SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore may not compete for gold in many Olympic events, but the city-state is emerging as a force in a different kind of sport: mobile and video games.
In May, Singapore hosted the Free Fire World Series, which garnered a peak viewership of 5.4 million - the highest ever for any e-sports match outside of Chinese platforms, according to Esports Charts. Last month, the Republic opened its first e-sports experiential centre, equipped with world-class live streaming and pro-e-sports facilities.
Come year-end, when Singapore aims to have loosened border restrictions, it is set to host the first Asian edition of Gamescom - the world's largest video game industry event - and the inaugural Global Esports Games. The island aims to capitalise on the billion-dollar e-sports sector, banking on its infrastructure investments, status as a global business hub and gaming ecosystem to become South-east Asia's leading destination for the fast-growing sport.
"Our world-class events and digital infrastructure have also made Singapore an attractive location for the industry to hold gaming and e-sports events here," the Singapore Tourism Board and Enterprise Singapore said in a statement to Bloomberg. "The Government will continue to support companies as they push boundaries through experimenting with new and immersive content formats and business models, as well as level up the quality of our local talent to become leading creators of world class content."
E-sports, or multiplayer mobile and video games played competitively by professional gamers, has morphed from a niche market into a mainstream phenomenon, turbocharged by rising mobile penetration and digital entertainment demand during the coronavirus pandemic. South-east Asia is expected to lead the world in e-sports revenue, with compound annual growth of 20.8 per cent through 2024, nearly double the global rate, according to a report from Tencent Holdings and Newzoo BV.
That is attracting investments and growing numbers of e-sports and gaming start-ups with regional ambitions to Singapore.
"From the game developers' perspective, South-east Asia is the next frontier. The region is at the vanguard of mobile e-sports," said Mr Carlos Alimurung, chief executive of events organiser and broadcaster One Esports. Singapore is taking the regional lead due to its infrastructure, B2B enterprise landscape and talent pool, he said.
The Republic's games and e-sports market was estimated to have grown 15 per cent between 2019 and last year, with around 220 companies currently, according to the statement from the government agencies. That includes major local players like Sea's Garena Online and start-ups like yup.gg and Storms.
Apart from tournament organisers, broadcast production and new tech platforms, "we can expect to see greater investment focus on e-sports intellectual property owners and platforms to encourage them to base their official e-sports leagues in Singapore", said Ms Elicia Lee, vice-chairman of the Singapore Games Association, the trade association for gaming and e-sports.
As concerns grow over a possible crackdown on China's online gaming industry, South-east Asia is emerging as an alternative destination for investments, in particular for mobile e-sports. Some 87 per cent of the region's gamers play on mobile phones, compared with about 60 per cent in North America and Europe, according to One Esports' in-house analytics team.
As gaming companies seek to capture South-east Asia's rising demand, a slew of regional and global mobile e-sports tournaments have filled Singapore's calendar, including the two world championships this year.
Amid lockdowns, offline tournaments have been supported by the Singapore Tourism Board, which allowed international teams to fly in while ensuring the safety of each competition. For May's Free Fire World Series, 18 teams from 11 regions came to Singapore to compete for a US$2 million (S$2.7 million) prize pool.
That tournament gave "a sense of the global appetite for e-sports content that we can produce here", said Garena vice-president of strategic partnerships Jason Ng. "We're increasingly seeing levels of engagement rivalling those of traditional sports."
Revenue streams for e-sports are largely the same as for traditional sports - sponsorships, advertising, merchandise, ticket sales and media rights - but the pandemic has spurred an influx of brands that want to connect with digital-savvy youth. This mobile-first demographic in Southeast Asia will drive consumption trends, One Esports' Alimurung said.
Singtel, South-east Asia's biggest telecommunications operator, is also getting into e-sports to engage millennials. After starting its own competitive league in 2018, the company expanded its tournaments to a regional scale this year while ramping up investments in mobile-gaming platforms like Storms.
"E-sports and gaming continue to be an important part of Singtel's business strategy as we grow our digital-services offerings to capture new growth areas in the 5G era," said Ms Gan Siok Hoon, Singtel's managing director of consumer sales and mobile marketing.
Singapore's physical e-sports infrastructure is also being upgraded.
The city-state recently opened a 12,000 sq ft e-sports experience centre, with more venues planned, said co-chairman of Esports Entertainment Asia Johnny Ong.
The company intends to build another integrated e-sports venue in Singapore as part of its Asia Venue Fund, with facilities including a multipurpose e-sports arena, e-sports business hotel, themed retail, a training academy and flexible co-working spaces.
"In my 15 years here, e-sports has been through its boom and bust cycles," said Mr Nicholas Khoo, co-founder of the Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association. "Right now this region is about to see rapid acceleration and innovation."
In fact, Olympics aside, Singapore may just get its shot at sporting glory: The next South-east Asian Games, slated to be held some time next year, will recognise e-sports as a medal event sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee - ahead of the rest of the world.