FreePlay: Retro arcade bar unites esports and gaming community with grand opening
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Tonight, the Toronto esports and gaming community will get to experience FreePlay’s grand opening. The city’s newest retro arcade venue is filled with classic arcade and console video games, a DJ booth, and a section dedicated to VHS movies.

FreePlay’s grand opening will also feature a special performance by Canadian rapper Choclair, who played a prominent role in developing the Canadian hip hop scene. Hosting the event will be radio and television personality Master T.

As the guests prepare for the event and the Toronto esports and gaming community anticipate the grand opening, the person behind FreePlay, Jake Yakobi, sat down for an exclusive interview with Daily Esports.

Yakobi has an extensive background in business development and music. He has been the director of business development at RX Music for over 21 years. Now, he’s taking his experience and passion for gaming to the next level with FreePlay.

DES: What inspired FreePlay in the first place, especially given your background in business development and your experience in the music industry?

Jake Yakobi: It started when I was a kid hanging out in the arcade. I would watch my brother play, and it was just a soft spot in my heart. We grew up with computers and electronics and all that, but really, the idea came forth when I was on a flight to L.A. for business. I read an article about an arcade in Brooklyn, New York. They just opened their location, and it was a mix of old school arcade and a cool kind of hipster-type bar. I thought the idea was great — I just didn’t like the fact that all the machines had coins.

I didn’t want something like that, so people don’t have to worry about coins — just a place that exudes fun would be a wonderful thing. That’s when my collecting started. You can’t buy these games. As they pop up, you have to pounce and buy the ones that you think would work. I kind of focused on four-player games because we really want to encourage that social interaction. Just playing with the people that you may not even know, button mashing, or sliding or rolling a ball, whatever the case may be. That’s really where the first of the idea came, and it’s just been a long time coming. Looking for space buying games and so on and so forth.

DES: On that note, How does that play into the concept of FreePlay in terms of how it’s not only about console games, but also this marrying of an old school and new school atmosphere with a DJ booth, movies, and music?

Jake Yakobi: For a lot of esports places, people just go in and log in and start playing their games. People just watch. I didn’t notice that much interaction, so with these old arcade console games, of course it’s easy to watch, but it’s also easy to jump on a four-player. We try to encourage that. We try to encourage a lot of nostalgic design elements with current sleek and modern design elements. And I can’t stress this enough. So even if you go to our place and don’t care about arcade games at all or care about computer games at all, there’s still something there for you. You’re going to be captivated and just enjoy your time there.

A DJ booth with a dance floor was important to us just because we want to have that extension of fun as well. Dancing and music all intertwined in one cool space. The music and the movies are just ideas that popped up. A lot of this generation have never actually touched a VHS tape and don’t really know what that’s all about, so we put in a TV with a VCR and we have a nice selection of 80s and 90s films.

DES: What was the biggest challenge you faced while creating FreePlay, and how did you overcome it?

Jake Yakobi: The biggest challenge was finding a space and finding a space that was big enough. Finding a space physically big enough, finding a space that had a liquor license, and finding a space that had a reasonable rent. There have been so many close calls with deals, signing, and something always fell through. Honestly, I must have tried to take over 20 to 30 different bars around the city that were for sale. Once we found this place, we put a bit of money into [renovation]. When I say a bit of money, it’s a lot of money or more than I expected, but it shows. It was an old cantina-style Spanish place, and we really transformed it. That was a big hurdle.

Acquiring the games was also quite a big hurdle. Time was on my side, in that case. I would just wait for the ones that I really wanted to come up and purchase them. We also have some really old ones, some classics that people have never played that are just mesmerizing when you get in there and try them.

DES: Where do you see FreePlay in the future when it comes to its place in the Toronto esports and gaming community?

Jake Yakobi: It’s almost an escape. Esports bars are what they are, and we’re not trying to be that. We’re something quite unique that encompasses console gaming, cabinet gaming, kind of the history of gaming. For esports players, it’s almost an escape from esports, to kick back and have some old school fun.

We’re looking to do some tournament nights with classics and Smash Bros., and whatever else comes up. We do have several console tables rotating out the systems in there. So we’ll see what evolves, we’ll see what the demand is, what the customers want.

DES: What is something you would like to share with our audience that we haven’t covered yet?

Jake Yakobi: We paired with Collective, a spray paint company just down the street. They paired us up with the artists from Kensington Market, and every vision that we had — they just knocked it out of the park. I think mixing in this kind of graffiti street art with gaming elements is really new and really next level. When people come in there, they smile. And as they walk through, they continue to smile. That art just, again, takes us to the next level, and I think that’s important to share.

Amy Chen is an esports journalist and enthusiast who specializes in in-depth interviews and breaking news. A University of Toronto and Humber College graduate, she is passionate about building up the Canadian esports industry. Her current favorite games are Hearthstone and Heroes of the Storm, and she has always had a soft spot for World of Warcraft!