On a Sunday afternoon in Toronto, eight of Canada's best Madden players gather inside The Rec Room to compete in the final stage of the Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge. The winner will receive $8,000. A stage has been set up with a projector screen behind the players as the crowd, which includes curious spectators and the gamers' family and friends, arrives to take in the action.
Feroz Khan, who goes by the name Mr. Ferozious, is a 33-year-old account manager from Brampton, Ontario. He's also the No. 1 seed in this tournament after going undefeated during the online qualifying stage. In the first match of the afternoon, Khan, playing as the Seattle Seahawks, is matched up against the Atlanta Falcons and Michael Booth, a 19-year-old from Oakville, Ontario.
Playing five-minute quarters on the Xbox One, Khan falls behind 10-0 in the first quarter and needs a touchdown with less than three minutes left in the fourth quarter to even the score at 21. An interception on the ensuing possession proves costly for Booth, as Khan takes advantage and kicks a game-winning field goal as the clock hits zero. Khan lets out a sigh of relief. He has narrowly escaped an upset.
While competitive esports gaming is dominated by video game titles like Dota 2, Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Call of Duty, and Overwatch, there's an increased push across professional sports leagues in North America to carve out their own space in esports. The Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge serves as a small example of that.
With the launch of the Madden NFL Club Championship, the NFL became the first American sports league to have all of its teams participate in an esports league. In February, the NBA announced a 2K esports league for 2018 which will include 17 teams. Last week, longtime NBA writer Lang Whitaker announced he was joining the Memphis Grizzlies to run their 2K franchise.
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Professional athletes and owners are also pouring their money into the industry. Rodger Saffold, an offensive guard for the Los Angeles Rams, owns Rise Nation, a team that competes globally in Call of Duty and Overwatch. Michael Strahan and Joe Montana are other former NFL players who have invested in esports.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has a Boston-based esports team. Former Los Angeles Lakers forward Rick Fox is the owner of the League of Legends team Echo Fox. Shaquille O'Neal and Alex Rodriguez are among the investors in NRG Esports, a team that competes in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch.
Others who have invested in this space include Washington Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber, and Magic Johnson. Brooklyn Nets guard Jeremy Lin, an avid Dota player, launched his own esports team last year, while Mark Cuban has invested in an esports betting platform. A study by Eilers Research estimates esports wagering will surpass $23 billion by 2020.
Sports gaming titles, though, still lag well behind the leaders in esports. According to e-Sports Earnings, Madden was 15th in total prize money across gaming titles this year, with $904,000 across four tournaments. These numbers pale in comparison to Dota 2, the leader with $35 million in prize money across 126 tournaments.
League of Legends live championship events have sold out arenas like New York's Madison Square Garden and Toronto's Air Canada Centre. At the 2014 League of Legends World Championships, more than 40,000 fans watched at the Seoul World Cup Stadium in South Korea.
Viewership online for the championships exceeded 40 million people in 2016. In comparison, when the NFL Network broadcasted the Madden Challenge earlier this year, it drew 91,000 viewers.
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Wim Stocks is the CEO of WorldGaming, a company owned and operated by Cineplex which organized the Madden 18 NFL Canadian Challenge and has been in the competitive gaming space for more than a decade. Stocks has worked on the business side of video gaming for most of his career, starting with GT Interactive Software on titles such as Doom, Quake, and Duke Nukem.
Stocks believes sports titles are a natural fit for where esports is going.
"If you think about it, playing video games is all about competition," Stocks told theScore. "You want to win, you want to perform well, and that's what drives a player no matter if it's traditional sports or esports. It's a very natural evolution."
Stocks compares the esports model to the NBA in the 1960s and Major League Soccer 15 years ago, professional leagues that were just starting to figure out how to attract and keep an audience. He envisions leagues - whether it's Madden or NBA 2K - filled with sponsors and a local fan base that roots for its own franchise.
Stocks believes the demographic that has embraced esports is no different than the traditional sports fan. After all, Madden has been one of the best-selling video game franchises for years.
