PLAYING FOR PAS­SION

Love of the game drives es­ports boom

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - THIA JAMES

A half-con­sumed bot­tle of Pepsi, now vis­i­bly flat, and an open bag of cheese puffs wait for their owner to re­turn to the gam­ing sta­tion where Ryan Hoppe plays with laser fo­cus.

They don’t be­long to the 22-yearold Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchewan stu­dent, who took a quick swig of wa­ter from an acrylic pitcher be­fore leap­ing into a sin­gles matchup at Bridge City Smash’s lo­cal monthly Su­per Smash Bros. tour­na­ment.

Hoppe — known as Short-Hoppe — knows it’s weird, but no one else will touch that pitcher. One of his rules is no eat­ing while gam­ing. Food and grease will get all over the con­trollers.

A bit of com­mo­tion nearby doesn’t stir his fo­cus. He plays as his favourite char­ac­ter, Cap­tain Fal­con, at the late-Novem­ber event held at the Saska­toon Trav­elodge.

Around him at other sta­tions, two or four play­ers, their backs turned to the cen­tre of the room, face a con­sole and screen and click away, head­phones on. A giant screen at one end of the room shows a game be­ing live-streamed on Twitch and called by a com­men­ta­tor.

Hoppe hand­ily wins his game be­fore he heads off to face the one Smash player he has played be­fore who is un­de­feated in all of their past matches. Less than half an hour ear­lier, his dou­bles team placed third in the melee com­pe­ti­tion.

Fit­tingly, his shirt reads “The Come­back Kid.”

Com­pet­i­tive gam­ing, widely known as es­ports, has been grow­ing steadily in pop­u­lar­ity in West­ern Canada.

Just ask Carter Astle­ford, who re­cently be­came the chief ex­ec­u­tive of SKL Es­ports, which runs re­gional tour­na­ments for mul­ti­ple ti­tles, in­clud­ing Su­per Smash Bros., Hearth­stone and Over­watch.

Astle­ford said par­tic­i­pa­tion has been in­creas­ing, sim­ply from word of mouth.

He lets out a small sigh when asked about the com­par­isons made be­tween es­ports and phys­i­cal sports, but he gives an im­pas­sioned re­sponse.

Peo­ple im­me­di­ately draw com­par­isons be­cause of the name the gam­ing in­dus­try chose to de­scribe com­pe­ti­tions, but he thinks it’s un­healthy to di­rectly com­pare them. Ath­letes spend a lot of time phys­i­cally train­ing, but es­ports com­peti­tors still make a sig­nif­i­cant time com­mit­ment, he noted.

“At the bot­tom level, of course, there’s peo­ple who sit on the couch all day and play video games. But at the top, in order to be in that peak con­di­tion, for those guys, the pro­fes­sional gamers, they’re go­ing to the gym,” he said.

Com­mit­ment to gam­ing has been part of Hoppe’s life for a long time.

When he was a kid, it was hard to get him off a gam­ing con­sole. He and his sis­ter, who is six years older, squab­bled over whose turn it was to play, but she had more say.

He re­mem­bers sneak­ing down­stairs while she had friends over for sleep­overs. He’d sit at the foot of the Hide-A-Bed, turn on the TV in the morn­ing and “dis­turb the peace.”

Hoppe said it all started when he was about three or four. His fam­ily had an orig­i­nal Nin­tendo Entertainment Sys­tem (NES) con­sole and he’d play The Leg­end of Zelda and other games with his grand­mother. In 1998, Nin­tendo launched The Leg­end of Zelda: Oca­rina of Time. Hoppe said he played it through from start to fin­ish once a month for a few years.

The ver­sion for Nin­tendo 64 is some­where in his col­lec­tion of video games, stored in three book­cases of vary­ing sizes in his room. The col­lec­tion in­cludes games from dif­fer­ent con­soles.

His love of video games led to a job in a video game store. At that time, he saw a post on so­cial me­dia about the first Smashka­toon event, his first com­pet­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence. There, he met a friend who told him he hosted Smash Bros. tour­na­ments at his house. Even­tu­ally, he went to one of the events and “had a blast,” he re­calls.

