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-year-old 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’s 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 officer of SKL eSports, which runs regional tournaments for multiple titles, including Super Smash Bros., Hearthstone and Overwatch.
Astleford says 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 notes.
“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 says.
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 says 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 says 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 competition 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 six-pack of beer. (It was a 19+ event.)
He says he wasn’t very good when he started playing competitively because it required depth in terms of the knowledge base and skill ceiling. 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 says.
So far, he estimates he’s 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 says. This year, he’ll graduate with a bachelor of science and computer science from the University of Saskatchewan. Designing video games in the future isn’t out of the question, he says.
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 for 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 says 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 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. In January 2019, up to 150 are expected to participate.
Astleford says 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 Jan. 12, 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 for 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 — 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 says, for what was a small local scene. He won 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 says.
“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 says it’s 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.”
If you ask Hoppe what keeps him competing, he says for the longest time, it was passion, 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 says.
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