arcade bars toronto

People slow to return to Toronto video game bars in pre-lockdown numbers

Video game bars were all the rage in Toronto pre-lockdown, and they're still popular, but people aren't quite returning to the high-touch spaces in the same large numbers.

Arcade bars bring the experience of gaming out of its modern day sphere of the living room and back into a retro environment where people can experience anything from old pinball games to the newest VR technology.

However, this all involves coming into contact with high-touch surfaces, making the management of these types of spaces difficult in the current climate.

arcade bars toronto

Back when you could stand shoulder to shoulder unmasked at Tilt. Photo by Jesse Milns.

Tilt and its sibling bar Zed 80 were arguably on the forefront of arcade bar madness in Toronto, and Brad Pajuluoma saw it all as assistant manager at Tilt before becoming the manager of Zed 80 in August 2020.

"It's tough with the pandemic measures still in place, especially when our business model is based on having a large turnover and people coming out to play and touch the games," Pajuluoma tells blogTO.

"In the meantime we try to keep everything clean, sanitized and make sure the games are in the best condition possible. Which is easier said than done for the most part, especially considering how it's been tougher to get parts and supplies with the ongoing supply chain issues."

Fortunately, most people at Tilt and Zed 80 are understanding when something runs out or when a broken game is out of commission for a little longer than usual.

"I can say that there has definitely been a slow increase in numbers here compared to what I saw in the fall of 2020, especially with the vaccine passport coming into effect," says Pajuluoma.

"We are certainly seeing some people coming out again for the first time in a while as they feel it's safe, but lately with the numbers going up, who knows what's going to happen next."

arcade bars toronto

Two months after opening, FreePlay was locked down. Photo by Fareen Karim.

Arcade bar FreePlay, on the other hand, knows little of an existence before lockdowns, opening in January 2020 just two months before restrictions first started coming into effect.

"Our numbers were fantastic those two months and we received a lot of love from the city and media," FreePlay owner Jake Yakobi tells blogTO.

"We've had to pivot multiple times as the government requirements kept changing. "

One of those pivots was turning into a virtual food hall with fried chicken, smoked meat and various pop-ups, and they've kept the idea past reopening.

"We now offer so much more to our customers in that regard," says Yakobi.

"Since restrictions were lifted, we've noticed an uptick in business, but a lot of the 905ers are just not coming downtown as of yet, not to work in their offices and not for a night out on the weekends."

While they've been supporting the local DJ and stand up comedy community by putting on regular shows, they've mostly found an increase in bookings for private parties and corporate events. Overall, Yakobi estimates about 35 per cent fewer people come in compared to those first two months.

arcade bars toronto

People used to pack into Toronto's location of Rec Room for video games and shows. Photo by Jesse Milns.

Much larger video game bar chain Rec Room has reopened in Ontario and across the country, but says their venues in Alberta performed the best with almost 90 per cent of 2019 levels of attendance.

"People are looking for safe, social experiences with friends and family and are excited to be back. It's an immersive, shared experience that can't be matched at home," Melissa Pressacco (director, communications for Cineplex) tells blogTO.

"Our commitment to the health and safety of our employees and guests remains the same, it's our top priority. We continue to follow all government regulations."

Rec Room is controlled by Cineplex, and it's clear the company is trying to increase visitation and attendance by introducing new programs.

In the same way that arcades are struggling to compete with the at-home experience people have gone back to, Cineplex is trying to entice people back to theatres with a Netflix-esque subscription service.

Whether people feel they truly can't recreate such an immersive experience at home or feel safe going out to video game bars to socialize again, it remains to be seen if people will ever return to arcades in pre-lockdown numbers or would rather just stay on the couch.

Lead photo by

Fareen Karim

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