He was hooked and didn’t miss a house tour­na­ment where Su­per Smash Bros. Melee was played.

Hoppe has also hosted tour­na­ments out of his fam­ily’s garage. Once, one of the prizes was a six­pack of beer. (It was a 19-and-over event.)

He said he wasn’t very good when he started playing com­pet­i­tively be­cause it re­quired depth in terms of the knowl­edge base and a high ceil­ing for skill. He be­gan to win three years after he started com­pet­ing and since then has won at least 20 tour­na­ments.

“Usu­ally at a tour­na­ment, I’ll give my­self about a 20 per cent chance to win the thing. I con­sis­tently place top three or four, so win­ning is an­other rung up the lad­der,” he said.

So far, he es­ti­mated, he has won a few thou­sand dol­lars.

To Hoppe, the lo­cal com­pet­i­tive gam­ing scene has ma­tured a lot since he joined.

The drive to com­pete has also taken him out of the prov­ince and he re­mem­bers one ex­pe­ri­ence vividly: The Al­berta Beat­down. The setup en­tailed two mon­i­tors and a con­sole and the venue lost power, setting the tour­na­ment be­hind sched­ule.

He found it fun any­way be­cause of the peo­ple there.

In early 2017, he went to the Gen­e­sis 4 tour­na­ment in San Jose, Calif., which drew play­ers from around the world. He de­scribes that ex­pe­ri­ence as sur­real.

Smash Bros. is the only game Hoppe plays com­pet­i­tively now.

“With all my time in­vested into school pretty much, the only game I take very se­ri­ously is Melee,” he said.

This year, he’ll grad­u­ate with a bach­e­lor of sci­ence and com­puter sci­ence de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchewan. De­sign­ing video games in the fu­ture isn’t out of the ques­tion, he said.

Some­times he can get in 10 to 15 hours of gam­ing a week playing against a friend. With his busy sched­ule, he tries to get at least four to five hours a week.

Ac­cord­ing to the lat­est re­search from the Entertainment Soft­ware As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada in 2018, the av­er­age gamer plays 10 hours a week and is 39 years old.

The re­search also sug­gests about half of gamers are fe­males, but that’s not re­flected in the turnout at events. Par­tic­i­pants are over­whelm­ingly younger males.

Astle­ford said he wants to see more fe­male gamers com­pet­ing at SKL’s events, but the chal­lenge for the three-year-old league is how to do that.

He wants to dis­pel any no­tions that fe­male gamers won’t be wel­come at com­pe­ti­tions and said the group’s events are a safe and friendly en­vi­ron­ment.

The self-de­scribed event-or­ga­niz­ing com­pany — Astle­ford prefers not to call it a “league” — has un­der­gone some changes already since its in­cep­tion.

SKL started out or­ga­niz­ing League of Leg­ends events and its first one drew about 33 teams of at least five peo­ple each. That dropped off a lit­tle in sub­se­quent sea­sons, ow­ing to ca­sual fans be­ing con­cerned about a skill gap be­tween them and the top com­peti­tors. SKL launched a recre­ational LoL league in re­sponse, at­tract­ing 40 peo­ple.

It’s found even more suc­cess with Su­per Smash Bros. tour­na­ments.

At its first Smash­fest event in Oc­to­ber 2017 in Regina, 75 peo­ple from two prov­inces showed up. At the fol­low­ing event in Jan­uary 2018, 101 play­ers at­tended. In Ed­mon­ton in Oc­to­ber, 120 play­ers turned out from five prov­inces. This month, up to 150 are ex­pected to par­tic­i­pate.

Astle­ford said it’s the love of gam­ing, the ex­pe­ri­ence and get­ting to so­cial­ize — not the prize pools — that feeds par­tic­i­pa­tion in com­pe­ti­tions.

By the third sea­son of LoL com­pe­ti­tions, the over­all prize pool reached $6,000. SKL has moved away from the larger pools.

