Learning to Twitch

Gamers are coming together to celebrate the streaming community
and creating a whole new kind of sports bar
By Chris Penwell

(Video by Chris Penwell)

IT’S SATURDAY night, the atmosphere is electric, and the is room packed with more than 100 people. Every weekend, the gamer community takes over the Dirtbag Café on 107th Street, where gaming systems of all kinds fill the space: top-of-the-line computers, modern game consoles, even a GameCube.

Strangely, in a room full of gamers, the systems are almost untouched. Almost everyone is chatting.

Halloween is drawing near, cobwebs are strung over the attendees’ heads and the lightbulbs above give off a pumpkin-like glow. On an unseasonably cold Edmonton night, the eSports bar is a warm, cozy oasis. On one side, someone is playing Blizzard’s bright and colourful Pixar-like shooter, Overwatch. On the other, a camera is aimed at two chairs, as for a talk-show set.

The term for highly competitive video gaming is eSports. This ranges from smaller local events to grand arenas packed with gamers keen to see, admire, and learn from the best players in the world. Most tournaments have grand prizes, and they can range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, depending on the size of the event.

Edmonton is hardly a major player in eSports, but the scene is growing, and places like High Score are on the crest of a major trend: video gaming has become what may be the fastest-growing spectator sport on Earth. Twitch, the leading platform for video-game streaming, draws 15 million daily active users, and it has helped spread eSports.

By 2020, eSports revenues are projected to pass $1.4 billion, the gaming news site Newzoo reports. The Cineplex cinema chain has been hosting eSports events in its theatres for such games as the popular shooter series Call of Duty – and has been offering cash prizes.

‘I started keeping track of streamers.
I realized that there’s a lot of us here’

Not all streams are competitive eSports, however. Some are pure spectator entertainment, similar to a phenomenon on YouTube called Let’s Plays, in which entertaining hosts with fascinating or witty commentary play games for a few hours online.

High Score co-owner Steven Noel says: “There’s a lot of people within the city that are making an impact within the eSports scene, that now, through an event like this, have a place to … meet people that do different things.

“Edmonton is really exploding with the eSports side right now. Red Bull’s stepping in and it’s interesting because, when we started, it’s almost like everyone came out of the bushes, and there’s this huge community.”

The eSports bar had been on Noel’s mind for three years before he finally opened it in 2017. He had been working for a systems integration company as a contractor who installed alarms and managed surveillance and access-control systems.

“I was burned on a big project and worked for an extended period of time with no pay,” he says by way of explaining why he now runs an eSports bar. “I just realized that I hated this, and it’s not worth working for yourself if you hate it. So I was like, ‘You know what? I’m going to try out High Score.’”

It has been tough to get interest from the average consumer, he says, because a video-game sports bar seems an odd concept to many. But the business has been doing well in the fighting game, MOBA (multi-player online battle arena) and streamer communities. Noel and his partners are hoping to get enough attention from the gamer community that they can open a full-time location.

The organizers are hoping High Score will generate enough interest among gamers that they will be able to open a permanent downtown site. (Chris Penwell)

That crowded café seemed to be proof that a downtown eSports bar could work. Running around the huge crowd and shouting at the top of his lungs to get everyone’s attention to make announcements, is Kelly Froese. He is the co-organizer of Twitch Edmonton and of this evening’s event. Despite all the chaos, he’s smiling from ear to ear.

Froese is the owner of the website Edmonton Nerd List, the main mission of which is to  build a community around Edmonton’s nerd culture, something he created after making a list of all the game stores and comic book shops in town and realizing how many there were. From starting the list, he says, he has made many friends and connections.

And those connections have connections. For example, one streamer in Camrose, ClassyPax, has almost 65,000 followers. Froese says the streamer asked him why there haven’t been any community meet-ups in Alberta for the streaming website Twitch.

“I started helping people realize Edmonton has a big community in everything (nerd related),” Froese says. “And then I started keeping track of streamers. I realized that there’s a lot of us here.”

He says he knew there was a community in Edmonton and so he applied to Twitch to create an official meetup group. The website approved them and then later publicized the event on their Twitter page of 4.56 million followers.

Noel says he, too, was surprised by the number of streamers in the city.

