Photography: Elaine Fancy; Stylist: Shea Hurley; Styling Assistant: Esme McBride; Video: Elaine Fancy, Spencer Bell

Walking into the OverActive Media headquarters in the heart of Toronto’s Liberty Village, the energy waiting for our production team through its front doors crashes over us like a tidal wave. We’re here for a cover shoot with Toronto Ultra, an eclectic quartet of professional Call of Duty players that make up what is known in their world as “Canada’s esports team.”

I say “their world” because, before meeting the team, the realm of esports was largely an unknown entity to me. I’d grown up with friends who were (and are) obsessed with professional gaming, but for whatever reason, I had never given it a fair chance. For years, I shared the same instinctual reaction of every 40-50-year-old dad who sees their child watching esports for the first time: “Why would you want to watch someone else play the game?” Aside from the fact that the same argument could be repurposed to refer to quite literally any professional sport, it wasn’t until sitting down with the team and watching a tournament in person that I began to understand the draw of not only esports but Toronto Ultra itself.

Armed with a set of performance controllers, headsets, and enough Red Bull to fuel a small army, this group of international imports have quickly established themselves as Canada’s esports team. And in an industry worth upwards of $1.8 billion CAD and viewership steadily on the rise, their emergence hasn’t come a moment too soon.

Toronto Ultra Roster | Wardrobe by Nobis | Photo by Elaine Fancy

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As we get organized for our interviews with the team, two Toronto Ultra players, Standy and Scrappy, banter in the middle of OverActive’s enormous gaming studio. Of course, those aren’t their given names but rather gamer tags chosen years ago. Standy (Eli Bentz) and Scrappy (Thomas Ernst) are comparing outfits ahead of their cover shoot. The team is styled by Nobis, a Canadian luxury outerwear retailer and a partner of Toronto Ultra.

Such a partnership between a franchise and a luxury clothing label is the first of its kind in the esports industry. But that shouldn’t be surprising between two brands that have defined themselves through a commitment to pushing the envelope. Nobis, in its willingness to embrace the unknown with bold collaborations and designs that go beyond Canada’s traditional outerwear retailers; Toronto Ultra, in its penchant for magnetic personalities.

“Nobis: the only jacket for Canadian winters,” laughs Ernst, doing his best “influencer” impersonation. “But seriously, I’m keeping this.”

The team is coming together for just their first season together this December, but in the tight-knit world of professional gaming, it hasn’t taken long for the comradery to flow through the Toronto Ultra studio.

“We spend six days a week here training and so many of those hours are spent together,” explains Jamie Craven, known in the Call of Duty world as “Insight” and the veteran of the team. “Most people probably have this fantasy of what being a professional gamer is but there is a lot of structure to it. We come in for daily practice and that lasts about eight hours. We’re just grinding away, learning any new updates, [and] coordinating together. Basically, we’re focusing on the details. […] But I think that all of the time together has built a really strong foundation for the season.”

Jamie Craven (Insight) | Wardrobe by Nobis | Photo by Elaine Fancy

Sitting down for our interview decked head-to-toe in the Canadian outerwear label, the team’s embrace of Canadian culture goes far beyond the clothes. As Canada’s only Call of Duty esports team, Toronto Ultra has cornered the market in an ever-expanding industry and, while the season had yet to even begin at the time of sitting down with the four of them, they were already feeling the support from across the country.

“It’s funny because we’re all from different places. [Eli and Thomas] are from the US, [Jamie] is from England, and I’m from Denmark,” explains Tobias Juul Jønsson, known online as CleanX. “But it felt like the fans embraced us immediately. It’s sort of what makes Toronto Ultra unique as a team. We have a country behind us.”

Of course, to those like myself who haven’t been in tune with the steady growth of esports fandom, the thought of having an entire country behind them might seem like hyperbole. But two weeks after our interview, Toronto Ultra followed up with an invitation to watch the team play in person. The event was a “Joes vs. Pros”-style tournament, with each Toronto Ultra player captaining a separate team made up of three fans selected through a social media lottery draw.

The event took place at Harry Rosen’s (a collaboration brokered by their partnership with Nobis) and happened to fall on the first cold night of the year. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I walked through the Eaton Centre at 9:00 PM but I certainly wasn’t expecting to see a line stretching all the way down the hallway, buzzing with anticipation. Once the line had filed into Harry’s, hoards of fans crowded around the monitors, talking excitedly while the team jokingly vaulted jabs at one another (unsurprisingly sparked by Bentz and Ernst).

Thomas Ernst (Scrappy) | Wardrobe by Nobis | Photo by Elaine Fancy
Eli Bentz (Standy) | Wardrobe by Nobis | Photo by Elaine Fancy

“There’s definitely a competitiveness within the team,” explains Juul Jønsson, foreshadowing the intensity of the tournament just weeks later. “We’re friends and there’s a lot of respect there, but there’s a healthy competitiveness there, for sure.”

“Obviously, we’re a team and we all want to win,” adds Craven. “But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. People don’t see the clash of ideas in practice but that’s what makes us a good team, a very solid team. Clashing heads isn’t a bad thing, it means we want to win. If everyone was just smiling and fist-bumping after a loss, saying, ‘Oh well, good try, I’ll see you tomorrow,’ we’d constantly be regressing.”

Tobias Juul Jønsson (CleanX) | Wardrobe by Nobis | Photo by Elaine Fancy

In a sport filled with exceptionally-young professionals where the cognitive peak sits at around 25 years old, if you’re not constantly evolving and progressing, you’re already behind. Bentz explains that players are starting to take the necessary steps in order to prolong their careers, but in such a young sport, every season remains a dice roll to some degree. Still, with a combination of veteran experience and youth, the calm exterior of someone like Juul Jønsson and the all-consuming charisma of Ernst, Toronto Ultra has done all it can to ensure that they’re putting forth not only one of the more promising teams in esports, but certainly one of the most captivating.

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