E-sports, online gaming gain prominence during physical distancing

Ryan Jerome, who streams and games as the_fo0d, hosting a recent stream. Public health directives to stay indoors has strengthened the already-growing legitimacy of online games and competitive e-sports.

Gaming world donates computer processing power in off-times for COVID-19 research

NORTHEASTERN ONTARIO – The world of e-sports and online gaming is getting a boost from the physical distancing implications of COVID-19, with many of its activities able to continue remotely from competitive gamers’ own homes, creating new opportunities for groups such as the recently launched North Shore Gaming Group (NSGG) based in Espanola. The gaming community is also giving back to efforts to stop the spread of the virus by using their computers’ processing power to help decode protein molecules such as COVID-19.

When one thinks of gaming, the rural and Northern stretches of Ontario are likely not the first places to come to mind. Many places can have limited internet connectivity and technology in general is not as widespread as in large, urban centres. This is an untapped opportunity, says 31-year-old Espanola resident Ryan Jerome who founded NSGG in September 2019, a collective of video game enthusiasts and e-sports competitors alike.

“The North has got a great hunting, fishing, farming and outdoors-type community, but technology isn’t as well represented here. When I would go around to all these fairs and get-togethers I noticed there was a need for this, so I stepped up and started NSGG to try to fill that void,” says Mr. Jerome, who also streams his gaming under username the_fo0d.

NSGG has more than 80 members and is based in Northeastern Ontario, though its membership extends worldwide. It is the premier group of its kind in the North.

E-sports is the competitive side of electronic gaming. The industry has exploded in recent years and there are major league teams around the world including Toronto and Vancouver, just like real-world physical sports, with some top players making earnings in the millions. 

Laurentian University, according to Mr. Jerome, has one of the top-five collegiate teams worldwide for a game called League of Legends. There is a small team within NSGG that plays The Cycle that is in the top 10 around the world. NSGG players have won prize money for their performances in recent months.

North Shore Gaming Group last week unveiled its team name, the NSGG Eagles, and the new logo for its competitive e-sports division. This sub-section exists alongside its more casual gamer community that connects as a social club.

That is only one part of the NSGG mission, though. Anyone with even a casual interest in video games, regardless of the platform, is welcome to join the group and get connected with like-minded individuals.

The recent COVID-19 outbreak has been a double-edged sword for Mr. Jerome—on one hand, e-sports is gaining more exposure and legitimacy and has even begun to be aired on television sports channels. But on the other, for a new group that Mr. Jerome had planned to grow and promote through in-person events throughout the area, spreading the word has been a challenge.

“The momentum is coming. With social distancing, more people are playing games and taking note of the gaming world. But our community is about more than that. We don’t just sit at home all the time, we get out for social activities, such as a Pokémon Go group that plays regularly in Espanola. It’s things like those that I’m trying to facilitate,” says Mr. Jerome.

For Northern Ontario, whose economy has always been primarily driven by resource extraction, the untapped gaming industry might offer new opportunities for economic growth through sponsorships, catering to technological hardware needs and providing alternative sources of income, should someone be fortunate enough to make it professionally.

Grasping the concept of e-sports as a legitimate entertainment industry may be difficult for some who have lived in pre-internet days, when a neighbourhood’s ‘gamer’ was the lone antisocial recluse who never saw sunlight for weeks at a time while playing their Super Nintendo in their parents’ basement. That’s far from the case in today’s world of millions of interconnected gamers across the globe.

“People should really take this seriously. You might have children that are missing playing competitive sports these days, missing hockey on TV, but there’s a little something for everyone (even sports games). There’s no difference from other sports. It’s structured the same—you have amateurs and then leagues like your OHLs and NHLs. It’s very organized, very competitive and it’s free. What more could you want?” says Mr. Jerome.

Players in the District of Manitoulin have taken notice of the new group. One of Mr. Jerome’s team captains is a player from Wiikwemkoong and another player is a Whitefish River First Nation band member currently living in Garden River First Nation.

“It’s a good pace to meet people and socialize and make friends,” says 19-year-old Montana McGregor, adding with a laugh that he’s happy to be in Garden River because his internet on Old Village Road in Birch Island would not have handled gaming very well.

“Most of the other teams I’ve been part of are mostly in the US or out in BC. It’s cool to have a team that’s more local and is not as populated in a way,” says Mr. McGregor.

Mr. McGregor has played soccer and hockey for most of his life and he is starting to get into mountain biking. He is also a competitive fancy feather, grass and hoop dancer and has taken part in powwows across Turtle Island.

Aside from the cost of buying a game console or building a PC, as well as paying for the games themselves, gaming has a relatively low barrier to entry for people of all physical abilities and can create legitimate chances of earning substantial prize money.

All of the cost and effort invested into building a serious gaming rig can also have worldwide benefits through a program called Folding@home. When gamers are not using their computers, they run software that links their computer up to a worldwide network of other powerful PCs and biomedical researchers. 

Those researchers can tap into the processing power of gamers’ powerful central and graphics processing units as if they were using one massive supercomputer. These can run simulations on various molecules to better understand how they work and possibly discover treatments for conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, Ebola and COVID-19. 

Mr. Jerome is on a competitive Folding@home team and has amassed 140,000 points doing those activities. He says it offers useful information to PC performance enthusiasts as well, since it gives real-world statistics of just how much information their rigs can process. 

“One thing I like about gaming is it caters to the fringe. You don’t have to be the most physically fit or active; even if you can’t play sports because of a disability you can still have fun,” he says, mentioning a champion gamer who is nearly fully paralyzed and plays using his mouth.

“Nobody can not play video games. It’s your own little world to get away in, and I’m more than happy to help them find that world.”

Mr. Jerome is currently revamping NSGG’s online home and has recently launched the branding for its competitive e-sports teams, dubbed the NSGG Eagles. To learn more about the group, visit NorthShoreGaming.ca.