Canadian gaming industry leader on the Canadian Game Awards and the possibility of E3 in Canada

Jayson Hilchie talks about the second iteration of the show, honouring Canadian-made games and the future of gaming events in Canada

Canadian Video Game Awards

If you didn’t know it, the Canadian gaming industry is the third-largest of its kind in the world, behind only the U.S. and Japan. According to the Entertainment Software Association of Canada (ESAC), the lobbying group that represents Canadian gaming companies, $5.5 billion of the country’s GDP comes from this sector every year.

With all of that in mind, Canadian esports organizer Northern Arena is once again putting on the Canadian Game Awards, an annual ceremony to honour Canadian games, studios, content creators and esports players. The show, which kicked off last year virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic, is being held digitally once again this year via Twitch.

However, things are a little different this year: now, there are actually two ceremonies. The first, the Canadian Indie Game Awards show, will take place on Thursday, April 7th at 7:30pm ET/4:30pm PT, featuring nominees like Inscryption (Vancouver’s Daniel Mullins), Echo Generation (Toronto’s Cococucumber) and Moonglow Bay (Bunnyhug, an international team led by Canadian ex-pat Zach Soares).

Following that, the Canadian Game Awards itself will be held on Friday, April 8th, with a pre-show beginning at 7:30pm ET before the main event kicks off at 8pm ET. Some of the nominees include Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (Quebec’s Eidos Montreal), Far Cry 6 (Ontario’s Ubisoft Toronto) and Age of Empires IV (Vancouver’s Relic Entertainment).

To help put all of this together, Northern Arena has tapped the ESAC to be one of its sponsors, with president and CEO Jayson Hilchie also set to present Game of the Year during the April 8th show.

Ahead of the two ceremonies, MobileSyrup caught up with Hilchie to talk about ESAC’s involvement in the Canadian Game Awards, the evolution of the show, and the possibility for other events in Canada to promote Canadian-made games.

Question: How did your involvement in the Canadian Game Awards come about?

Jayson Hilchie: The older iteration of the Canadian Video Game Awards, we endorsed, and [Canadian Game Awards creator] Carl [Edwin-Michel] and I are longtime friends. And when he came up with the idea, there was a two- to three-year absence and lull with no award ceremony. And Carl just called me and said, ‘Look, I want to put on this award ceremony, what do you think we had some initial kind of strategic discussions about what went wrong with the old ones? What would need to happen for the new ones to kind of go forward.’ He was really interested in doing everything that was possible to do to appease all of those things. And he seems to be pulling it off.

We decided as a board that an award ceremony in Canada was an important thing to drive the industry forward — also to promote the industry. I mean, you’re writing about it, so that’s proof that that works. So it really came down to a discussion. I recommended to the board that we were going to endorse this. But when you get our endorsement, you’re getting endorsed by Nintendo, PlayStation, Xbox — all the big companies. And so it’s not just a simple endorsement; there is a discussion that has to happen. And there’s always a reputational risk if the thing fails. And so that’s what happened before, and so we want to be involved in something that’s sustainable. And so far, Carl’s done a really good job with the production side of things and pulling it together. It’s looked really, really good the last two years, and just looking forward to seeing what it looks like this year. And even though it’s virtual, I went down there and shot the presentation. So it’s a bit of a mix, right? So I’m excited to see what it looks like. And Carl’s proven time and time again that he’s got the chops to be able to produce stuff like this.

Q: You mentioned looking at what was done before with the Canadian Video Game Awards. What are some of the things that have come up in your discussions with Carl and observing what was done in the past that are being done differently now with the new show?

Hilchie: There were some really good iterations of the old show. For a time, it was moving forward in a direction that was fantastic. I guess the brass tax on the differences right now is that Carl’s yet to host an in-person event, and there’s a massive difference between the virtual side of things and then putting on an event with 500 people buying tickets and coming and buying tables. The former awards did that — that was always in person. They never did a virtual one. So right now, I think it’d be difficult for me to opine about the differences between what this one’s doing different or better.

I can say that this one has a production value to it that is where we would like to see it. And I know because Carl did produce at least one — I think a couple — of the former iterations of the Awards, that he’s got the chops to be able to do this in person when it comes time. And I think the challenge with any of these types of things is trying to convey value to sponsors, trying to convey value to the industry, and trying to convey value to people to come and buy tickets. Like, if it’s in Vancouver, it’s challenging for people from Montreal and Toronto to get there. That’s an expensive trip, and it’s kind of a luxury item. It’s not E3, it’s not GDC — it’s just an award ceremony. And so, how do you convey that necessity to companies to set aside a budget to send a group of 10 people at minimum and buy a table to the award ceremony in Vancouver or, if it’s in Montreal, the same for people out west. So I think that’s a challenge with the old one, and Carl has yet to deal with that challenge.

And so time will tell how that goes down. I’m hoping that people want to get out of the house and want to go to things that will be a kickstart for [Carl] next when we start to do things in person, hopefully. But that’s the challenge with award shows, right? I mean, you can see what Geoff Keighley has been able to do in the U.S. [with The Game Awards]. He’s been able to do things very successfully because he’s well connected. He’s got a lot of sponsors and he’s connected to the agents to be able to bring in the celebrities that bring people into the room. I don’t know how well he does, but he’s been going for a number of years now, and I think that it’s a great model that Carl might want to look at when it comes time to do things in person.

Q: That covers the business side of the show, but let’s move on to the actual nominees. What were some of your big takeaways when looking at the games? Do you have any personal favourites?

