This week we caught up with Spiro Khouri, CEO at The Gaming Stadium, Canada’s first dedicated esports stadium. The company’s vision is to build a social community using video games as a way to bring people together. We sat down with Spiro to find out a bit more about the company background, his experience working in esports, and what the future looks like for this billion dollar industry.
What was the inspiration behind TGS?
The Gaming Stadium was built to be a home for the gaming community. As esports is a new and growing industry most people are used to playing at home. It is hard to build community when there is no physical interaction. The easiest comparable is traditional sport. At one point there were no basketball courts, no public baseball diamonds, no community hockey rinks, etc. That is where esports is now. The industry is seeing immense growth and for those interested in taking the next step there was nowhere to go.
The story I like to tell is from when I was a kid. I will never forget as a 5 year old sitting in Kindergarten and having my local hockey association come to my school and hand out registration forms. That night I went to my dad and showed him the form. It was $99 (I know, crazy cheap right?) to play and it also listed all equipment needed. It made the process a no brainer for my parents. Pay this fee, buy this equipment, and show up on this day at this time to start. I have a 2 year old son myself. In three or four years if he were to approach me and ask to play esports where would I take him? How could I harness that passion while not plumping him in front of the TV or computer to play for hours a day? How could I meet other parents whose children have the same passion? Before TGS this didn’t exist and what we have built is filling that gap.
Tell us a bit about your background in this industry.
First off I have been a gamer my whole life. I remember being a little kid and playing games like Duck Hunt, Mario, and Blades of Steel on NES. My parents realized my passion and I was lucky enough to get new consoles when they came out. I have been engaging with games for over 30 years and still to this day play games every single day.
In 2011 I was working with the Vancouver Canadians Baseball Club in a Sales and Marketing role when an opportunity to work at EA came up. As a gamer living in Vancouver this was the pinnacle to me. I have always played their sports games so to work for them was a huge privilege I was not going to pass up. I joined the Marketing team working specifically on the Need for Speed Franchise. This was my first exposure to the industry from the inside and I loved it. At that time esports wasn’t a mainstream or even well known industry. At EA there were some events however that centered around competitive gaming and I fell in love. I started doing research on competitive events and learned about esports through reading and meeting people who played in local tournaments, mostly centred around Starcraft at the time.
Fast forward to 2016 I was working in a marketing role for Great Canadian Casinos at the Elements Casino location in Cloverdale, BC. I was still following esports and my interest had grown as I was watching Twitch for hours every day. At Elements the property had undergone a multimillion dollar renovation which included an all new poker room. Unfortunately at the time Poker was on a bit of a decline and the room was closed. Upon speaking with some of our upper management I floated the idea of an esports lounge. It would include tournaments, viewing parties, and private events. I received approval and in December 2016 spearheaded the opening of the Elements Esports Lounge, the first of its kind in a casino in Canada. Over the course of the next 12 months I met many people in the industry and got ingrained into the esports culture. I met people like Kenny Lam and Matt Low who, without their guidance in the space, I would not have the opportunity I have now. The thing I learned the most is how welcoming this community is. Everyone wants to help everyone win and it is truly remarkable.
In December of 2017 I left the casino as a new opportunity came up. When I left however I continued to work with those in the industry and was able to be a part of some big local events, specifically in the role of sales and sponsorships. By staying in the community I was able to meet even more people, including the founding group of TGS.
In 2018 TGS was becoming a reality and that is when my focus shifted full time to where I am now. For me the current role I have is a culmination of my experience. Years of gaming, 4+ years in traditional sport, experience at a large publisher, and creation of an esports lounge.
Can you clarify the difference between gaming and esports?
To me esports is organized competitive gaming in any sense. If there is any competitive element to a match or event I would classify it as such. Gaming is the art of casual or non-competitive gaming. For example I love playing PUBG which by nature is a competitive game. Every time I play I try to win but I am not playing in an organized environment. I am playing casually with the hope of winning but no real downside to losing, aside from a bruised ego.
What’s been the most surprising thing about founding TGS?
So first off I want to be clear I am not the founder. There is a team that has been part of this from the beginning. I am a part of that team and have been here since day one but there are so many people that have been integral to making this happen.
As far as surprises go, I mean we get them every day. From a business perspective it has been how many opportunities have come our way. When we opened we wanted to be a place for people to get together and play. We always had big aspirations and a roadmap but the amount of opportunities has been staggering. Our team always knew something like this was needed but I don’t think any of us realized how much it was. As mentioned previously there are so many people out there looking to jump into this industry but didn’t know how or who to turn to. Since we have opened we have become that connection for people and it is fantastic. We help brands integrate into the space, help individuals understand what esports is all about, and help parents get a full grasp on the potential this has for their kids that love to game.
