Game changers: Singapore's stars in the international video-gaming arena

Their names may not ring a bell with you and me, but to fans in the $612-million esports industry, these Singaporeans are stars in the international video-gaming arena. Lee Jian Xuan & Lisabel Ting report

Entrepreneur Kevin Tan, 25, flew to the United States last July to see top cyber athletes vie in the annual Defense Of The Ancients 2 International tournament.

Over four days, in a stadium filled with like-minded fans, he watched a live screening of the multi-player strategy game played by top professionals, who are out to destroy their opponents' bases.

He calls it the best experience of his life and plans to make the same trip next month for this year's tournament.

He is among a growing group of fans who are not hooked on the latest soccer match or basketball tournament, but go online to watch professional gamers toss grenades and lightning bolts at one another in virtual arenas.

These organised multi-player video-game competitions are called esports. And just like with traditional sports, esports enthusiasts now increasingly head to stadiums for live events.

 

Tickets for this year's Defense Of The Ancients 2 The International at the 17,000-seater Key Arena Stadium in Seattle,

 

US, sold out in 10 minutes.

Even more common are those who watch at home on video- streaming platforms such as Twitch, the YouTube of video

 

gaming. The platform was acquired by online shopping giant Amazon for more than a billion dollars last August.

 

Fans can also swing by purpose-built pubs to catch the matches over a couple of beers. One such place here is esports bar Brewlings, which opened in Serangoon Gardens last month.

Business has slowly picked up and the bar can be packed with up to 60 people on peak nights, says one of its owners, game programmer Lim Yee Chen, 26.

Once the domain of geeks role-playing in dim, smoky LAN shops, esports has moved inexorably towards the mainstream. It is now a $612-million industry, with about 134 million viewers worldwide, according to gaming research firm SuperData.

From China to the United States, professional players are hired by companies to play games from first-person shooters such as Counter-Strike to real-time strategy games such as Starcraft. They are boarded in houses to live and train together and compete in tournaments, which generate revenue through corporate sponsorship and ticket and merchandise sales.

Last year, about 40,000 fans packed the Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch the World Championship Finals for League Of Legends, a multi-player game similar to Defense Of The Ancients. A 27-million-strong audience also streamed the match online, its game developer Riot Games said.

This May, Korean esports organisation MVP forked out $13,000 to fly two teams to Singapore to reduce about 3 milliseconds of lag while playing in qualifiers for the August Defense Of The Ancients 2 tournament. The competition boasts a partially crowd-sourced prize of $23.5 million and counting, putting it within striking distance of the tennis Grand Slams.

Singaporean gamer Wong "Nutz" Jeng Yih, 25, who plays on MVP Phoenix, one of the teams that came here, says: "We've been preparing for this for a year and didn't want to lose our advantage because of delay. Even a few milliseconds makes a big difference as it can cost us our reaction time."

His manager, Mr Im Tae Ho, 34, says the company, which originally had one team, started another to improve the level of play and is gunning for South Korea to crack the top eight this year. Last year's champions, China's Team Newbee, went home millionaires.

For avid Defense Of The Ancients 2 fan Mr Tan, watching professional gamers square off is as riveting and fun as playing the game.

"I get value out of watching top players. I learn new tips, tricks and insights, and the casters are good at hyping up the game and calling out the 'big plays' as they happen," he says.

He does not watch television and spends meal times parked in front of his computer, watching videos that recap the day's highlights. He catches at least one game, which, on average, lasts between 40 and 60 minutes.

Polytechnic student, Dominic Yong, 17, watches League Of Legends games for at least two hours daily. But during tournament season, this goes up to seven hours.

"For most tournaments, you have the Best of 3 or Best of 5 matches and every match is exciting. The commentary makes it more engaging too," he says.

Mr Yong also gets a kick from the live chat feature in Twitch, in which the audience, mostly adolescent boys, can participate. Players and commentators are also privy to the chat, which can range from excited streams of chatter to fast and furious flaming.

He adds: "You can troll the chat or read the funny things and emotes that people use."

Esports match commentator Lim "Lysander" Lyn-Feng, 22, who has been a commentator for Defense Of The Ancients 2 matches for two years, says: "It can get lonely sometimes for gamers, so streams add life and human interaction to the whole experience. It's like having friends playing with you."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 26, 2015, with the headline 'GAME CHANGERS'. Print Edition | Subscribe