Waterloo and Subnation partnership shows other cities the way


Explore Waterloo Region/Subnation

Sometimes it’s hard to get a read on a place unless you’ve been there. Take Waterloo, Ontario, for example. Because it exists in the long shadow of Toronto, it’s often thought of as a small-town backwater. Think Toronto’s answer to Abbotsford, the big difference being that computer science rather than God is worshipped above all.

The reality is the one-time Ontario farming town is now a major tech hub. And that explains a partnership between Explore Waterloo Region and Subnation. Explore Waterloo Region is a tourism board with a mission to drive folks to the city. Subnation is a marketing organization that focuses on esports.

The goal of the two hopping into bed is to establish Waterloo as an esports hotspot for both local and international event organizers. As every esports fan knows, the industry entails much more than sitting in front of a screen in one’s bedroom or basement.

A return to normalcy

Esports is in many ways about the live experience, with fans packing halls and even stadiums to both watch and play games like Overwatch, CS: GO, and Rocket League. At lower tiers, fans compete against each other in bracket battles while their fellow enthusiasts look on. At the professional level they watch esports giants wage digital war.

Such group gatherings have, of course, come to a halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic that’s turned 2020 into one of the worst years in history. But Subnation and Explore Waterloo Region are clearly looking towards the future and a return to normalcy.

They’ve both announced a four-phase initiative to establish esports as a major drawing card for the Waterloo region.

First up will be Subnation taking a deep dive into what Waterloo has to offer the world of esports. This includes looking at promising venues as well as the technological assets that are needed to offer a solid, globally-minded platform.

A respected tech hub

The goal? The strong tech program at the University of Waterloo lures many young people from elsewhere. If you’re really at the top of your game, you might end up at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics or the Institute for Quantum Computing. And then there’s the tech companies, starting with Blackberry and including everyone from Thalmic Labs to Vidyard.

How respected is Waterloo as a tech hub? The area is regularly raided by Fortune 500 and Silicon Valley companies looking for both established talent and hotshot graduates.

With tech often comes a major influx of cash, that leading to revitalization and gentrification. At the tail end of last century, downtown Waterloo was littered with buildings that had seen better days as the home of furniture manufacturers, distillers, and tire producers.

Giants like Google, which chose the Waterloo area as a base for Canada, have repurposed those buildings.

A crash course in foresight

Throw esports into the region’s mix, and you’ve got another reason for the tech-savvy to sit up and take notice of a city where Ethel’s Lounge, Death Valley’s Little Brother coffee and whisky bar, and Herrle’s Country Farm Market corn maze were once the only reason for visiting.

And what’s interesting about that for folks who don’t live in Waterloo? It’s giving communities ranging from Corner Brook, Newfoundland, to Chilliwack, B.C., a crash course in the value of foresight. The thinking in Waterloo is obviously, with apologies to Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” (In case it’s not obvious, we’re talking tech hubs here, not baseball diamonds.)

That raises the importance of thinking about the potential of esports across the land. This much we know: the industry is a booming one with a global audience in the billions. And that means there’s a massive audience waiting to be monetized.

Reimagining commercial spaces

Rents are famously sky-high on the West Coast, and the pandemic has cut a wide swath through the commercial real-estate sector. That includes downtown office spaces. And with the pandemic creating a paradigm where working from home is the new normal, there’s little reason to think people will ever want to go back to those spaces.

So why not reimagine them as hubs for those seeking a distraction from the daily grind of life? Like, for example, participating in esports, either in the trenches or behind the scenes.

Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t unusual to see places like Simon Fraser University’s Burnaby Campus host pop-up events for Overwatch, with fans gathering to compete and watch.

Imagine Tourism Vancouver hopping into bed with an organization like Subnation to explore the repurposing of existing infrastructure for esports events. The Downtown Eastside might never look the same. Same goes for the unoffical ghost town known as Dunbar.

The possibilities

Further afield, where rent’s a little cheaper, Chilliwack might reinvent itself as something other than a destination for corn. And partying one’s brains out at Cultus Lake.

Both Vancouver and Chilliwack are, of course, best-known in the rest of the world for their natural beauty. But oh the possibilities for esports fans and industry players. Make B.C. an infrastructure-rich destination, and the scenery would be a cherry on top.

Even folks who have never been here know that we live in one of the planet’s most scenic corners. But the drawing cards don’t have to stop with the ocean and the towering trees and the breweries of Yeast Vancouver. And Waterloo, of all the unlikely places, has just shown us the way.

Mike Usinger once took the better part of two years to finish Grand Theft Auto. Over the course of his career he has written about everything from eSports to music to movies to travel.

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