The future of sports: Laid-back mascots, rap music and watching others play video games
A giant white squirrel, wearing blue jeans and a black jacket, leaned casually against a balcony railing at the Rebel nightclub on Toronto’s waterfront and took in the bizarre scene below him. On stage, a DJ was spinning tunes, hyping the growing crowd. In VIP booths on either side of the dance floor, favoured guests lounged, snacking on Doritos and Twizzlers. At the back, rows of video gamers hunched before computers playing the latest version of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. The same six letters repeated again and again on screens around the club: CODXTO, signifying the launch of a new Call of Duty esports team called Toronto Ultra.
Throughout the night, as the team was announced, the players introduced and Brampton rapper Nav performed a set, the team’s squirrelly mascot, Tilt, hung out on the balcony — eerie and aloof — occasionally nodding his giant oversized head in time to the music. Many of the 1,200 people in attendance probably didn’t notice him. Some had no idea that the event was even the launch of a new esports team. “I’m just here for Nav,” one music fan says. At around $40, it was a good deal to catch a rap show on a Thursday evening.
Chris Overholt, CEO of the team’s owner, OverActive Media Group, says the night’s distractions were all according to plan as it tries to seduce new fans. OverActive is trying to build a brand identity for Toronto Ultra that includes plenty of whimsy and humour. The hype videos conveyed the tone that nobody is taking this undertaking completely seriously. Tilt, a nod to the albino squirrel that lives in Trinity Bellwoods Park in the city’s west end, is part of that. Overholt says he’s deliberately styled as sort of an anti-mascot, one who doesn’t come on stage to stir up the crowd. He just sort of hangs out in the background.
But despite the aloof attitude and the weird humour — as evidenced by the team’s slogan, “Ultra as Fuck,” emblazoned on T-shirts and hoodies — OverActive is taking the undertaking very seriously. There’s a lot of money and interest tied up in figuring out how to turn the huge number of young video gamers into spectators. “We spend a lot of time doing focus groups and research and everything else, and they all say the same thing to us: this is what we do for fun,” Overholt says. “That’s the way the fans think of it, so that’s what the brand needs to embrace. How do we position ourselves inside all of this in a way that’s rooted in fun, a little bit of sarcasm and the sublime.”
Esports will be a US$1.1-billion market in 2019, up more than 26 per cent from a year ago, according to a report by research firm Newzoo. In July, the Fortnite World Cup drew two million viewers for a match with a grand prize of US$3 million. Overholt says OverActive is already invested in several esports franchises, including the Toronto Defiant, which will play home matches at Roy Thompson Hall as part of the Overwatch League. Tickets to the event next April range from $75 to $250.
How do we position ourselves inside all of this in a way that’s rooted in fun, a little bit of sarcasm and the sublime
At Rebel, waiting for the event to get underway in one of the VIP booths, Matt Canapini, a sponsorship and events coordinator at Molson Coors Canada, surveyed the array of young people. “They want us to sponsor them like we sponsor the Maple Leafs,” he says. Canapini says Molson is trying to figure out how to get in on esports, and it’s looking at working with OverActive, but he feels the sponsorship prices are too high.
There were other links to the city’s high-profile sports teams. The emcee for the night’s event was Mark “Strizzy” Strong, the in-arena host for the Toronto Raptors, and the event leaned heavily on that team’s underdog-to-NBA-champ ethos. Overholt also used to work at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd. in marketing during the Raptors’ early years, and he likens the slow growth of professional basketball in Canada a generation ago to what’s happening now with video games as a spectator sport.
Overholt says it isn’t a problem that many of the young people at the Toronto Ultra launch were just there for the Nav show, since market research indicates rap and R&B fans overlap well with esports. But there were a few people peppered throughout the crowd who were actually excited about Call of Duty. Roshan Jeyakumar says he’s a serious gamer who’s been playing various versions of Call of Duty for more than a decade. He says he occasionally watches video games online, but would consider watching live events, too.
“The amount of people who play video games far outclasses the amount of people who play soccer, or any sport. Right now, this is probably bigger than sports,” he says. “If they made an actual league, and it was to the point where they had teams and stuff, yeah, I could see me getting into that.”
Told that the event was actually the launch of a Toronto team for Call of Duty in an actual league, Jeyakumar got excited. “Oh yeah? Holy, that’d be insane, man.” FPM