And the most challenging?
That’s a twofold answer - education and process.
On the education side we knew we were in for a long haul as there are many people who still do not know the industry or have a negative view on it due to unfair stigmas that exist. It is part of our mission to continually educate people to ensure they don’t paint the industry with a bad brush. At TGS if anyone wants to come visit us it is totally free. We do not charge anyone to walk in our doors and hang out as we want to engage people and educate. This is a long haul not just for us, but for the industry as a whole.
As for process we built something from scratch with no reference point or fall back information. We have a fantastic team who have been organizing tournaments for a long time which made life easier for sure but we still needed to build out an A-Z process for a facility with little to no comparables. It took a lot of time, whiteboard sessions, and sleepless nights. We still work on process and try to improve every day as new things come up. It is all about being flexible and learning how to react logically when something comes up.
Who inspires you when it comes to entrepreneurship?
For me it is my father. He moved to Canada from Lebanon in the early 80’s and worked damn hard. He worked as a taxi driver in Edmonton and was able to get enough money to open a restaurant, which was his passion. Even when he opened it he still drove a taxi to ensure money was coming in for my mom and my then very young older sister. He did everything he could to realize his passion and didn’t stop working.
Before I was born my family moved out to Vancouver and my dad opened up a new restaurant in Coquitlam. Growing up my dad opened two more and most of my youth was spent being around those locations and seeing how hard he and my mom worked to build something from nothing. The fact they served pizza didn’t hurt either - all the pizza I could eat!
I have four siblings and when my youngest brother was born my dad had to sell his restaurants to take on a more consistent job to not only provide for the family but be around to help out around the house as well. He did this for about 6 years before buying another restaurant and getting back into businesshimself. It was perfect timing for me as I was able to run the last restaurant alongside my dad from 2003 until we sold it in 2007. I learned every aspect of running a business at a very young age and saw first hand how hard my dad worked to achieve his dream.
There are a ton of entrepreneurs I look up to but my father easily has had the biggest impact on my desire to be an entrepreneur myself. The lessons I learned growing up are integral to where I am today.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
I do two main things - family and video games.
I absolutely love spending time with my family as my wife and I have a two year old son, Myles, and an awesome maltese dog, Wookiee. Family is an amazing escape from the stress of work but also is a constant reminder of what life is really all about. The best part of my day is when I teach my son something and he picks it up. It also doesn’t hurt that he loves games! I got two mini arcade games as gifts previously. They are super small, around 8 inches tall, and my son loves playing them. He prefers Bubble Bobble over Galaga at the moment.
I also play games every single night, typically from around 9pm-1am or so. This is my time to unwind and enjoy the thing that has been my escape since I was 5. Currently I am playing Valorant, PUBG, COD Warzone, Slay the Spire, and UNO (which is so much fun on PC).
How has the Covid pandemic affected TGS and your industry as a whole?
In terms of TGS it has affected us dramatically. As a brick and mortar we had to close our doors, as did many other businesses. Again we have an amazing team and we didn’t dwell on the negative for too long and immediately came up with plans to ensure we kept our community engaged. COVID-19 is unlike anything our generation has experienced and we knew it was important to provide an escape. Within five days of being closed we launched our online tournaments which now run every day and are open to anyone in Canada. We have also begun filming two new esports shows and have created a fully mobile broadcast studio. All in all we have been able to, as a team, take this time to do strategic planning and execute on those plans.
The industry has been on fire. Viewership on Twitch has been through the roof and esports is now on mainstream TV regularly. You also see pro athletes and musicians now turning to games as a way to stay engaged with their fans. Overall the industry has seen double digit percentage growth and it is only going to continue.
Why did you choose FrontFundr to raise capital?
We were introduced to the platform by a friend of ours, Charmaine Crooks, and after meeting with the team and researching some of the deals on the platform at the time we thought it was a perfect fit for our business. The team is fantastic and from the very start to now we have been treated extremely well. FrontFundr provided a platform for exactly what we needed to accomplish.
What do you hope to achieve as a result of your campaign?
Aside from raising funds for us to continue our growth we wanted to open up the opportunity to be an owner of TGS to anyone out there. It is not everyday we get the chance to invest in something so early at such a low entry point and the crowdfunding exemption is so perfect for this.
We want anyone in the community who interacts with TGS to be able to be an owner and share in the success. If we can make this happen for those who believe in us we will have achieved our goal.
Where do you see TGS in 12 months’ time?
We expect to be a publicly traded company with 3-5 locations open in North America. We will also have put on a major esports convention in Vancouver. TGS is on a massive growth trajectory and the next 12 months will be the kick off to us establishing ourselves as a go to brand in the esports space.