These Hamilton students used video games to fight isolation. Now they're battling to help others.

Westmount students have fundraised more than $2,500 with a Super Smash Bros tournament

Aura Carreño Rosas · CBC News · Posted: Mar 15, 2022

Bashar Alobeid, left, and another student play during the Super Smash Bros tournament. The event raised more than $2,500. (Submitted by Marzieh Darling-Donnelly)

A game that helped 17-year-old Hamilton student Bashar Alobeid get through the pandemic is now helping others, after Alobeid and fellow student Matthew Gershkovich decided to channel their love for Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros to help raise funds for children with life-threatening or chronic illness.

The two Westmount Secondary School students and their gaming club ran a tournament they called the Chai Smash Kup all last week — and they smashed through their original fundraising goal of $500, raising over $2,500 for Chai Lifeline Canada.

Nearly 100 students participated, culminating in final games projected on a big screen at the school Friday afternoon. 

Almost 100 students took part in the tournament last week at Westmount Secondary School in Hamilton. (Submitted by Marzieh Darling-Donnelly)

The initial idea came after Alobeid, a senior student and recent immigrant from Saudi Arabia, turned to gaming to combat the isolation he’s felt in recent years. 

“At the end of my first year in Canada, I had to switch schools, then in my second year in Canada, the pandemic started, and then the third year, I was in a virtual room. So I always felt isolated in some way, shape, or form,” he told CBC Hamilton. 

One of the highlights during the pandemic, Alobeid said, was the time he spent playing Smash Bros — a game older than him that sees a range of characters battle — online. When he was finally able to go back to the classroom, he wanted to continue.

What started as a few friends playing in a classroom in November, 2021, turned into the Westmount Videogame Club, founded by Alobeid and Gershkovich. It soon had more than 40 members.

“After that, we were like, ‘well, how do we find out who’s the best player?'” Gershkovich said. “Bashar wanted to do a tournament for a while, [so we said] ‘we can do a tournament and… involve as many people as we can.'”

Finding the right cause

As the club began organizing the tournament, they also found out about Chai Lifeline Canada and its Gaming for Life initiative through one of Gershkovich’s former teachers, Aaron Kutnowski.

The organization runs several programs in Canada and the United States for families of children with life-threatening or chronic illness, including funds for medical care and a summer camp. 

The brother of Gershkovich’s former teacher, Shaya Kutnowski, also wanted to support the initiative and connected the students to a second cause — Soulber, which helps people recovering from addiction reintegrate into society. The Montreal-based company, where Shaya is co-founder, agreed to match funds raised by the tournament.

“Bashar and Matthew have done a fantastic job at organizing and setting up the entire tournament. It’s really beautiful to see kids coming together to help other kids who may not have the same opportunities as them. The best part is, they get to have a fun time while doing it,” Shaya told CBC Hamilton in an email. 

The tournament idea was born after forming a new gaming club at Westmount Secondary School in the fall of 2021 — a way for students to feel less isolated during the pandemic. (Submitted by Marzieh Darling-Donnelly)

The initial fundraising goal of $500 was met even before the tournament started last Monday. By the weekend, they surpassed their “stretch goal” of $1,000, with more than $2,500 raised. 

The tournament finished Friday with top junior students competing against the top senior students. 

In the end, student Nicholas Minnoti came out on top. 

'Sense of community'

Alobeid and Gershkovich said they hope the tournament becomes an annual event and spreads beyond Westmount.

“We’ve had interest from students at Westdale [Secondary School]… Maybe even farther down the line, this [could become] an eSports where you have the best player of Westdale fighting the best player of Westmount in a game. And then, you know, next thing, you have a league [for all of Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board],” Gershkovich said. 

Alobeid said he’s actively looking for someone to take on the club next year and said everyone involved wants to “keep the idea alive.”

“I think there’s a potential in video games that we’re yet to fully exploit or take advantage of. That sense of community… people get when sharing with each other in their video games,” Alobeid said. “That is severely misunderstood.”