Game on for local eSports league


There’s a new sports league starting up in Winnipeg this weekend that will have nearly 200 participants.

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But these athletes will be competing from home.

Competitive video game playing, better known as eSports, is about to take off in Winnipeg. The Manitoba eSports Association (MEA) is starting its first league featuring local talent as well as some of the top players in North America.

For the next 12 weeks, teams of five players per side will square off in a best-of-three series in a popular online computer game called League of Legends. The game is a multiplayer online battle arena where the objective is to destroy the opposing team’s base. The MEA is also offering a Counter-Strike league, which is a first-person shooting game. The action will be streamed live on the MEA’s Twitch channel.

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Melanie Penner, the MEA's media director,  got into gaming at the age of 10 when she won a Super Smash Bros tournament against her older brother’s friends at the U of M. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

Melanie Penner, the MEA’s media director, got into gaming at the age of 10 when she won a Super Smash Bros tournament against her older brother’s friends at the U of M. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced sports events across the globe to come to a screeching halt, but it’s still game on for the gamers.

“This is the only thing that’s going on, which is super unfortunate because I’d love to watch some NBA or whatever, but I can’t. So, what else is there to do? You can watch eSports,” said Melanie Penner, who works full time as the MEA’s director of media.

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“Everything is online. It’s super convenient because we can do everything from home. It’s entertaining, at least I think it’s entertaining, and it’s fun. We want to bring some light into a world right now that unfortunately seems to be looking a little darker than usual.”

The MEA, which was founded by a group of local students who love video games, started in 2013 as the University of Manitoba Esports Program, where they’d host yearly tournaments. Penner and her original crew have all graduated, but they wanted to keep things going, so they changed the name to the MEA last year and hosted Manitoba’s first eSports Expo in May at the U of M. The expo featured a tournament, which was a huge success, which gave them the idea to start a league in 2020.

But this isn’t some rinky-dink league. Penner and her staff had a studio in Osborne Village where they were going to broadcast a live online show with analysts breaking down all the games being played. That plan has been scrapped due to the virus, but it hasn’t stopped players from getting into game shape.

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“When it comes down to competitive play, all these teams have been practising for weeks,” said Penner, a 23-year-old who got into gaming at the age of 10 when she won a Super Smash Bros tournament against her older brother’s friends at the U of M.

“All these teams have players who play distinct roles. They’re playing against each other and there’s a lot of strategy that goes into it. It’s not something where you can just join a random team and play, especially because there’s a lot at stake. There’s pride at stake, there’s a prize pool at stake and there’s even a trophy at stake.”

The winner of the tournament will win the prize pool and the MEA trophy. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

The winner of the tournament will win the prize pool and the MEA trophy. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press)

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Jeff Powell, executive director of the Canadian Sport Centre Manitoba, said there’s a good chance eSports will be at the Paris Olympics in 2024. Countries such as South Korea and the Netherlands have already established gaming academies to develop their gamers and the CSCM and MEA plan on creating a program in hopes of helping a Manitoban represent Canada.

You might laugh at someone sitting in front of a computer screen being referred to as an athlete, or at the fact that many consider this to even be a sport, but Powell said it’s not as ludicrous of a claim as you may think.

“(Some people) maybe don’t understand what goes into committing to this at the highest level,” said Powell, who represented Canada in rowing at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

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“For example, in the NBA, almost all of the NBA franchises have an associated eSports team that plays NBA 2K (a video game). This includes drafted players that come together to game for a couple hours in the morning. They’ll break and have a video review of their morning session. Sometimes they’ll go out to a physical basketball court and do a little walk around for what they want to try and do, and then they’ll game again in the evening. It’s very much the same day that a professional athlete like (Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback) Zach Collaros would have, for example. The structure of the day and the commitment to the task is not different, nor is the competitiveness.”

At the highest levels of eSports, millions of dollars are up for grabs. Some of the biggest tournaments offer more than US$30 million in prize money. Universities have taken notice and there are now hundreds that have launched eSports programs and offer scholarships to top players.

While the Manitoba eSports scene is in its early stages, things are moving in the right direction. Last year, the Manitoba High School eSports Association was created and had 11 schools across the province signed up to play. Penner said the goal is to one day have scholarships offered to local players, educational spring and summer break camps for kids and coaching development sessions for teachers.

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“I think it’s really great to see how eSports has developed. If there are opportunities for a student who may not be the greatest at sports or might not be able to play sports, to be able to get some money to pay for their schooling by playing video games, it’s a good thing,” Penner said.

“Obviously, it takes some convincing. My parents were always like ‘We don’t really want you to get involved’ and I did sports, music and all of that, but I always came back to eSports because I know it’s something worth talking about and investing in. It’s something we need to get the word out about.”

 

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taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

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Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

Read full biography

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