If you’ve never heard of Northern Arena, rest assured that you’re not alone. I knew nothing about Northern Arena prior to Fan Expo Toronto in September, where I stumbled across a massive stadium tucked away in a corner of a much larger convention centre and learned that Northern Arena is a Canadian eSports organization that hosts tournaments for Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, and other mainstays of the eSports circuit.
Fortunately, my ignorance was expected. Carl-Edwin Michel is one of the Co-Founders of Northern Arena, and said that pulling in stray foot traffic was the primary incentive for staging a tournament at Fan Expo.
“It was a marketing stunt,” said Michel a few weeks later. “We we want to do great things for eSports in Canada, but nobody knew who we were. The crowd at Fan Expo are not necessarily eSports fans, but there’s a big video game section, so for us it was a no brainer.”
“There are a lot of Canadians playing eSports, but they always go to the States or to Europe to play. We’re trying to create a platform where players and teams can flourish here in Canada. There’s a huge base of eSports fans. The problem is, they don’t have the opportunity to see them up close, to go to an event and to see those stars.”
The strategy certainly worked on me. The Northern Arena caught my attention because it felt like a genuine sporting event, with a jumbotron, multiple broadcast booths, and a wall full of bleachers. Even if you didn’t know anything about eSports, the display was so impressive that most passers by would stick around long enough to find out what was going on.
That adds up to a lot of people given the scope of Fan Expo, which annually draws upwards of 140,000 attendees. Michel estimates that roughly 22,000 of those guests found their way to the Arena, while an additional 3 million tuned in online. He won’t know the conversion rate until after Northern Arena’s next event – the Montreal LAN Finals take place this weekend – but if even a fraction of those viewers become fans it would provide a major boost to the organization’s visibility. Staging a tournament at a major convention is good PR because it allows Northern Arena to reach out to casual observers, and the slick, professional production makes eSports seem more legitimate for those who have little to no familiarity with the competition.
“I was talking to a few people, especially parents with their kids, and they’re like, ‘Wow. I didn’t know that video game competitions were that big,’” said Michel. “It makes them realize that it’s a new era. It’s digital entertainment. Video games are getting more mainstream. It’s still a niche, but it’s a huge niche.”
That approach helps normalize eSports and ensures that the next generation of eSports stars will face less pushback from friends and family who have a better sense of the endeavor. That’s why Michel is committed to making the on-site experience more accessible and more appealing, with the understanding that eSports must above all else be entertaining.
“If you watch any other eSports event, it’s always the same format. It’s always a stage with the players facing the crowd and a big screen behind them. We want to do something different. We want to have spectacle,” he said.
So how does Northern Arena create that spectacle? For Michel, the challenge is that eSports is not always intuitive, and overcoming that knowledge barrier is essential for any organization looking to win over new fans. He’s always searching for ways to communicate game information more effectively in the hopes that everyone will be able to follow the action regardless of their level of familiarity with a particular eSport.
“Let’s say a player is about to get killed,” said Michel. “When he dies, you see a skeleton instead of seeing his face. That makes it a little easier to people that are not necessarily eSports fans. You give them those pointers to help them understand what’s going on in the game.”
Lighting cues are a similarly theatrical way to tell audiences about the game state in Counter Strike: Global Offensive, in which teams are attempting to place bombs inside enemy bases.
“When the bomb’s planted, you’re going to see all the lights flash red. Stuff like that makes it interactive and intuitive to the fans on site. That’s what we’re looking for,” said Michel.
The broader goal is to create an atmosphere akin to that of a rock concert or hockey game, where special effects help build a sense of awe and the audience feels like they’re a part of something unique because it’s happening live. Taking a moment to appreciate a great play is fun when you’re at home, but it becomes a shared experience when everyone in the arena can appreciate a great play together.
“When you’re onsite, you have thousands of people screaming at the same time. You get goosebumps. The experience is more immersive,” said Michel. He added that while online streams are great if the event is taking place halfway around the world, “if you’re local and you can make it, it’s so much better” live.
“I want us to be recognized by international players and other leagues,” he said. “I want to give a Canadian feel to it, too. We’re relaxed. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. When you come to our event, you’re going to compete for good money, but you’re going to have fun at the same time.”
Until then, Northern Arena remains focused on building its brand in Canada. The organization now hosts three major events per year, hitting the major hubs in Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver in an effort to cultivate an active eSports scene in the country.
“I hope that our three events are filling arenas. The [League of Legends Championship Series] did 19,000 people in the [Air Canada Centre]. That was great. I hope that we can do that for a Canadian company.”
Northern Arena’s next showcase is this weekend’s LAN Finals at the Bell Centre in Montreal. The event may or may not sell out, but it should still be a positive step for an organization that’s rapidly developing an excellent reputation in Canada and beyond.