Culture Vulture

Give gamers a chance to excel in eSports

Singapore is losing eSports talent due to a lack of support and the perception that gaming is a waste of time

In October last year, 27 million people around the world tuned in to watch a fight.

It was not Pacquiao-Mayweather or a Manchester derby, but two five-man teams - Samsung White and Royal Club - playing the video game League Of Legends and duking it out for a US$2.1 million (S$2.77 million) bounty at the world championship in South Korea.

Gaming is no longer the domain of a loose enclave of players. It is increasingly becoming a cultural and commercial juggernaut, one which is gathering steam by the second.

Just like professional sports teams, their eSports counterparts also employ managers and coaches - jobs which were virtually non-existent a decade ago - to handle a team's scheduling and day-to-day needs.

Established teams board their squads in team houses, with strict training schedules and constant drilling, to prepare for a gruelling schedule of seasonal tournaments, where they go head-to-head in match-ups for money and fame.

And all this rigour translates into cold, hard cash.

A study this year by research firm SuperData estimated that in North America alone, corporate sponsorships for eSports amount to US$111 million a year in total, from companies including Red Bull, Samsung and Nissan.

The total prize pool for The International 5, the biggest Dota 2 (Defense Of The Ancients) competition, currently stands at US$8.2 million and is growing by the day with contributions from fans.

The competition, to be held in August, will see the top 16 five-man teams from around the world compete to outmanoeuvre one another and destroy the opponent's base with superior character selection and strategies.

The top earner from such competitions is Chinese Dota 2 player Chen "Hao" Zhihao, who has amassed US$1.2 million in prize money.

The highest-ranked Singaporean on the list at No. 22 is Daryl "iceiceice" Koh, 24, who now plays for Chinese team Vici Gaming, with total winnings of US$470,000.

Such tournaments, as well as the advent of live streaming and social media, have spawned a spectator culture, turning professional players from anonymous keyboard warriors into personalities.

In South Korea, top Starcraft players such as Lim "SlayerS_BoxeR" Yo Hwan regularly appear on TV variety shows and magazine covers.

The finals of Starcraft competitions can be extravagant, over-the-top affairs, with players making an entrance in massive jumbo jets and screaming fans who are zealot-like in their fanaticism.

Through all this, though, Singapore has been surprisingly silent.

Despite its population being the biggest spender on video games in South-east Asia, with an average outlay of US$189 a person a year across all platforms, the country's eSports scene is oddly barren.

Singapore has no regular, central leagues here for teams and players to consistently test their mettle in and there is a dearth of high-performing squads with top-place finishes in international tournaments.

Most teams here only last a year or two before their player roster is shuffled because of national service or other commitments.

With such a bleak outlook, many top players in Singapore have headed overseas to try their luck.

Wong "Chawy" Xing Lei, 23, who used to play for League Of Legends team Singapore Sentinels, moved to Taiwan last year to join the Taipei Assassins; and Koh, who used to play for home-grown teams Scythe and Zenith, left Singapore for China in 2013.

It is not just brilliant players who are leaving our shores, but those who work behind the scenes as well.

Kelly "KellyMilkies" Ong, 25, who used to be based in Singapore as a player and commentator, now spends most of her time in Sweden as the manager of Alliance, one of the top Dota 2 teams.

So, where did Singapore go wrong?

The biggest obstacle to the growth of eSports here is the perception that gaming is a waste of time, that it is the domain of those who cannot study, and that it is a financially unsustainable dead end.

Such charges used to be levelled against sports and the arts as well, and now we have the Singapore Sports School and the School of the Arts.

As someone who has been observing the growth of the eSports industry since its early days, I see no reason why gaming should not be on a par with them.

Just like sports and arts, to excel in the eSports industry takes a lot of training, creativity and hard work. This is not Farmville or Candy Crush, which one can absent-mindedly fiddle with on the bus to while away the time.

To be a good player, one needs razor-sharp reflexes, the ability to keep a calm head under fire, as well as the tactical mind of a battlefield commander.

Perhaps one day, we could have a Battle School here to train promising cadets, just as in the sci-fi bestseller-turned-movie Ender's Game.

There is also a lack of institutional support. Many promising players have had their careers cut short by national service. By the time they are free to play again, they are no longer as skilful and the drive to excel is sometimes no longer there.

This is a case of striking while the iron is hot. Just as with professional athletes, there is a peak age for eSports and this tends to be between the teens and mid-20s, after which the reflexes begin to slow.

What if top swimmer and SEA Games medallist Joseph Schooling were not allowed to dip his toes in a pool for two years? By the time he completes his national service, his body would have weakened and the strokes would feel unfamiliar.

Fortunately for him, his request to defer his enlistment was granted. And while there are cyber athletes of Schooling's calibre who can hold their own on the world stage, no top eSports player has been that lucky.

Last year, when local Dota 2 team First Departure battled through online regional qualifiers and won a ticket to the finals of The Summit in Los Angeles, they had to forfeit their chance at the US$311,000 prize pool because their captain Galvin "Meracle" Kang was not granted additional leave from national service.

Singapore is slowly shifting to becoming more accepting of alternative career paths, with schemes such as direct school admission and the art elective programme emphasising that there is more than just the academic route to success.

However, eSports seems to have slipped though the cracks. All this means is that while Singapore is a place where players may be good, or even great, they are often stymied by a lack of opportunities and support.

To carve out a career in eSports, top players often have to go overseas and compete under the banner of another country's team.

And that is a great pity because Singapore has the talent to go toe-to-toe against the best in the world, but it is not giving them the chance to do so.

lting@sph.com.sg