After Courtney Gilbert left Ontario for New Westminster, Martin Byerley dropped everything and followed her with only $20 in his pocket. Years later, with roots planted in Metro Vancouver, the two have become prominent figures in the region’s esports scene.
The couple is featured in Burnaby filmmaker Melissa Dex Guzman’s documentary Smash Forward, which was released online through Telus’s Storyhive project on Monday at noon, with a release party that same evening.
The documentary focuses on a few players in the local fighting game community, including Byerley, Gilbert, Brendan ‘Pryde’ Pryde and Jen ‘Llumiya’ Zall. It also includes Super Smash Bros. professionals Eric ‘ESAM’ Lew, Vish ‘Vish’ Rajkumar and Julian ‘Jtails’ Martinez.
Esports is a growing community of competitive amateur and professional video gaming, with prizes at some of the world’s largest tournaments reaching into the millions of dollars.
Guzman began the documentary initially intending to focus on Pryde and his struggles with bipolar disorder, but the project ultimately grew to look at a variety of aspects of the local community.
“I thought it was really interesting how he used the Smash community to alleviate some of the behavioral and emotional symptoms that he faces. Basically, this entire group of friends and people, they're his support system,” Guzman said.
As she expanded her documentary, she ultimately included Byerley and Gilbert, among others, having worked with Byerley on a previous project.
“I was really in love with their romantic story,” Guzman said. “A lot of people don’t think that women play games, but it was actually Courtney who introduced him to the Smash community and encouraged him to get involved.”
Having a physical community around which gamers can rally has helped even in terms of everyday mental wellness. Byerley says he’s felt the impact of the community on himself, as well.
“It’s helped me with my confidence because, just like everyone else, you go through life, and you don’t have a whole ton of positive reinforcement,” Byerley said. “To be part of the community and be accepted, you realize that you just are who you are, and you will be accepted as such.”
Byerley is also described in the documentary as a driving force in the community – Pryde says Byerley is a person who commits to “make people feel welcome,” and another gamer mentions Byerley consoling him after a “heartbreaking” tournament loss.
Esports has risen in popularity in recent years – sports media giant ESPN even has a section dedicated to esports – and Guzman says the community is “on the cusp” of blowing up locally.
Just in the year since Guzman pitched the documentary, Canada’s first esports stadium was announced, and Vancouver Canucks owners, the Aquilini family, have acquired an Overwatch franchise team. Several local universities have begun to develop their own esports communities and teams, and The International, a major Dota 2 tournament, was held in Vancouver last year.
But even as the burgeoning esports scene offers a sense of inclusion in a community for players like Byerley and Pryde, Guzman says there’s still work to be done on diversity in the community.
The gaming community has had a reputation for toxicity toward women ever since Gamergate boiled over in 2014 with a public harassment campaign against women in the videogame industry.
“I think there’s still challenges,” Guzman said.
She made a conscious effort in Smash Forward to have prominent men in the community – such as Martinez and Lew – address the issue of sexism in the community.
“I feel like maybe if these top players can acknowledge it, then their following will listen. You can make an entire documentary about what women go through in games,” Guzman said.
Gilbert takes an optimistic approach, citing areas in which the local community has improved the experience of women.
She notes the Smash Sisters community, which focuses on creating women-only tournaments for women to meet other women in the community.
“It’s very rare to see [women] at huge tournaments, and in the last year or two, we’ve seen more girls turn out,” Gilbert said. “In the last little bit, we’ve seen a couple of them popping up here and there, and they do really well, too.”
The full 20-minute documentary can be viewed on the Telus Storyhive YouTube channel.