Vancouver Esports doesn’t play around

At Pinnacle 2021, Canada’s first post-pandemic in-person Esports event, I witnessed the strength of an ecosystem I had only heard of.

The Vancouver Convention Centre is a stalwart of the city’s waterfront, intimately linked to two of the city’s grandest moments. The OG building, with its white-peaked roof, opened in 1987–one year after the world was welcomed to Expo 86. Mirroring Vancouver’s transition to the City of Glass, a new building—the West Building—wrapped construction in 2009, one year before the world was again welcomed, this time for the Olympics. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve lapped the Convention Centre’s stylish facades with my AirPods keeping me company or as a co-op student working the BC Tech Summit. This all gives the place a robust familiarity. 

But, as I approached the West Building last Saturday I had no idea what to expect.

It was the second day of Pinnacle, an event marking Esports’ triumphant return to Canadian post-pandemic life. On top of tournament-style competitions of games like Super Smash Bros. Ultimate and Street Fighter, the full weekend slate also included vendor booths and artist exhibitions. Further, high school and university esports programs were in attendance, visual stepping stones for progressing through the industry.

Pinnacle is hosted by The Gaming Stadium (TGS), a first-of-its-kind esports Stadium in Canada, located in Richmond, that the organization touts as the “best damn place to play and watch your favorite esports.” Outside of the events and training sessions, TGS hosts within their own bricks and mortar, the organization runs Pinnacle, their flagship event. The first iteration, held in 2018, attracted over 750 visitors, making it the largest live esports event in BC at the time. TGS built upon this success in 2019 before a COVID-induced pause last year. 

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I was thrilled to witness this return first-hand. I checked in and registered with Matt Low, vice president of operations for The Gaming Stadium. I asked him, as a rookie, what I should expect attending my first-ever in-person Esports event. I received a one-word answer: “Chaos.”

Similar to a physical sporting event, a series of walkways took me through the concourse to the area where the actual action happens. I could tell I was moving in the right direction because techno music, complete with what appeared to be soundbites from Super Smash Bros., grew in decibel level with every step. Once I turned the final corner, I saw Pinnacle in all its glory. The bottom floor of the Convention Centre had been transformed into a gamer’s paradise. TVs, consoles and controllers were everywhere—most devices were actually brought by gamers or volunteers themselves. The WiFi was strong. So were the speakers. Screens were plentiful and exceptionally well-illuminated. Red Bull had a large presence. 

I was momentarily distracted by a particular screen that showed the prize money. A whopping total of $30,000 was up for grabs. The figure was $10,000 over the projected purse announced in July ($20,000 was also dolled out in 2019). Of particular note was $7,500 to the winner of the Super Mario Smash Bros. Ultimate competition. 

There was also a rather ominous wrestling ring taking up prime real estate in the middle of the space. This was for an application of real-life fighting set in a primetime slot later that evening to juxtapose all the video game fighting. “We have digital wrestling like Street Fighter and we can pair that with the physical thing,” a staff member informed me. It seemed a bit of a stretch but perhaps something the Whitecaps or Canucks should employ. Pregame Esports tournaments on the Jumbotron, anyone!? I digress... 

Main stages—located in all four corners—featured cushioned gaming seats, screens and headsets for players. The audience could see an overlay on the main screen that featured the names of the players and the score. The players saw only their digital battlefield. Off to the side, a commentary team reacted to everything in real-time, occasionally being shown on the main screen. 

One of those commentators was Bailey Gamble. A BCIT broadcasting student lending his voice to the event, Gamble lamented the lack of opportunity to provide analysis in physical sports—with baseball on the brain, he questioned, “How am I going to compete with Arod?”—and his lack of digital dexterity to play Esports, not just broadcast it—“I have stone for hands.” He did, however, promote the community and rejoiced in the in-person reunion:

“It's not even close [compared to virtual]. You really feel the energy of the players on the ground. You can feed off that. Plus, you know exactly how your other co-commentator is moving with you. It's a completely different experience. You can’t replicate the feeling of an in-person event. There's no level of energy better,” Gamble said.

Chatting with Gamble, I recalled back to a Vancouver Tech Morning Coffee Clubhouse (RIP Clubhouse, 2020-2021) chat that focused on Esports. Shawn Caldera, TGS’ director of scholastic Esports development, was the guest that morning. After being asked what to watch for across the industry, he shared a piece of advice. 

