Toronto-based OverActive Media (OAM) has significantly revamped its esports venue project proposed for Toronto’s Exhibition Place and the firm now feels confident it will get an easier ride from Toronto planning staff.
In March the City of Toronto’s Design Review Panel gave a collective thumbs-down to the first iteration of OAM’s proposal, which called for a 7,000-seat esports/performance venue on a footprint of 350,000 square feet along with a hotel tower. The project is slated for four acres of land on the south side of Exhibition Place across from Ontario Place.
“A flat-out rejection of your design, that’s basically what came out of that, quite honestly,” said OAM senior vice-president for venue development Bob Hunter.
“It was a bit choking to have to give up on that design that we all loved and thought was going to be a real landmark.”
Minutes of the design review meeting taken by city staff found that “members felt the scale of the event space was overwhelming and bulky, and various members thought the clamshell shape was exacerbating this feeling.”
The ultra-modern design, from renowned entertainment-centre architect Populous, was called “too exciting and large” for the site and “the panel advised that the proposal felt like an object being dropped into the site.”
Numerous other concerns were also cited.
Told by city planners to go back to the drawing board, OAM and Populous have come up with a more conservative venue plan with an entertainment venue footprint of less than 200,000 square feet, though maintaining spectator capacity of 7,000, and less massing.
Hunter said the firm got “stung” by releasing the first plans too early and “took a whole bunch of people off guard.”
“We completely redesigned it, unfortunately. That was a pretty cool-looking building,” he said.
Hunter said OAM has been assured by planners and other stakeholders that the more modest proposal will be more acceptable when it is ready for site plan review some time in the fall. Groundbreaking would follow next spring with completion targeted for spring 2025.
The architect, Hunter said, took the rejection in stride. Populous has tremendous resources and a great portfolio of projects including the new Tottenham Hotspurs stadium in the U.K., Hunter said, and they responded, “‘OK, we can go with that. Let’s come up with something that’s equally as cool.’
“I think they’re close to achieving that.”
The new plans should be unveiled within a month, Hunter said.
OAM is partnering with developer Henry Kallan on the project. Kallan is the owner of the 400-room Hotel X located adjacent to the OAM site, and Hunter said the tentative plan is for the new hotel, also to be 400 units in a 28-storey tower, to be marketed for families while Hotel X serves the luxury market.
The 7,000-seat capacity was reached after consultation with local event promoters who told OAM Toronto was under-serviced for arenas of that size, Hunter said.
The original price tag for the venue and hotel was $500 million but Hunter said with the smaller scale, the cost will be lower than that.
“I won’t say we’re taking out any amenities, but just reducing the footprint,” he said.
The new venue will serve as the home for OAM’s Call of Duty League and Overwatch League franchises, Toronto Ultra and Toronto Defiant. Esports is showing tremendous growth in recent years with a recent BBC report indicating that in 2020, 439 million people around the world watched esports events, up 10 per cent over the previous year.
Hunter painted a picture of spectators at the new venue sitting in soft seats aligned theatre-style watching esports teams duelling it out onstage, catching the action on big screens and participating via their own screens.
“It’s the new latest hot thing, and we want to be at the forefront. We wish we could open tomorrow.”
Hunter said the new venue will be loaded with the latest technology to ensure the new OAM venue is an attraction not only for local fans but for global visitors coming for special esports events.
“Given the technology demand of esports fans, you’re going to see by far the most up-to-date, the greatest technology in the venue, be it video boards, be it message boards, be it 5G. It’s going to be a real hub for technology and fan engagement.”
Meanwhile, in May OAM opened a renovated 15,000-square-foot headquarters and players facility in nearby Liberty Village, north of Exhibition Place. The new hub for gaming and team performance boasts such sponsored facilities as the Bell Fibe Zone and the Red Bull Gaming Studio and will serve as the home of OAM’s two franchises until the new venue is built.
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