Disclosure: managing editor of the griff, Thai Sirikoone, currently sits on the board of AESA. None of Sirikoone’s opinions were included in this article.
Over the past few years, esports in Alberta have risen to the top of the entertainment industry. With its large video gaming community and provincial esports association, Alberta is quickly on its way to becoming a central hub for competitive gaming around the world.
The Alberta Esports Association (AESA), founded in 2020 by Brad Jones and Vic Ly, is a non-profit organization that is “dedicated towards fostering the growth and development of esports within Alberta.” Created during the pandemic, AESA had been in the making for a few years in hopes to create a governing body for esports and to bring communities together.
The billion-dollar industry of competitive video gaming is both fast-growing and constantly evolving. It’s expanding from something as simple as at-home gaming to creating event opportunities, jumpstarting careers, and bringing people together in a tight-knit community.
So, what are esports? “It’s sports, electronically,” event operations manager and co-founder of AESA Brad Jones says. “But more colloquially, people might refer to this as video games played professionally.” It can include gaming for plea- sure or at a professional level, and it can get extremely competitive as the players fight to the end for prizes.
Esports can be played on a computer, mobile device such as an iPhone or iPad, or more traditionally, on a console. On this professional, competitive level, both individuals and teams are able to play each other in one-on-one competitions or tournaments, which are often watched by spectators and online audiences.
In the early 2000s, Jones and Ly grew up playing video games together. “We both joined through Super Smash Brothers Melee when we were in high school, and we just started playing video games….it was very grassroots — hanging out in people’s basements, going after school to a club room, or whatever it might be,” Jones says. Over time, they got more involved in running clubs and connecting with various individuals, and noticed that the esports communities were vastly growing. “Vic actually reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, we should turn this into something a little more than it is,’” he adds, “and the rest is history.”
Although esports in Alberta have only been picking up in the past few years, the practice has actually been around for a long time worldwide. “Some of the first clubs started over 17 years ago,” community engagement manager Courtney Nickerson says. Now, with the development of unlimited digital access and online opportunities, people from not only Alberta, but all over the world can join together through their love of gaming. “With esports in Alberta, there are a lot of individual communities. The whole ecosystem runs on (community).”
AESA found ways to connect people together without the face-to-face aspect during the pandemic. Many didn’t have the luxury of being together in front of a TV to play video games, so as esports began to shift online, it opened up an entirely new opportunity for the province. Those who were interested in gaming but never felt comfortable enough to do so in public were now able to experience esports from the comfort of their homes. “(When) building the people and the community…there’s a very vast difference between the people who grew up playing the games (and those who did not),” Jones says.
This year, AESA has been given an $85,000 grant from the Government of Canada to take esports to the next level. Through this, the organization will be putting on a huge event for the public to learn about, participate with, and practise esports in a safe, inclusive setting. The upcoming Alberta Esports Expo event will be free to all individuals and will be held at the Edmonton Expo Centre on Feb. 18 and 19.
At the event, gamers will be able to connect with one another, compete against each other, and learn about what the organization — and industry itself — has to offer. It will be the first federally-funded esports event to occur in the province, and include tournaments, learn-to-play opportunities, local vendors, and much more.
Nickerson says AESA is aiming to make this event something where people can try esports out and see what they think. “You look at these people who are now in their 20’s and 30’s that are having kids, and we’re encouraging them to finally try esports for the first time,” she says. “It’s giving people the opportunity to explore esports in a new way….without the pressure.”
The cash-prize tournaments will have almost 20 different game options and are $10 to enter. The local vendors will include individuals and companies who work in the esports industry, as well as local artists. For those who are unsure about what esports really are, there will be trivia and interactive learning sessions. There will also be an academic corner with networking opportunities from the University of Alberta and various high schools and junior highs that offer esports as a team, club, or program. The free-play and learn-to-play areas will be set up for people who are curious about the sport and want to give it a try, or for those gamers who might not be confident enough to compete at a high level.
Everyone is welcome to join, and the event will be a great networking opportunity for attendees. Although the typical demographic in esports is currently males aged 16 to 28, that’s something that’s quickly changing. “We’re starting to see that kind of shift,” Nickerson adds. “Looking at statistics, pretty much 50 per cent of gamers are women, but we’re not seeing that translate to an esports space. We’re only seeing about 5 to 10 per cent.” AESA advocates specifically for the support of women and gender minorities in esports. This event aims to push these boundaries and expand the demographics by providing a safe space for everybody. “It’s so exciting,” Nickerson exclaims. “I couldn’t ask for a better opportunity for us to show esports.”
General tickets can be purchased up until Feb. 18 and up until Feb. 12 for tournament competitors. To learn more about the Alberta Esports Association and to register for tickets to the Esports Expo Event, visit their website (esportsalberta.ca).
This federally-funded event is just the beginning. For the future, the hope is to encourage new players to join, expand to other provinces, and reduce the set ideas surrounding the world of playing video games professionally. “I would like to see it be backed by the government, treated very (similarly) to other sports….with conditioning and mental health and physical health (resources). I want esports to look like volleyball,” Nickerson says.
It’s one of those things that you can pick up at any age, go at your own pace, and try out different forms to see what works best for you. “If you want to get involved in esports….where do you go? A lot of people don’t know that answer,” Jones reveals. AESA provides an outlet for all individuals in the gaming community to get involved and make the sport more than just a hobby. “I want people to actually be able to make a career and a living in esports….and be respected for making that choice.”
As far as jobs in the industry, they are endless. From marketing, public relations, sales, and legal, to design and programming, esports has options for almost everyone. “I think that there’s so many people who don’t realize that they love esports, and they have a career path, but they could have those things together,” Jones says.
Alberta’s passion and success in esports is something to be proud of. It’s allowed individuals to be themselves and pursue what they love. Jones shares that AESA aims to keep esports inclusive and diverse, all while continuing to push the boundaries and take on leadership roles. “If you enjoy games and you enjoy esports, then there’s really nothing stopping you.”