Esports is a global phenomenon that lives largely online. But its players and fans like to get together in person to compete in and celebrate one of the biggest new recreational pastimes of the 21st Century. And Toronto has become an epicenter for both the virtual and physical worlds of esports.
A coalition of corporate citizens and startups, city government, industry veterans and the economic development community has come together to create an ecosystem that may rival any place-based esports promontories anywhere in the world.
“Digitally native people want to come together,” says Alyson Walker, chief commercial officer for OverActive Media, a local company that owns franchises in a handful of esports leagues. “So we’re really trying to create Toronto as a destination hub for esports globally.”
Toronto arguably has leapt ahead of other urban contenders in tapping into the rapidly growing esports trade, and Destination Toronto, the city’s economic-development arm, has made it a priority. Toronto hosted the 2023 Esports Travel Summit last summer. OverActive Media has conducted a number of heavily attended esports tournaments in Toronto and is building one of the world’s first spectator arenas devoted specifically to watching esports. The owner of two of the city’s major professional sports teams also nabbed a franchise in the NBA 2K esports league.
At all levels, participants are eagerly helping to build communities of players and fans to undergird enthusiasm for all of this, including gaming clubs at local colleges. Adherents flock to events in Toronto built around traditional esports favorites, such as Fortnite and Call of Duty, and around newer entries, including Valorant, League of Legends and Streetfighter. The city’s esports infrastructure has even advanced to the point of offering a parental support group for esports players, who tend to be quite young.
“Unlike traditional sports, esports don’t have home bases, and so they travel,” says Bryce Eldridge, director of esports for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), which owns the Toronto Raptors of the NBA and the Toronto Maple Leafs of the NHL—as well as the Raptors Uprising GC of NBA 2K. “The players, the talents, come here and that’s the chance for people here to meet and interact with people they know primarily from online and social media. It’s exciting for the local fan base.”
Toronto’s esports player base is important, too. “We have more skilled players per capita in Canada than anywhere else in the world, with a population the size of only one state in the U.S., and with poor Internet access in some parts,” says Kris Alexander, a two-time global gaming champion in Toronto. “We have the skilled players, and we have the surrounding infrastructure.”
But it took foresight and effort for the city to get to this point. The seminal moment may have been in 2017, when the Air Canada Centre hosted a League of Legends tournament that drew 20,000 people for each of several weekend sessions. “You saw that there were a ton of people in the crowd who weren’t normally in the city,” Eldridge recalls. MLSE’s eventual response was to start its franchise in the NBA 2K League. “And we realized that was just the start of something.”
Alexander helped nurture the development of the gaming profession in the city, which now includes legions of broadcast technicians, commentators, code writers, script writers, artists, designers, sound experts and marketers. “You don’t see the players without this professional support base we’re building,” says Alexander, a former globally ranked esports player, a leading game designer and developer, and head of the Red Bull Gaming Hub classroom and training facility at Toronto Metropolitan University.
OverActive now has a 15,000-square-foot headquarters in Toronto’s trendy Bay Street Corridor and plans its $500 million, 6,000-seat esports arena for the iconic Exhibition Place district aside Lake Ontario. “We’ll host live esports events, as well as other performances, such as music and comedians,” Walker says. “We’re very focused on a holistic view of the fan and being a digitally minded venue, and activating around events with ancillary revenue opportunities such as merchandising and loyalty programs.”
Alexander notes the city “already has got a lot going for us to add value for the external community” for esports, “including anime conventions and other things tied into the videogames community. If we can shine that way, we’ll be fine.”
Commercial interests in general have taken notice of Toronto’s burgeoning status as an esports destination, with the initiative adding impetus behind new hotels, restaurants and bars.
That, on top of the fact that “we’re a good destination city in general,” says Anthea Foyer, head of the creative technology office for the City of Toronto. “It’s easy to get here from many spots in the world and easy to get around once you’re here.”