Katrina Clarke | Aug 2. 2016 | Toronto Star
Paul Robinson is an investment planner by day and a beer-swilling gamer by night.
Once a week, Robinson makes the trek from his downtown office to Good Game, Toronto’s first eSports, bar at Yonge and Eglinton, where he pops open his laptop, orders a beer and plays video games like Hearthstone while professional gamers do battle on big screen TVs.
“If you go to a regular bar, you might be the outcast,” said Robinson, 32. “People are coming here for a specific reason, because everybody enjoys eSports (competitive video gaming).”
Video game bars have popped up across the city throughout the past year. Avid gamers in their 20s and 30s in search of a community of like-minded players, millennials nostalgic for the video games of their youth and coupled-up men and women hoping to prove to their partner that gaming’s cool, are driving the demand say bar owners. Some patrons are even looking for love amongst the consoles.
There are at least a dozen gaming bars in the city, including Good Game, which opened in April, Dundas Video, on Dundas West, which has been around for about a year, and The Greater Good, at Dupont and Dufferin Sts., which has been open for about a month.
Bar owners are capitalizing on the explosion of the reincarnated Pokemon game, Pokemon Go, as adult gamers coming out of the shadows.
The strategy at Good Game is to ease basement gamers and non-gamers into eSports gradually and discretely. Pavel Kabargine, 27, the owner of Good Game intentionally designed the bar so gaming side is not intimidating to the uninitiated.
“We want to allow for these gamers — who are secretly gamers — to bring in their friends and create an atmosphere where their friends can feel like they’re not intruding on a whole different world,” said Kabargine.
The main floor looks akin to a high end sports bar, with four big screen TVs and a well-stocked bar serving artisanal cocktails and craft beer. The hints it’s a gaming bar are the League of Legends and Hearthstone tournaments on TV and the patrons staring intently at their laptops, tablets and cellphones.
Upstairs is where things get serious. One Wednesday evening, three off-duty bar staff sit in the dimly lit room with headphones on, eyes trained on their PCs playing Civilization, a strategy video game. They talk only when something good or bad happens in their game.
While Good Game strives for a low-key gaming vibe, others establishments are upfront about their theme.
“Geek haven” is how Adam W. Kolanski describes See-Scape, the Junction’s sci-fi themed bar, gallery and gaming hub he co-founded and manages. He compares the appeal of playing video games in a bar to appreciating music at a concert or watching a movie in a theatre — it’s sharing a passion, but in a more interactive way, he said.
See-Scape opened in November and its clientele ranges from kids to seniors, though the average gamer is in their 20s or 30s, says Kolanski. Around 50 per cent are weekly regulars who come to game and mingle with like-minded friends.
“It’s just a community that’s finally being recognized more openly,” he said. “It’s not this quiet group in the corner creeping around.”
It could be advances in technology — devices like smart phones and games such as Pokemon Go— that are making gamers more visible to the larger community, shattering “isolation” stereotypes, says Vicky McArthur, an assistant professor with the Institute of Communication, Culture, Information and Technology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
“The stereotype was always people playing at home, sitting at computers or consoles and maybe with a few friends,” says McArthur. “People are getting out there more. They want to play in a social way.”
McArthur also sees the gaming demographic widening: seniors now play Wii with their grandkids, more women and girls are gaming, and people in their 20s and 30s have become the main gaming demographic. The stereotype of the basement-gaming teen is long outdated, she said.
But can video gaming bars last?
“Unfortunately . . . I don’t think they’re going to be around for a long, long time,” said Marvin Ryder, professor of marketing at McMaster University’s DeGroote School of Business.
Ryder considers video game bars to be in the “novelty” category alongside axe-throwing venues or ping-pong bars, which Toronto also has.
“Once I play ping pong two times, three times, four times, unless I really, really love ping pong . . . it’s a case of been there, done that,” he said. “The problem with a novelty thing is the novelty tends to wear off.”
However, Ryder thinks video games may have a better shot at longevity thanks to their nostalgia factor.
“Video games take you back to a simpler time when you were 7 or 8 and you sat in front of the TV and played,” he said. “That hook is probably a little different than a ping pong bar . . . because there’s that special time.”
Others predict the revenue from alcohol sales could keep gaming establishments afloat.
Steve Engels, an associate professor in the department of computer science at the University of Toronto, remembers when Yonge St. north of Dundas St. was plastered with alcohol-free video game arcades that catered to teens. They fizzled out in the late 1990s and 2000s, partly because of the rising popularity of at-home gaming and declining popularity of games on offer, said owners at the time.
“If anything, bars have been a good place for video games and (arcade) cabinets to stay,” said Engels. “You don’t need to sustain your entire livelihood on video games. They can be there in the background and have a good home.”
Gamers have found a good home too.
“I like the idea of going into a bar, having a bunch of drinks and playing Super Smash Bros,” said Lee Stickwood, 29, an avid gamer who lives near Newmarket and makes the 30-minute drive to See-Scape two to three times a week.
“I don’t consider it going to the bar. I consider it hanging out with my friends.”
Video game, eSports and arcade bars in the city:
Good Game Bar
Location: 2097 Yonge St.
Games: Specializes in eSports, such as StarCraft and Hearthstone. Hosts in-house tournaments and streams eSports on TV.
Description: A social bar for gaming enthusiasts.
Location: 831 Dundas St. W.
Gaming systems: Retro consoles including Nintendo 64, Sega Genesis, PlayStation 1.
Description: Video game and nostalgia bar.
The Greater Good
Location: 229 Geary Ave.
Games: Old school arcade games including Tetris and Skee-Ball.
Description: Rotating beers on tap, spacious patio, retro campground decor.
Location: 1181 Dundas St. W.
Games: 70s and 80s arcade games including Donkey Kong and Ms. Pac-Man.
Description: Rotating craft taps, extensive bottle selection, laid-back atmosphere and arcades.
Location: 2840 Dundas St. W.
Gaming systems: Retro and recent consoles including Atari, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 4.
Description: Sci-fi-themed bar, café and art gallery.