The frosty town of St. Catharines—population 134,100, nickname “The Garden City”—lies right on the tip of southern Ontario, almost on the U.S./Canadian border. It’s a telecommunications hub between the two countries, the home of the Toronto Marlies (everyone’s favorite American Hockey League farm team), and the place where supernatural Rush drummer Neil Peart spent his formative years.
It’s also the home of 25-year-old Kevin “canadianimpact” Mahoney. He’s a lifelong resident of St. Catharines, although “I usually just say I’m from Niagara Falls [when people ask],” Mahoney says. “It’s more convenient…I go down there pretty often. It’s something to do when I’m not playing video games.”
Nevertheless, when we meet, he’s ventured far beyond St. Catharines—beyond Canada, even—to play video games. You can easily spot Mahoney in the crowd at the Pacific Rumble in Tokyo because of his scarlet maple leaf cap. After all, if you’re going to make your gamertag “canadianimpact,” why not lean into it as much as you can? It speaks to the power of the Internet that Noble Esports, which is arguably World of Tanks’ best North American team, found a crucial player in a country that’s often overlooked when it comes to cultural contributions.
Mahoney is shy and self-deprecating when I first approach him at Noble Esports’ practice a day before the Pacific Rumble. “Wouldn’t you rather be interviewing our team captain?” he demurs. I brush that off as we settle into a corner room sequestered from the team’s practice space. He sits down softly and looks at me with kind, unassuming eyes. You can tell he’s still getting used to talking to journalists, and he’ll always be most comfortable in front of his computer, where he’s logged over 18,000 games of World of Tanks in the last few years.
“I started my World of Tanks account in 2011, and I played casually up to 2013. I always knew I was good enough [to play professionally],” Mahoney tells me. “I suck at StarCraft. I’m average at Dota 2, and slightly above average at Counter-Strike, so the choice was pretty obvious.”
Back in Ontario, Kevin went to school for police foundations and is currently unemployed. He tells me his stint in esports will be temporary—a whirlwind global experience full of color and camaraderie before real life settles in. It must be strange to know that all these things—jerseys, teammates, prize money, etc.—are ephemeral, but Mahoney rolls with the punches.
“We’ll see how this season goes and take it from there,” he says matter-of-factly. “We don’t know people’s schedules or timetables, and as a team we’re getting older. We’re not 16 like some of these other guys.”
This trip to Japan marks Mahoney’s second plane ride ever. The first? Earlier this year, of course, when he traveled to Los Angeles to compete with the other members of team Noble in the Wargaming.net League North American Finals. At the time, it was the furthest he’s ever been from home.
“I wasn’t nervous, but I wanted a lot of information about that first flight,” he confesses. “Getting the flight information and realizing [what] was about to happen. I just went with it because I didn’t want to be the idiot who couldn’t find his way.”
You get the sense that Kevin Mahoney is the baby of the team, and this makes him the target for a lot of ribbing. It’s all out of love, though. At the end of the day, these are his friends, and he seems to take everything in stride.
“This is all very new, and everyone makes fun of me for that,” Mahoney shrugs. “Last night, I [ate] sea urchin and some squid; we tried a lot of stuff. My teammates all forced me to eat it. It wasn’t bad, but I wouldn’t eat it all the time. There’s not a lot of sushi restaurants in St. Catharines. I haven’t used a fork yet; [though], so that’s good.”
“We’ve been trying to feed him everything we can,” says David Graber, Noble Esports’ business manager. “There’s a little bit of a paternal relationship for some of the younger kids—a little bit of an older brother thing; a little bit of looking out for them and shoving weird food in their faces.”
Kevin Mahoney is unemployed and confined to a flyover Ontario town, maybe spending too much time playing video games. This might have been a different story, but instead, here he is in Tokyo, having an experience of a lifetime. If Mahoney was knee-deep in police work right now, he’d probably still only know St. Catharines and its surrounding flavor. But now, he’s been to California and Japan. In a couple of months, he’ll be in China. It’s all thanks to World of Tanks.
“There’s a disbelief that you can do this stuff for money and to travel,” Mahoney says. “You kind of say it once and let it simmer for a bit. My parents believe me now, but not having a job and going on big trips overseas is not something that they wanted. We’ve made some money, [though], so they’ve come around a bit.”
Kevin Mahoney is in the middle of a dream. His hard work has paid off, and he should be proud. Some folks in St. Catharines might still scoff, but I’m pretty sure they won’t be dining on sea urchin in a Tokyo sushi bar, about to go head-to-head with challengers from around the globe. It’s a pretty ringing endorsement for esports. World of Tanks has legitimately changed a young man’s life.
“I didn’t think going to Tokyo would ever be an option, especially not this sudden or soon,” Mahoney admits. “It’s not something I thought I would be doing, but we’re having so much fun here.”
Photography and video by James P. Gannon