What? You’re playing games and people are actually paying you?’”
As interest grows, it’s not just about players competing.
In 2020, Mount Royal University created an Esports Management Certificate program, allowing people to explore the specifics of gaming.
George Cork, Esports Operations course instructor, says he teaches his students about talent acquisition, revenue generating ideas, identifying trends and career opportunities all within the Esports industry.
Cork has played, coached and owned Esports teams professionally, and is a co-founder of Esports Academics — a company that looks to establish a presence at academic institutions around the world.
“[Universities] became a lot more accepting of Esports during the pandemic. Because it was the only sport or competition that could really happen, purely because it can be done from the comfort of your own home,” says Cork.
As the professional-level of Esports expands, Cork says now is the time for the industry to develop a farming system similar to other sports, where players can develop their skills throughout their adolescence.
“Whenever you think of traditional sports, there’s an academy system. They work their way up through the age groups, and then potentially get a professional contract. I think some sort of implementation like that needs to be worked on,” says Cork.
He says advancing the industry requires getting involved at the grassroots level.
“The career pathways, working with schools in terms of the industry, the courses, that now needs to really be focused on being that next step.”
Coutts also says Calgary’s Esports community is uniquely supportive of the industry, and community involvement is what will take Esports to the next level.
“If you go to the bar to watch a Flames game you don’t go … because they’re great athletes, you go and you care because you’re from Calgary and the story of the Flames mean something,” says Coutts. “Our competitive advantage we have as a city is that we have a really passionate community or group of communities around Esports.”