Digital Ballers: How Rye’s competitive esports club is thriving in a pandemic

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By Armen Zargarian 

Nerds. Basement dwellers. Pale kids. They’ve heard all the stereotypes before. Yet, Ryerson’s competitive esports club is the only Rams sports competitive club—or team—running in the 2020 fall semester.

Although not immune to the impact of COVID-19, the team was better equipped to bounce back. 

Ryerson’s competitive esports president Liam Parmar explained “esports was in this weird transition phase,” adding that the industry was poised to begin introducing in-person events, the natural next step after exclusively digital beginnings.

Birthed online, esports leaders have been forced to go back towards their bread and butter. “Esports started online, so we had to go back and figure out how to get the value of these live events online,” explained Parmar, who has been involved with the team since 2016.  

In 2020, esports has become a major player in the entertainment and sports landscape. 

Projections for the esports industry are over $1 billion dollars in revenue this calendar year. A recent Business Insider market report showed a skyrocketing investment jump from $490 million in 2017 to $4.5 billion just a year later. According to the International Esports Federation, $214 million dollars worth of prizes were awarded in 4,600 organized tournaments around the globe last year.

With the current advantages Ryerson’s team has over other teams at the school, they knew they’d have a chance to enter a spotlight they’d never seen before. Parmar emphasized the group’s full-steam-ahead mantra in the face of the pandemic. They still have competitive tryouts, scheduled tournaments and active social handles.

“You tell me, anytime of day, where you can walk through the school and nobody is playing a video game”

The competitive club is also being supported by the school, which even provided prizes for a recent EA Sports FIFA ‘21 tournament. “Ryerson’s athletic department has made an effort to make the esports club feel included in the competitive athletics space,” said Parmar. 

Esports at Ryerson also provides benefits off-console. Earlier this month, a chiropractor was brought in to give a workshop about mental health and provided tips on posture. “It’s not just about playing video games,” Parmar said. 

Team origins

It may not just be about playing video games anymore, but that is exactly how it started. 

Five years ago, a few passionate video gaming students lugged 50-pound televisions on their backs to the basement of the Student Campus Centre (SCC). They invited their friends, plugged in their GameCubes and started playing Super Smash Bros. 

According to Ryerson’s competitive esports club founder Joseph Raimando, “there were at least 50 people there every Friday and a couple hundred viewers on the streams.” Within the gaming community, word spread like wildfire. 

“Eventually it blew up and it was the place to be in Toronto for Smash,” said Raimando, recalling early memories in the SCC basement. “You’d hear the screaming, the controllers, the TVs. It was an amazing experience.” 

Like other freshmen, Raimando searched social platforms and bulletin boards for his favourite club. 

“There [were] gaming clubs, social events and things, but nothing for competitive esports. I was a little bit disappointed with that.”  

Raimando, along with co-founder, David Rabinovitch, approached department heads with a petition of 200 students to start a competitive esports club. 

Since then, the competitive club has been a massive success, but Raimando makes sure to mention the potency of those early Super Smash Bros days, “It was a great relationship between [the Smash Bros Melee and esports clubs], and it really solidified our physical presence on campus.” 

As a recent RTA sport media graduate, Raimando now works full-time as a producer for Waveform Entertainment, a rising esports company and a testament to the growing industry.

“I’m excited for the future. The big struggle was getting some legitimacy. Getting somebody to believe [in] it,” said Raimando. “I know the next group of people are going to work just as hard. I know they already are.” 

Current operations

With no traditional coach in sight, it’s still the students fueling the competitive esports club.

Each game has a designated manager that ensures members are set for success and aligned with their corresponding gaming league. Managers are hired based on video game prowess and how well natured they are. Each manager hires one or more additional people at their discretion. This summer, the competitive club hired new managers for Super Smash Bros Melee, Overwatch and League of Legends.

Summer generally proves to be a transitional period for the competitive esports club. They consistently hire and train executives to help with the influx of members and rapidly improving games. Recent graduates leave and incoming first years fill the vacant seats. Approximately 50 to 60 members join every year between August and September. The competitive club tries to actively engage interested parties through teasers on their social media.