“There’s a lot more than we thought, and a lot more than what other streamers thought. It’s the coolest thing.”

Since the meet up event, Froese has parted ways with Twitch Edmonton to spend more time with family and working on Edmonton Nerd List. Shauna Chambers, also known as Ch3rryFlav0ur3d, is the new lead organizer.

A representative from XGen Studios was also at the Twitch Edmonton event, showing off the company’s new game, The Low Road, a point-and-click adventure in which the player is cast as a spy who has to study evidence and interview subjects without blowing his or her cover.

In addition to the event being a meetup for the Twitch streamers in Edmonton, it aims to raise awareness for Extra Life, an initiative by the Children’s Miracle Network to have gamers play any video, board, or tabletop game for 24 hours to raise funds for surgery, research, and life-saving tools for their hospitals.

Extra Life Edmonton managed to raise some $97,000 in 2017.

After High Score calls, “Game Over” for the night, two streamers hang around to talk about their experience with Twitch and the event.

“It was definitely a great thing to get the community together,” saysRBTZful, who is just starting out in the community. “See who was out there.”

As good as it is, he says he fears the website may be getting too accessible, and too big.

“It’s like a little Twitchcon.”

Every year, Twitch hosts the event in Long Beach, Calif. that gives a stage for both high-budget developers and independents, a workshop for users to get better at streaming, panels, a cosplay contest, and a talent show. In 2016, the event had over 35,000 attendees and over 160,000 tweets .

‘Every person and their dog, and their grandmother
are streaming at this point’

However, RBTZful says, the meetup at Twitch Edmonton is a good substitute.

“I found it actually really nice because, as someone who’s kind of a shut-in, like, I don’t get out much to meet new people, but if it’s like an event like a convention, or if it’s like a game launch, or if it’s like a meet-up, I actually enjoy going to those because then it actually puts me out of my comfort zone.”

As we spoke, Twitch veteran JarkProvisoner was streaming our conversation live, which was a bit surreal, because he was also playing an incredibly repetitive game called Adventure Capitalist, which had him just clicking on the screen, dumping cash into his character’s account, while both of our faces were on-screen, and the live chat chimed in on the subjects we brought up. It began to make sense why this was such a compelling hobby for him.

Asked why he streams, JarkProvisoner replied: “It’s the freedom that you get from streaming. One of those things is, I don’t want to say that it’s an addiction, but it’s an escape. It really is. And I’ve definitely had my ups and downs with it, I’ll say that, for sure.”

However, he adds,  the website has become too accessible, and too big.

“Every person and their dog, and their grandmother are streaming at this point,” he says with a sigh, adding that, with so much saturation, it’s hard for a smaller streamer with better production values to grow within the community.

“What’s kept me going, probably, is the community. It’s that whole sense of camaraderie that you get with it and people saying, ‘Hey, you’re my favourite streamer.’ And then they’re supporting you and not just financially. I just mean, like, they help you out when you’re going through a tough time, or you’re able to help them out when they’re stuck in a rut or whatever.”

Through streaming, he says, he has made friends all over the world, and has gathered a network. However, he admits, his love of streaming was so intense that it worried the people close to him, one of whom even threatened to cut ties with him. He tried to stream for 91/months full-time after someone gave him $1,000, and it got to the point that “streaming became all that mattered in my life.”

“I would wake up, sometimes I would shower and sometimes I wouldn’t, I would eat, and then I would stream, and then when I was eating, I would stream. And I would take breaks and go to the bathroom, and I would do all that stuff that you’re really supposed to do, but it was an addiction. It was so bad for me.”

He streamed up to 18 to 20 hours every day. What eventually got him out of it was an internship at a radio station.

Twitch has garnered a fervent group of gamers since its inception in 2010. From the busy meet-up event in Edmonton, to Twitchcon, to the rise of eSports, it will likely continue to grow. There is a lot of buzz in the local gaming community, but, as JarkProvisoner points out, it can leave a bit of sting to those who want to get into streaming at this point in the game; it’s hard to get the EXP with Twitch being overcrowded.

A player works a streaming game on one screen, while people at the bar livestream interviews with one another on the other.  (Chris Penwell)

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