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Cracking the curious case of Toronto Esports

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This is more than a social media meltdown

Robert Paul for Blizzard Entertainment

If you’ve been on Overwatch-related Twitter for the last couple of weeks, there are a couple of things you’ve likely seen: excitement over the new Overwatch League brands, fan art of Ashe... or the Toronto Esports meltdown. Toronto Esports served as the Boston Uprising Academy team, and have been participating in competitive Overwatch since 2016. Their Twitter feed has been the subject of much speculation, starting with a showmatch challenge and ending with the organization leaving Overwatch altogether.

It’s the sort of car wreck spectacle that most fans will turn and gawk at, but there’s more to the story than you may think, and there are dire implications for Overwatch’s grassroots esports scene. As someone who’s been working in esports full-time for half a decade and who has also been born and raised in the Greater Toronto Area, very little of this situation came to me as a surprise.

Let’s dig into the factors behind Toronto Esports’ collapse, and what it could mean for Overwatch esports.

It all began with a taunt: Are you afraid? Toronto Esports challenged the newly minted Toronto Defiant to an event to please local fans. Similar to the Valiant/Gladiators “Battle of LA,” Toronto Esports were hoping to create a “Battle of Toronto” between the League and Academy teams.

Offering a bigger brand a showmatch — a non-competitive brawl to build hype and have the rosters play outside of the League — is hardly a problem; it’s a perfectly fine marketing tactic. The problem is that Toronto Esports refused to back down, reissuing the challenge and further doubling down with lines like “No reply=they scared” and “their silence is tellin”.

It was enough to draw the attention of larger names in the Overwatch community, with former San Francisco Shock analyst Harsha Bandi tweeting that “Toronto Esports has to have the cringiest social media presence in all of Overwatch”, and the social media manager for the London Spitfire and Cloud9 asking the team to “please stop tweeting cringe stuff, it’s reflecting really bad for them and the OW competitive scene.”

(Full disclosure: I have worked with Mateus Portilho in a professional capacity before and I consider him a personal friend.)

After these tweets, Ryan Pallett — the founder and president of Toronto Esports — reached out through DM to ask Portilho about his “stake in OWL” and to call him a “coward”.

This appeared to be the tipping point for Toronto Esports’ public perception; the organization was subjected to far more public scrutiny... which is why everyone took notice when, two days later, Toronto Esports announced they would be leaving Overwatch altogether over a naming dispute.

This announcement was sudden enough that the team’s DPS, Charlie “nero” Zwarg wrote on Twitter: “I guess I’m going home boys it was a good run.”

Chris Loranger, president of gaming at the Kraft Group, stepped in to clarify matters.

In some ways, this seems like the end of the tale. Toronto Esports’ Twitter account continues to tweet and retweet messages of support, noting that they may go into Fortnite or Counter-Strike next. The Gladiators’ Academy team picked up a Toronto Esports player with a cheeky message on Twitter, noting that they had “rescued” them from Toronto Esports.

Story over, right? Well, the situation bears a further autopsy, because it’s more than just a bad series of tweets and an odd ownership decision — it’s a story that could end up spelling out the future of Contenders if we aren’t careful.

In order to understand Toronto esports, you must understand Toronto. Toronto is 25 cities in one; the urban sprawl of the core city has swallowed the towns and cities around it, leading to the Greater Toronto Area. Toronto includes lots of little suburbs and smaller cities, connected by highways and urban sprawl. There are over six million people living in this area, and there’s definitely a hunger for esports.

When the League of Legends Championship Series came to Toronto for its summer finals in 2016, the audience was so loud that they shook the press booth I was working out of and drowned out the casters. The city boasts multiple gaming businesses — not just EB Games, but board game cafes that are packed to the gills every evening, gaming bars, and esports and even the Raiders Esports Centre, a sports bar combined with a LAN center that hosts regular tournaments and events. Fighting game competitors participate in Get On My Level and the Canada Cup in this city every year.

Toronto loves esports.

As the years have gone on, Toronto’s esports infrastructure has repeatedly been built up, and then crumbled. Organizations within the city have argued with one another; there are old wounds over territories and infractions. When someone gets big enough in the Toronto esports scene, they often realize they can grow no further. At that point, they head to Los Angeles. Toronto is one of the best case cities for a thriving esports grassroots scene, and yet the Toronto Defiant is the biggest news we’ve gotten in quite some time — an external organization from Rochester moving in to occupy the entire Lake Ontario area.

Bryan Luangmany | bluangmanyphotography.squarespace.com

While I enjoyed talking to the people behind the Defiant, they weren’t Toronto natives. They aren’t fluent in the city’s language and positioning quite yet, although their marketing suggests they employ people who are. While I have no doubt the Defiant will pick this up over time, they will have to contend with the struggles of localization in a passionate region that’s been bleeding talent over time.

And so, we return to Toronto Esports, the organization that’s been working out of Toronto for some time now. Their social media meltdown was undignified and uncalled for, but they were a Contenders team who had accomplished things and earned competitive rewards. In 2018 alone, the team had won Season 5 of the BEAT Invitational and earned second place in Overwatch Contenders Season One.

In a statement to Kotaku, Pallett wrote:

Yes, we felt we were loyal to Blizzard and Overwatch. We stayed and helped scout and develop players in tier 2 in the early days, prior to Overwatch League, at a time when most other organizations were abandoning Overwatch. We felt that given this, in the very least should have been able to keep our original brand, which we hold very dearly. We also feel that the recent changes to the Contenders rules are creating unnecessary barriers that are harming the talent development ecosystem. This is against our core company values.

Toronto Esports were out of line. They mishandled their social media, and made an announcement that surprised their players with the potential fact that they were suddenly out of a job. We are all aware of this to the point where another Academy team even jokes about “rescuing” the players. Its easy to make Pallett the scapegoat here, and to say that its his mismanagement and big talk on social media that made this situation happen.

At the end of the day, though, Toronto is an enormous city with a built-in passion for esports. Overwatch desperately wants to be a global product, with grassroots esports scenes built in and people able to join the path to pro from anywhere. If Toronto Esports just exploded in such a dysfunctional fashion, its worth considering if any of the factors that led to that collapse might translate over to other cities and other markets. Toronto Esports leaving Overwatch could mean more than we think, and the Contenders scene could be the biggest victim of its fallout.