eSports: From Bane to Boon

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ONCE THE BANE of parents everywhere, competitive video gaming or eSports is a growing industry, with dozens of professional sports leagues and major governing bodies like the International Esports Federation and European Esports Federation now existing across the world. An interesting fact is, the largest player and fan bases are in South Korea.1

History and Trends

In 1980 Atari held the first large-scale video game competition called The Space Invaders Championship attracting 10,000 players in the US – that marked competitive video gaming as a hobby, but not a viable career just yet. As technology in computer chips and graphics improved and with the advent of internet and mobility, games took on more sophistication evolving into today’s competitive Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG).

In 2013 China became the first country to recognise video gaming as an eSports, followed by South Korea; both countries have since introduced eSports into their school curriculum. Its rising popularity has spawned a whole new set of career options, from software design and development to hardware design and construction, including the organisation of events and arenas for professional competitions, and even purpose-built chairs!

According to Forbes, the industry’s global revenue reached $1bil in 2019 and an estimated 433 million people tuned in to watch games like World of Warcraft, Fortnite, Counter-Strike, Dota 2, League of Legends and Overwatch. Though it commands a relatively small audience compared to global sporting events like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup, it is, nevertheless, generating enough buzz for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to consider its inclusion in future games – eSports was included in the 2019 SEA Games, and will be featured in the 2022 Asian Games in China.

Local Landscape

With an estimated total of about 20 million fans as of 2019, the eSports industry in southeast Asia has been steadily growing to about 36% over the last five years. A case in point: the Singaporean start-up Razer Inc, one of the most iconic gaming brands today, raised $528mil from the production of mousepads, keyboards, game pads, devices, chairs and wearables for the professional gamer.

In Malaysia’s last Ministry of Youth and Sports Strategic Plan, a budget of RM20mil was allocated to train athletes in eSports and to develop it into a full-time career, complete with normal employee remuneration and benefits. Early pioneers, however, have forged ahead without assistance from the government; the top three ranked players from Malaysia are Yap “xNova” Jian Wei, Zhang “MidOne” Yeik Nai and Chai “Mushi” Yee Fung, each earning in excess of a million dollars from playing Dota 2, a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game.

Closer to home, Penang held its first inaugural eSports Festival last September, in line with the state’s Penang2030 vision to become an eSports hub. The two-day event featured video game competitions with a prize money of RM80,000.

Game Designs

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PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds is an online multiplayer battle royale game developed and published by PUBG Corporation.

To understand the hype, let us examine the design of some of the more popular video games. Dota 2 is a sequel to Defense of the Ancients (Dota) by the American company Valve. Each team of five players has to occupy and defend their own separate territory on the battle map; while each of the ten players assumes a unique avatar known as a “hero”, imbued with special powers, abilities and styles of combat. In face-to-face combat, each player builds the strength of their heroes by collecting experience points and items such as weapons or shields. A team wins by being the first to reach the enemy’s home base and destroying the “Ancient” structure.

In Fortnite: Save the World, a team of up to four shooters try to survive and fight off zombie-like creatures, and defend objects by building defence structures; League of Legends is similar to Dota, whereby players assume the role of “champions” with special powers to battle against other players or computer-controlled champions, with the ultimate goal of destroying the opposing team’s “Nexus” structure.

Essentially, most of the games follow a fantasy storyline – players assume avatars or virtual heroes with special powers to defeat enemies – and are war-themed with battles waged to win territories or destroy enemy strongholds. Some critics believe such exposure to violence strongly correlates to adolescent aggression, especially in families with poor parental supervision. But despite the negative stigma, youths are choosing to see it as an outlet for virtual expression and an opportunity to build self-confidence.

Becoming a Pro Gamer

In a game like League of Legends which is no longer as “hot” in the market, a player’s salary ranges from $200,000 to $700,000 a year. In North America and Asia, salaries are even higher, with top players earning over $1mil annually, and this does not even include the prize winnings yet. The League of Legends World Championship prize pool last year was an initial monstrous $2.25mil, excluding the sale of items and advertising; while the prize pool for Dota 2 was $34mil and Fortnite World Cup $30mil respectively.

So, what does it take to gain mastery over a video game? Physically, it is skewed towards muscle dexterity, good hand-eye coordination and quick reflexes; and the ability to sustain this for long periods of time. Mentally, much like playing chess with the grandmasters, this requires durability and stamina in concentration. Each adrenaline rush hones skills in strategic thinking, teamwork, time management, self-confidence, and a winning mind set.

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Radiant team heroes in Dota 2 converging on the Dire team's Ancient.

While most games share similar underlying designs, it is advisable to focus on one specific game for gamers to familiarise themselves with its design intricacies. In early development, gamers are advised to join leagues and attend summer camps to network with the community. But as glorious as the limelight may seem, some gamers do struggle with stress and may opt for supporting careers instead, as coaches, referees, event organisers, social media influencers, agents, sponsors, streamers, or even in sales and marketing. Similarly, parents have to continually support their children if the latter are fully committed to this path by ensuring they follow a healthy diet and a regular sleep schedule, spend at least an hour outdoors, invest in the right gear and register them for training events and summer camps.

Like most professional competitive sports, eSports do have a relatively shorter shelf life. Players usually peak under 30 years old before switching careers within the industry; but then again, some would not trade the adrenaline rush for a desk job either.

Tony Yeoh was previously regional CTO of an international branded company, and an Associate Faculty of a Singaporean university.



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