TORONTO -- Esports in Toronto will have a permanent home in about four years' time.
Announced Monday morning by OverActive Media -- the Toronto-based ownership group of esports teams Toronto Defiant, Toronto Ultra and MAD Lions -- a new $500-million, 7,000-seat entertainment facility is slated to be erected on the Exhibition grounds in Toronto, with an expected completion date of 2025.
The expectation for the facility is that OverActive Media’s esports teams will play their home games there when it's up and running. Additionally, there’s a hope that the building will attract other esports events and other forms of entertainment as a building that’s being pegged as a “theatre-style entertainment venue” and “the first new sports or entertainment venue built in Toronto since BMO Field in 2007.”
“We are building a world-leading, 21st-century sports media and entertainment company and this best-in-class performance venue will be the chosen home for a new generation of fans that think differently about their entertainment choices and experiences,” Chris Overholt, OverActive Media president and CEO, said in a statement.
In an interview with Sportsnet on Monday, Overholt expanded on the vision of this forthcoming space: “The success of this venue is entirely linked to the premium entertainment acts that we expect to be able to attract to it. Esports will have its home, our two teams will have its home in this venue, but the business model is largely supported by premium entertainment acts, corporate product launches, gala dinners and award shows. It’s truly built as a versatile business venue for premium entertainment in the city. And it will also play host to our esports teams.”
(Courtesy of OverActive Media)
Founded in 2018, OverActive Media fields teams across two continents and multiple esports. The Toronto Defiant and Toronto Ultra play in the Overwatch League and Call of Duty League, respectively, and as their city-based names indicate, represent Toronto in competition.
The MAD Lions are a Spanish-based esports organization that competes in arguably the two largest esports games in the world: League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
This new facility that OverActive Media is building will be the primary home of the Defiant and Ultra, with possible events held to host the two MAD Lions teams when they’re able to come across from their home base in Madrid.
The venue’s site will be just to the west of the Stanley Barracks along Lake Shore Boulevard, and when it does eventually go up, it’ll be the realization of an idea Overholt had for OverActive Media from the group’s outset.
“We started thinking about being in the venue business from the very first days of the company," Overholt said. "I can remember a conversation between myself and the partners about the potential of this and the point I made to them early on was, ‘Look, if we’re going to own franchises of course we should want to own our own venues, too, because that just makes sense to the business. You get to enjoy all the ancillary revenues that come with that, of course, but you want to give your teams a home to play in.
“But the other part of the discussion was there’s a gap in this marketplace. This is now the fourth-largest market in North America, it’s always been a fantastic entertainment market and we should really be thinking about finding some land where we can build a 7,000-seat performance venue that can, all at once, be an iconic home for the top and premier entertainment acts that are coming to Toronto and Canada, and serve doubly as the home to our two franchises.”
Overholt’s idea seems solid as a long-term play, but OverActive Media will still have to navigate waters in the short-term while the new building is under construction.
In particular, the Defiant and Ultra will need temporary homes for the next four years or so.
Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the Overwatch League will be going online this coming season -- the schedule recently came out and the Defiant will be facing the Canadian rival Vancouver Titans to kick off their seasons on April 17 -- as has the 2021 Call of Duty League, which opened a couple of weeks ago.
But these leagues were conceived to be played out like traditional sports, with home-and-away schedules for each team, meaning when the pandemic finally comes to an end the Defiant and Ultra will need to find temporary Toronto homes, perhaps, in 2022.
(Courtesy of OverActive Media)
Roy Thompson Hall was originally slated to host the Defiant in 2020 before COVID turned the world upside down, and it’s unclear at the moment if that would still be the venue of choice for OverActive Media until their own building finishes.
“All of this has been a bit of a moving target,” Overholt said. “We were, of course, supposed to play live events in 2020 and now it looks like we’ll be delayed, at least, through most of 2021 -- although some of us would like to think that the back half of 2021 could still be a potential -- but we haven’t chosen our venues for 2022 as yet. We’re working on it now but we’re not quite there.”
Another hurdle OverActive Media will have to overcome as it awaits the completion of its building will be the general interest in its franchises and finding ways to continue to build the fanbase for these esports teams so the desire to see them will be there when the venue opens.
The good news is, Overholt has seen positive signs in regard to this.
“We had put our first event on sale -- only the Toronto Defiant event at Roy Thompson Hall [last year] -- and we were just about sold out at the moment that we had to cancel it. Obviously we were disappointed, but given the circumstances it was totally appropriate to do so. But I would say all measure of our business has only been improving up and to the right since we started all of this and it’s just been so encouraging to watch the high level of engagement around our two teams here in Toronto, and our teams in Europe.
“The momentum around esports globally has only increased and I would say whatever curve that the entirety of the industry has been on has only been accelerating in the last couple of years and that’s certainly been true for our teams here in Toronto. By way of example, we’ve announced four new marketing partnerships just in January, we continue to build all of our social channels -- we just launched our TikTok channel around Toronto Ultra in the last few weeks and I heard this morning from Mike Armstrong, our global head of marketing, that that channel is already getting ready to eclipse 60,000 followers in just a few weeks.
“So we take all of these things as an indication that esports and the global industry around gaming and esports and these leagues that we’re invested in are only gathering momentum.”
Four years is a long time to wait, but Overholt and the rest of OverActive Media seems confident that what they have built here will be able to sustain until their prized jewel is finished.