“Go to a local tournament and pay attention to three main components. Pay attention to who's ranking really well in the game. So, the competitive player. Take a look at who's organizing [the tournament,] there'll be a lot of them corralling and rallying people. Then, take a look at the people who are doing commentary, or people doing the photography and videography. So, the content creator. Those three pillars, you'll see at every scale, at every touchpoint, from the high school tournament with 15 people to the Dota 2’s of the world,” Caldera explained (In 2020, “the 10th edition of The International, Dota 2's largest yearly tournament, [surpassed] the $40 million dollar prize pool mark,” reported ESPN).

These pillars were definitely present during my time at Pinnacle. Of course, the gamers make the event. They are the protagonists, after all. But, the rotating cast of commentators floated through the crowd chatting with them, providing therapy after losses and kudos after wins. Then, the Pinnacle staff, easy to spot in light blue shirts, were rarely seated. Instead, they grabbed extra chairs and cleared cans of Red Bull, rewired controllers and played around with screen brightness, directed traffic and started competitions.

With this deepened understanding of the pillars that make up Esports, I was curious about BC’s place within the broader landscape of Esports at the national level. 

“In terms of raw talent, we're definitely up there. If we were to look at it province versus province, we have a rivalry with Ontario—full stop. I think Alberta and Quebec are also up there, too. We're all good at different things. I feel that Vancouver is very well-rounded. As a city, it’s a leader. I think a big part of it is our presence of game developers and game publishers. That openness and receptiveness of gaming as an activity leads to better reception and adaptiveness of Esports as an activity,” Caldera told me via Zoom over the summer.

This sentiment—Vancouver can be a hotbed for Esports—also appeared in a Vancouver Economic Commission report on the industry. “Thanks to the Vancouver region’s proven track record in hosting international sporting events, talented community and committed fanbase, and attractiveness as a tourism destination, Vancouver and BC have all the foundational qualities to capitalize on an industry set to double its global revenue from $1.1 billion in 2019 to $2.2 billion in 2022. These qualities are further augmented by the province’s recent demonstration of economic resilience and public health management in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with increased global interest in esports facilitated by lockdown conditions and physical distancing measures,” the report stated.  

The creator economy is also at play here. “Content creators for sites like Twitch, YouTube and Mixer likewise saw unprecedented growth during the pandemic. Twitch, a popular broadcasting site for digital content creators, had a pre-pandemic audience of 1.2 million viewers per month; since the lockdown, the company has seen an overall audience increase of 24 percent,” the report continued. 

Caldera concurred that these channels represent a huge opportunity. “What better way to have that engagement from groups that don't play? I'm a gamer, I don't play soccer but, hey, maybe I love FIFA. Maybe I love this video game, right? Maybe I watch Twitch streams instead of watching ESPN. But hey, it's an avenue for me to participate. Leagues will start thinking a little bit broader about how they can involve it,” he said.

Where FIFA, Burnaby-based Electronic Arts’ smash soccer hit, it’s actually a Nintendo offering that leads the industry. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate had the largest prize of the tournament and the Vancouver Economic Commission Report listed it as the “top community-driven Esport in BC.” Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is played on the most recent console released by the Japanese gaming juggernaut, the Nintendo Switch.

But, I was surprised to also find a piece of nostalgia from my youth. The Nintendo GameCube, a console released by the company in 2001, was all around me. My surprise vanished when I recalled back to that Vancouver Tech Morning Coffee Clubhouse chat featuring Caldera where he noted that the game peaked at the GameCube iteration: Super Smash Bros. Melee, released that same year. 

Retro gaming prowess could be lucrative, too. A win in the singles tournament nets you a cool $2,500. $1,000 is up for grabs in the doubles tournament. Fascinating, as well, I saw no PlayStation 5s, Sony’s latest-generation console released to much fanfare amidst the throws of the pandemic last year. Instead, I saw the previous generation of PlayStations and their famous controller, the DualShock. Add that to the plentiful GameCubes and it appears there’s something to be said for nostalgia, even in a burgeoning industry.  

The sight of the GameCubes and PlayStation 4s had me in a reminiscent mood as I ducked out of the Convention Centre. For a brief moment in time, I thought I had what it takes to be a professional gamer. When COVID shut down live sports, I replaced all the time I spent watching live sports with the video game version. I noticed an ad for a qualifier for the competitive Esports version of Electronic Arts’ hockey franchise. I decided to play some online games against real humans instead of the AI computer adversaries I usually faced. This was to prepare for my impending Esports superstardom, of course. 

The first game I played was 7-2...for my opponent. I couldn’t even finish the next one I was getting beaten so handily, an embarrassing reaction known as the infamous rage quit. After watching a day of competition at Pinnacle 2021, I know now just how out of my depth I was. I couldn’t match the finger dexterity, the fine motor skills, the concentration, the ability to block out all the “chaos” plus numerous other natural and trained abilities. 

Luckily, I get to write about Esports, instead. 

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