Hilchie: Well, you know, I never say I have a favourite because there’s like three or four of my members represented in those games. [laughs] But I think the difference here is they’re all big games. And the Indie Awards are separate, so you’re not having a small game versus a large game. Even though in the old iterations of the awards when [Toronto-based] Capybara’s Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP won Game of the Year — it won everything, and it beat all of the big games. I think it actually made some of the bigger companies a little bit irritated because “this small little game just beat out my big game that we spent a $100 million on — how does that happen?” So it’s possible for that to happen, but I think it’s a good idea to separate them, at least for now. But it would be great to bring them all together in a one-night show at some point.

But for me, I have no real favourites. For me, it’s like, every single game that is in Game of the Year was built during the pandemic. That’s something that, whoever wins, all of those [developers] whose games are nominated have a lot of pride to be able to say ‘we did this during the pandemic and we’re up for Game of the Year.’ I think that’s the big takeaway from this: every game that’s nominated had at least a large portion of it built during the pandemic. I mean, that’s something, right?

Q: What does it mean for you and the ESAC to be involved in something like this? Why would you say it’s important to spotlight Canadian-made games?

Hilchie: That’s the heart of what we do: we promote the Canadian video game industry, and we protect it and we make sure that it continues to grow […] The Awards, for us, is an opportunity to support another organization doing an awards show that is going to add to the visibility and promotion of Canadian video games across the country. It’s another touchpoint. We’re always trying to pitch stories about games doing this, and the industry doing this. So for us, the ability to highlight games and promote them and get media attention, but also get recognition for the people who are working really hard.

I just did a Q&A with my counterpart in Spain at AVEI [Spanish Association of Video Games], which is their industry association. And they’re highlighting the Canadian industry as an example of what Spain’s can be. I was answering some of his questions, and Canada, at one point, was not where we are today. We were where Spain is. So it’s amazing to get recognition for the people who are busting their butts making these games, especially the ones who have been doing it from home, building these massive budget games and trying to meet ship deadlines for the holidays or whatever the date is. For them to get some recognition, that’s great for them and that’s really important.

But ultimately, for ESAC, it’s about getting more visibility for the industry in a positive way. And getting articles like what you’re going to write about, how important this is, and getting some spotlight on the fact that we even have something like this. So that’s why support it, and that’s why we endorse it. And that’s why I present an award at it. Because it’s an important addition to the strategy around visibility.

Q: On a similar note, but moving somewhat away from the Awards… The ESA, your American counterpart, just confirmed that E3 2022 has been fully cancelled — no digital or physical show. When we talked at E3 2019, you noted that a major reason why a show like that hasn’t happened in Canada is that there are all these other events, like E3, Gamescom and PAX, so getting buy-in from companies for another event is difficult. Fast forward three years, though, and the landscape is a little different with COVID, E3’s cancellation and more digital shows. Do you think there’s a possibility now for some sort of similar gaming event in Canada, especially with what’s happening with E3, that could, in particular, spotlight Canadian-made games?

Hilchie: We’ve had that conversation as a board so many times, and since we spoke about it last time, I don’t really think anything’s changed. I think the virtual stuff is a great filler for events that already have brand recognition and loyalty around them. But I don’t think that starting a new event virtually is really kind of going to drive that value, especially because Carl has kind of done that with this event. And it’s fantastic. And he did that. And he got stuck in the pandemic. He stuck to it — he did the 2020 Awards, and it was all virtual, because if you recall, it was supposed to be an in-person event. And so he pivoted pretty hard. And he stuck to it, right? He could have quit, but he stuck to it.

I think for an expo of some sort, like an E3-style style of things, I think you really only need to look at ESA’s decision to not hold a virtual E3 get an idea of how great they think that was, right? I mean, I’m not going to speak for them. But if it was a great experience for everybody, you’d think that they’d be doubling down on it and doing it again. They’re just not doing it.

[In] our industry, you have to get people physically touching the controllers, physically playing the games — it’s hard to do something that’s just trailers, that’s just gameplay virtually you can watch. That already exists on YouTube and Twitch and other places. You get to watch people play the games before they launch. So to do another event like that, I think, would be forcing it.

Now, when this is all cleared up, and the risk profile of hosting an in-person event considerably decreases? We’re always open to looking at something. But in the short-term, I certainly wouldn’t recommend to my members to do a virtual event create something new. If some of the other events that used to exist kind of fall off the calendar or they don’t survive or things change or the schedule changes? Yeah, I would definitely take a look at what the opportunities are for something in Canada. I get it — I get your point.

It’s just that it’s just so challenging for our members to just, you know, ‘be at this, and then this, and then this, and then this.’ And it’s very costly for them. So they need to be able to identify some sort of value proposition and [return on investment] on every event that they go to. And we’ve got some members who want it, some members who don’t — we just haven’t been able to get to a point where we have a critical mass that’s going to make it worth it. That’s a long-winded answer, but it’s a complicated discussion. It’s not as simple as we talk about it and this person says, ‘Let’s do it.’ It has the potential to be politically rapturous.

For sure. For now, at least, we have the Canadian Game Awards, and raising exposure for that.

Hilchie: Yeah, it’s always one of the challenges, right? I think Carl does a good job.  I think the world just needs to get back in person again for a lot of these brands — he’s trying to build a brand, like I said I wouldn’t do from a virtual standpoint. It’s hard. People fall in love with brands, because they have touchpoint with them, right? They either buy them or wear them or they use them or they attend them. And anything that came out of nowhere during a pandemic is really difficult to get people to build that emotional attachment to. But we’re excited.

This interview has been edited for language and clarity. 

Disclaimer: I participated in the judging committee for this year’s show, but was not paid for this opportunity and had no involvement in the actual creation of the show itself. I also do not know any of the winners.

Image credit: Northern Arena