Another appeal of esports tournaments for Stocks is the presentation aspect. As the gamers compete at The Rec Room, Larry Ridley, a television anchor for SportsNet New York and a voice on the Madden franchise, is providing play-by-play commentary. The stream and his commentary are airing live on Twitch, the go-to video-streaming platform for gamers.
Ridley's approach to calling esports is the exact same as with traditional sports. "We do it exactly the same way as we would on television," Ridley said.
Although many aspects of the traditional gaming experience can be replicated, if Madden and NBA 2K want to make a permanent dent in the esports space, they'll need one thing: star players.
(Photo courtesy: Cineplex)
Khan's semifinal opponent is Robert Chirwa, better known as Rob Gambino. Chirwa is the most charismatic player at the event, with a charming smile and relaxed demeanor that exude confidence. He has a day job working in sales and runs a photography company.
He started playing Madden competitively for cash prizes in 2008 and hasn’t played a game for fun since. "My skill level is too high for fun," Chirwa told theScore. "When my friends ask me to play, I'll be like, at least put $20 on it. I'm not getting on the sticks unless we're playing for money."
He has thought about quitting his job. "I see people making $25,000 or $50,000 in a single tournament, and of course I think about it," he said, laughing. He said he spends at least 60 hours a week playing Madden, but knows that number has to go up if he wants to compete with the best in the world.
"The higher-ranked guys are on another level," Chirwa added. "If I really wanted to do this, I would have to put in like 12 hours a day to get to their level."
Ridley has seen the Madden esports boom in the U.S. One example he points to is Eric Wright, better known as "Problem," a 29-year-old based in West Covina, Calif., who started playing Madden competitively in 2005 and has won three Madden Challenges and two Madden National Championships, earning more than six figures in prize money.
"These guys are putting time into their craft and they're becoming stars in their own right," Ridley said. "Just like LeBron James or Tom Brady, these players are the best in the world at what they do. They're putting in work, developing a following and making a name for themselves."
Khan views the Madden Canadian Challenge as a stepping stone, and even though he doesn't disagree when I suggest he might be the best Madden player in Canada, he's hesitant about doing this full-time. "There are opportunities," he said, "but it's about the commitment level you want to put in. It takes commitment and a lot of sacrifice. Your financial situation has to be stable because you might not win every time. It's tough."
The matchup between Khan and Chirwa turns out to be anti-climatic. Khan is dominant from the start and leads 24-0 in the third quarter, when Ridley wonders whether there's a Madden mercy rule in Canada (apparently, it's 32 points). Khan breezes to the finals with a 24-6 victory. There's some consolation for Chirwa, though. The night before the tournament, he officially signed with SetToDestroyX, a professional esports team.
(Photo courtesy: Cineplex)
Before the finals, Brandon Marshall, a wide receiver for the New York Giants who's out for the year after season-ending ankle surgery, arrives to catch the action at The Rec Room. Marshall, like many other NFL players, is a serious Madden gamer who played with Elvis Dumervil after every practice when they were teammates on the Denver Broncos.
As he watched the gamers compete on stage, Marshall remarked, "When you understand coverage, you're light-years ahead of everyone else in Madden."
Khan proves Marshall's point in the finals. Facing Nemanja Tepavcevic, a 34-year-old from Niagara Falls, Khan's defense is dominant and he's in complete control of his play calls. He wraps up the tournament win with a 13-0 victory. Afterward, Khan is thrilled.
"I wanted to put my name out there," Khan said, "and let everybody know that Canada is here to compete."
In addition to the $8,000 cash prize, he earned himself a spot in another Madden Challenge, which will run from late November to early December with 288 players competing for eight spots in the finals with $150,000 in total cash prizes available.
If esports continues to grow and professional sports leagues continue to make a dent in the industry, we might one day be rooting for gamers like Khan and Chirwa the same way we do our favorite athletes. We might even be watching them at a basketball arena or football stadium.
For now, Khan is satisfied with his cash prize and excited to spend it on a honeymoon with his newlywed wife. After snapping photos with friends and spectators, it was time to head home, get some sleep, and prepare to go back to his day job the next morning.
Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.