Over the past 16 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted many businesses, including those centred around gaming. In a series of three articles, we’ll look at how different types of gaming business have adapted to the pandemic and are preparing to operate in a post-pandemic world.
Whether they deal in board games, video games, or both, gaming lounges allow enthusiasts to be part of a one-of-a-kind community where they can indulge in both classic and modern forms of gaming. In the past year, Ottawa’s local gaming lounges have adapted their businesses to operate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gaming enthusiast Mike Hopkins co-founded The Loft board game lounge alongside Alessandro Argentina in 2014. Two years later, they opened the Level One Game Pub underneath it. Both levels feature an extensive collection of board and video games, plus helpful staff who offer guidance to customers on the best selection of games, food, and drinks.
“It’s a combination of those things that we think set us apart,” said Hopkins during a phone interview. “We’re very easy to get to as well. We’re right by the LRT line, very close to the Rideau Centre, and we’re in a very unique, 155-year-old building. So it’s a really lovely setting to come spend time in.”
When Level One opened in 2016, Level One’s bar manager Matt Maxwell says it offered a unique opportunity.
“I brought my other interest, video games, as an idea. It just brought more of what I love into this building and into the job.”
But Hopkins says their business, like many others, suffered due to the pandemic. Along with shutting down between March and September 2020, they only had brief periods of operation between September 2020 and July 2021.
“We were probably open for around three and a half months total of that time, and the rest we were shut down,” said Hopkins. “We were just doing delivery. Matt and our chef were basically running a two-person show for most of that time.”
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But Hopkins explained that they found ways to survive.
“We have a very generous landlord who’s a restauranteur and has taken it easy on us and been extremely accommodating,” says Hopkins. “And government subsidies have kept us afloat and the contributions of Matt and our chef Evan, particularly, have been what’s kept us going.”
However, even with all the support, the pandemic was still hard on them.
“In terms of sales and traffic and all of those things, it’s just been an absolutely massive hit to the bottom line, and to the community of people that both work here and come here,” said Hopkins.
Furthermore, due to their limited space and many regulars still hesitant to come back, most of their events have been postponed or are extremely limited.
Despite the hardships and struggles, they were able to learn from the pandemic and adapt.
“It definitely forced us to reevaluate our food situation and offer takeout solutions,” says Maxwell. “Whereas we never really considered doing deliveries, and we had a focus on food and drinks, but I really think it drove it home that that was the only thing that you could rely on for quite a few months.”
Along with physical distancing, sanitizing console controllers, and ensuring that people wear masks, their business features additional anti-COVID measures, such as using QR codes to provide customers with a virtual menu and game lists, as well as plans to include physical barriers.
While there are still challenges left to overcome, Hopkins said he feels confident about the future.
“I anticipate we will be here, and people will be coming here and having fun. And hopefully, it’ll be better than ever.”
A new addition to Ottawa’s gaming lounge community is the Arcane Gaming Lounge, which opened in July 2021. Kevin Gallant, the owner of Arcane x PawnLine, which operates under the same roof as the Arcane Gaming Lounge, said that while looking for a bigger place for their online store, they found an ideal location in January 2021, which led to an interesting last-minute idea.
“We found this location at a good price and with all the extra space, we decided to try something new,” says Gallant.
While it may seem challenging to open a gaming lounge during the pandemic, Gallant explained they kept COVID-19 in mind when they opened their doors.
“We pretty much took the pandemic into account, rather than taking it for granted that it would be over,” said Gallant. “All tables are six feet apart, no matter where the table is. We have hand sanitation machines around the venue (…) and every single table, equipment, game controller and video game is sanitized between clients.”
At the moment, the lounge is only open for events such as comedy and open mic nights—all equipment and mics are sanitized between acts—as well as events where players can bring their own board games (or even card games like Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!).
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While their business may have been built with COVID-19 in mind, there are still some challenges ahead.
“I’d say it’s really just getting the word out and … making sure that people are comfortable in coming back out and re-establishing that sense of community that was there before the pandemic hit,” Gallant said.
While they’re still focused on raising awareness and on the marketing side of things, Gallant said overall things are good and they’re “seeing more and more people coming by every day.”
For more information about the Loft/Level One and the Arcane Gaming Lounge, and their current and upcoming events, visit their websites or follow them on social media. Stay tuned for Part 2 in this series, where we’ll dive into how trading card/hobby shops in Ottawa are doing their part to adapt to a post-pandemic world.