The prize pool for SKL’s next big event, Smash Fest 4 — Ul­ti­mate at Sask­Tel Cen­tre on Satur­day, is $1,000. About 120 play­ers have reg­is­tered and the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants trav­el­ling from B.C. and On­tario for their next ma­jor Smash Bros. event is ex­pected to in­crease slightly.

The po­ten­tial for Saskatchewan gamers to make lu­cra­tive sums is there. There’s the ex­am­ple of Regina’s Mathew Fio­rante, whose team Tox Gam­ing won $120,000 in the grand fi­nal of the Halo Cham­pi­onship Se­ries at DreamHack At­lanta in Novem­ber.

At 22, Fio­rante has found much suc­cess playing Halo 5 com­pet­i­tively since 2015, win­ning three world cham­pi­onships. Known as Royal #2, he’s the 117th-ranked Halo player — a top-six player in Canada — hav­ing won more than $600,000, ac­cord­ing to es­port­searn­ings.com.

Fio­rante started com­pet­ing when he was 13 or 14 in some smaller gam­ing tour­na­ments in Saska­toon. The prizes were “de­cent,” he said, for what was a small lo­cal scene. He won one of the first ones.

He pro­gressed from lo­cal tour­na­ments in Saska­toon and Regina to Ma­jor League Gam­ing tour­na­ments. MLG, as it’s bet­ter known, is owned by Ac­tivi­sion Bliz­zard, a heavy hit­ter in the game-pub­lish­ing world re­spon­si­ble for Over­watch, Di­ablo and He­roes of the Storm.

“If you wanted to make it into the big leagues, that’s pretty much where you have to go, into the states,” Fio­rante said.

“I also had to con­vince my par­ents to let me go. And I was also, I think, 14 at the time, too, so they took a chance and flew me out to the states and they re­al­ized I ac­tu­ally had some po­ten­tial.”

Years and many wins later, the love of com­pet­ing keeps him go­ing. Fio­rante said it has never been about the money for him, but al­ways about try­ing to be the best. When he sits down to play, the men­tal skills come into play: be­ing calm and main­tain­ing his com­po­sure.

The DreamHack tour­na­ment was im­por­tant not only for his suc­cess, but be­cause it was the last big Halo 5 tour­na­ment and last tour­na­ment of the sea­son. A new Halo re­lease was ex­pected soon.

He’s hop­ing to find the same suc­cess with the new ver­sion of the game.

“We’re go­ing to be stick­ing (to­gether) as a team. We’re just go­ing to be do­ing the same thing we did as Halo 5 and hope­fully ev­ery­thing just pans out as it did the last cou­ple of years.”

I’d still lean to­wards pas­sion, but if you get to take home a bit of profit at the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt ei­ther.

If you ask Hoppe, what kept him com­pet­ing for the long­est time was pas­sion, he said, be­cause win­ning wasn’t a pos­si­bil­ity.

“I’d still lean to­wards pas­sion, but if you get to take home a bit of profit at the end of the day, it doesn’t hurt ei­ther,” he said.

PHO­TOS: KaYLE NEIS

Com­pet­i­tive es­ports player Ryan Hoppe, who is work­ing on a com­puter sci­ence de­gree from the Uni­ver­sity of Saskatchewan, has loved video games since early child­hood.

SKL Es­ports CEO Carter Astle­ford, at Mana Bar in Saska­toon, says his par­tic­i­pa­tion in his com­pany’s re­gional video-gam­ing tour­na­ments has been in­creas­ing thanks to word of mouth among the gam­ing com­mu­nity.

PHO­TOS: KaYLE NEIS

Ryan Hoppe, who com­petes mostly be­cause of his love of gam­ing, car­ries a con­troller to the next sta­tion dur­ing a Smash Bros. tour­na­ment at the Trav­elodge in Novem­ber.

Es­ports events in Saskatchewan of­fer mod­est prize pools with SKL Es­ports’ next tour­na­ment, Smash Fest 4 — Ul­ti­mate Satur­day at the Sask­Tel Cen­tre, of­fer­ing about $1,000. But there is good money to be made in­ter­na­tion­ally.

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