However, as a competitive club, joining is not a matter of signing up your name and showing up the next day.

The competitive esports landscape at Ryerson currently has 12 different teams—each focused on their own video game—that require 12 separate tryouts. The games they compete in are based on support and demand. The competitive club actively reviews feedback from the gaming community to see where the interest lies. If there is a popular game on the rise and legitimate leagues to back it, Parmar’s approach is: “Let’s support it!” In an industry that is rapidly evolving, the club is determined to stay open-minded and flexible. 

When tryouts are held in September, each team and their respective managers evaluate talent uniquely.

For example, in Rocket League, Parmar said potential players are thrown into matches with existing members, so managers can evaluate, “how well the chemistry builds between them, how well they do in solo performances and how they fit with the team in general.” 

Every game is evaluated differently, for example “League of Legends has much more of an in-depth numbers-based evaluating system,” Parmar explained. 

Esports is also one of few gender neutral competitive clubs at Ryerson. Contrary to what outdated tropes suggest, women have a strong hand in the continued development of esports. Currently fulfilling important roles at Ryerson are vice-president Alexa Patino, business development director Judy Ngo and human resources director Alle Sobrejuanite.

Growing the game

Without question, Ryerson’s competitive esports club has grown since its inception. However, Rams gamers aren’t quite on a level playing field with traditional sports.

The competitive club doesn’t have anything resembling an esports facility, or, actually, any physical space at all. They have also never been covered by Rams Live (Ryerson’s sports broadcast).

Regardless, esports is challenging the status quo of how we define a sport and an athlete. The rapid change comes with inevitable naysayers. 

“The big struggle was getting some legitimacy. Getting somebody to believe [in] it”

Kristopher Alexander, a RTA video game professor, specializes in esports infrastructure and video game design, and is leading esports research at Ryerson. 

To cement esports at Ryerson, Alexander said they need to “legitimize the movement.” He said the only way to make ripples and get people to understand is through “curricular ties via research.”

Alexander is currently striving to knot those curricular ties. One avenue is through conducting a research survey to learn more about the video gaming community at Ryerson. 

“The people I need to convince want facts and want data. I need that data so that I no longer sound like a globally ranked street fighter with a PhD in video games,” said Alexander, who was ranked 17th globally in Street Fighter while completing his PhD. “The stereotypes about video games and [that] kids don’t learn [are] false!” 

Alexander also points to the 48,000 full-time gaming jobs that have blossomed in Canada alone over the past three years.

“You tell me, anytime of day, where you can walk through the school and nobody is playing a video game. Every. Single. Time.” Alexander has noticed the uptake of gamers on campus and is optimistic about a future with infrastructure. 

This week, Alexander and long-time colleague Geoffrey Lachapelle led the Faculty of Communication and Design to join forces with Inven Global, a leading esports company with a particular focus on journalism. The partnership is set to launch the Conduit Lab, which aims to promote academic esports research and infrastructure.

Alexander acknowledges the age gap between the target demographic of Esports (18 to 35) and the older average age of people in executive roles: the ones that hold the key to propelling real change. 

“What’s the only direction for [esports] to go? You have a generation of humans who have been playing video games for so long. But unless we get recognition, how are things going to change?”

Parmar acknowledges that working with the RTA media production program can help propel Ryerson’s esports initiatives to another level, especially in using their broadcasting and live-media skills. The competitive club already has RTA students on their creative roster, but the tangible links are still obscure. Rams Live seems like the natural next partnership. 

Parmar stressed the importance of educating society about the structured landscape of modern esports. “It’s not a niche, small group of people doing things at grassroots level anymore.”

“Esports is incredibly important. It’s an outlet for people who don’t play sports but have a competitive nature [and] opportunities for new people to be in the spotlight.”

Correction: This article has been updated to distinguish Ryerson Esports (a competitive club under Ryerson Athletics) from the Ryerson eSports club (a club under the Ryerson Students’ Union). The Eyeopener regrets this error. 

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