This weekend, over 1,000 eSports competitors and spectators from around the world will convene at a Holiday Inn near the Toronto airport to rub elbows with world champions and star players of games like Street Fighter V and Super Smash Bros. Melee.
This is Canada Cup 2016—the largest and most prestigious fighting game tournament in the country. This year, the biggest draw is a Street Fighter V prize pool of $15,000 USD, and a chance to compete in the Capcom Cup, the most important event in the Street Fighter V competitive season.
Putting the Canada Cup together takes a lot of work, which organizer Lap Chi Duong compared to "planning a wedding every year." He and the other organizers find the time outside of their day jobs. (Lap Chi is a property manager and owns a granite shop.) He's overseen a lot of changes to this event, which started small: in 2009, he and some friends came up with the idea of having a tournament for Calgary and Edmonton's fighting game communities. It was called the Calgary Cup then.
There weren't many tournaments like it, at least not in Canada.
Top five moments of Canada Cup 2015. Video: Capcom Fighters/YouTube
"We were trying to put [the event] in Toronto or Montreal back in 2012 and nobody really wanted to help us," said Lap Chi. Figuring out how to move the event across the country was difficult without people on the ground. "We tried Vancouver. It was better than Calgary, but at the end of the day, it was not a success. We were not in the black."
It was tough to convince sponsors to buy into the idea of a Canadian fighting game tournament. According to Lap Chi, from a list of 200 possible sponsors contacted for the first Canada Cup, the only positive response came from gaming accessories manufacturer Mad Catz.
The community needed to be built from the ground up. That meant, in part, bringing in talent. In 2010, when the event was rebranded as Canada Cup, top-level Street Fighter players like Daigo Umehara and Justin Wong were flown in to Calgary, on Canada Cup's dime, to compete. From that point on, top-level players began to attend the event of their own volition.
"We moved it back to Calgary [in 2014] and I said, 'I'm just going to try hosting it this year without flying in anybody. If you guys want to come, come on down on your own,'" said Lap Chi. "That was the first year that we didn't lose any money."
"We needed a publicity stunt"
Running a high-level tournament is expensive, and there have been stumbles with trying recoup the costs. The popular "8.95" meme that circulates within the Canadian fighting game community is in reference to a widely reviled decision from Lap Chi to charge viewers on Twitch $8.95 USD for commercial-free, high-definition streams of Canada Cup in 2011.
Most of Lap Chi's risks have paid off. He took a joke borne from this misstep and used it to help grow the Super Smash Bros. Melee presence at this year's Canada Cup. He invaded the Twitch streams of Armada, Hungrybox and Mang0, three of the five "Smash Gods" who tend to dominate whatever tournament they're competing in, and asked them to attend Canada Cup 2016, using a donation of $895 USD to the players' Twitch streams grab their attention.
Video: 613 Smash/YouTube
According to Lap Chi, the Smash Gods are tremendously difficult for tournament organizers to reach. These top-level players all have well over 100,000 followers on Twitter, requiring a little more than unsolicited communication to get a response.
"They've got too many fans. You know how many messages and emails they get daily?" said Lap Chi. "So I thought we needed a publicity stunt."
All three agreed to attend, although Mang0 has since had a change of heart (he wants to spend Halloween with his family). The risk has seen attendance for the Super Smash Bros. Melee tournament at Canada Cup jump from under 100 people last year, to over 220 registered ahead of time in 2016 for the chance to see, and maybe play against, some superstar players.
Canada Cup will keep growing. Lap Chi said there are no plans for the event to leave Toronto, and that he isn't worried about its future.
"We never thought this was going to happen two years ago. If we're doubling up in size every single year, we're not even sure how we'll handle next year or the year after," said Lap Chi.
To watch Canada Cup, you can tune in to the live broadcast on either the Capcom Fighters Twitch account or one of the four official Canada Cup accounts. The tournament runs from Oct. 28-30, and the full tournament schedule can be found here.
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