by Alex Kinsella | October 2022
Student athletes and alums from the University of Waterloo have been a competitive force at the Commonwealth Games for decades. This summer’s games in Birmingham, England, was another opportunity for UWaterloo athletes to shine again—including esports athletes at the game’s first esports exhibition tournament.
Esports continues to be one of the fastest-growing entertainment industry segments, with an estimated 29.6 million monthly esports viewers in the U.S. alone. Waterloo Region is home to a thriving esports ecosystem, including teams at Conestoga College, the University of Waterloo, and Wilfrid Laurier University.
Greg Mittler, Coordinator of Esports at the University, leads UWaterloo’s esports program, which includes competitive teams, intramurals, and public esport events. The esports program is supported by students, faculty, the University’s International office, and the University of Waterloo Games Institute.
“We have six competitive teams that play not just against other schools in Ontario, but across North America. We also have a number of recreational events that we run every month for the general community to come play,” Mittler said.
While esports is often associated with playing video games in a basement, Mittler is working to help change that attitude and show that esports athletes train and compete like any other sport.
Like other sports, esports has organizational groups that set rules, establish leagues, and manage competitions. Today’s esport athletes have similar opportunities to other athletes, with paths from the amateur level to becoming professional esports athletes. Mittler compared esports to other specialized sports like mountain biking or whitewater rafting.
“We are trying to effect esports on a grassroots level to help players and all kinds of participants find pathways to careers in esports,” Mittler said.
Like other sports, esports offers opportunities beyond being an athlete. Esports leagues have coaches, trainers, referees, and management and marketing teams.
“There’s so many avenues that are similar to sports. We still need player agents, events staff—there are so many different areas that you can develop your skills,” Mittler said.
Another misconception surrounding campus esports is that esports athletes are all students from STEM programs like computer science or mechatronics. At UWaterloo, esports athletes come from more than six faculties on campus.
“They all have very different backgrounds and reasons why they care about gaming. Some of them like team management. Some of them like story design because they one day want to get into writing stories or map creation for these games,” Mittler said.
Before the Commonwealth Games, Mittler and the UWaterloo esports team met with their counterparts at the University of Warwick in Coventry. Mittler said it was an opportunity to learn from a similar community of researchers and gamers. Building partnerships is a core part of the University of Waterloo’s mission.
“The University of Warwick is very similar to Waterloo. They have a very entrepreneurial society, but it’s all based on gaming. We were able to learn a lot from that group,” Mittler said.
In addition to the games, esports athletes and leaders from around the Commonwealth met to discuss the future of esports at the Commonwealth Esports Forum. The forum was an opportunity to help drive global awareness of esports as participation and viewership rise. The forum was followed by the first Commonwealth Esports Championships, where Team India beat Team New Zealand 2–0 in DOTA 2 to take home the gold.
“We were able to share more about esports, what’s happening with the competitions, and also give forum attendees a background on esports and why they matter. We also went to Leamington Spa, which is about 30 minutes outside of Birmingham, for a culture festival to reach out to more people about what esports is,” Mittler said.
At the university, the Esports program runs a Twitch live stream channel dedicated to esports. Mittler said showing the audiences at the forum how live streaming esports works, including play-by-play announcers, attracts viewers.
“We played games of Rocket League and then invited the audience to ask questions afterwards. It was a really awesome experience for the students to show off their skills. Some are high level competitive athletes or even ex-pro players, but they don’t always get to play in front of a live audience,” Mittler said.
Mittler added that Waterloo Region is well positioned to attract university and professional esport events to the community. With three competitive programs and the work of the Waterloo Region Esports Commission, the region is gaining attention for esports competition organizers.
“We’re in a unique space. If you look at people that consume traditional sports right now, the industry is seeing a drop in cable subscribers in people under 35. Many of these people don’t watch traditional sports, but they do watch esports streams on Twitch and YouTube. Whenever we host one of our streams, the numbers we get are amazing—sometimes we have a few thousand people watching a Tuesday night game. There’s definitely an appetite here to watch esports,” Mittler said.