SINGAPORE - All around the world, stadiums and sports arenas have fallen silent in recent months with the coronavirus pandemic bringing major sports leagues and events to a standstill.
With mainstream sports such as football, tennis and golf on hiatus, and as many countries place their citizens in lockdown or shelter-in-place notices, many are turning to e-sports and gaming as an alternative - whether as a participant or spectator.
Twitch, one of the world's biggest streaming platforms for gamers, is estimated to have grown its audience by 31 per cent in March. Steam, a video game digital distribution service, hit an all-time record of concurrent users on April 3 and 4, with over 24 million users.
In Singapore, local e-sports organisation Team Flash, whose athletes are streaming content on Facebook, said it has seen viewership triple since the pandemic started.
According to e-sports analytics and market research firm Newzoo, global e-sports revenues will grow to US$1.1 billion (S$1.57 billion) in 2020, a 15.7 per cent growth from the previous year.
That fast growing trajectory is set to be accelerated by the Covid-19 outbreak, said experts.
Sahiba Puri, senior analyst at market research firm Euromonitor International told The Straits Times: "The e-sports industry has been able to show a level of resilience in these times largely due to the format in which it operates. The number of people engaging in sports, whether as players or viewers, has grown drastically during the past few months.
"The extent of viewership, fan engagement and a sense of community that sports offers is its unique selling point. This serves as a key differentiator from more traditional forms of sporting entertainment."
GROWING THE S'PORE LANDSCAPE
Those in the local scene believe that the rising popularity of e-sports and gaming can help raise its profile here.
Game developer, publisher and e-sports tournament organiser Riot Games soft launched its newest game, Legends of Runeterra, on March 11, close to two months before its official launch on Friday. Since then, it has seen close to a 500 per cent growth in the total number of trials in Singapore.
The Republic is a key market for Riot Games, and its head of e-sports for South-east Asia, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Mr Chris Tran, said: "The Singaporean gamer is very discerning. They're always a little bit forward thinking and want to know what the next big thing is.
"If something is great and Singaporean players like really like it then we'll probably have something that will be universally adored."
More local firms are also jumping on the bandwagon, with telecommunications company Singtel also entering the landscape. In 2018, it launched PVP Esports, a multi-game, multi-country e-sports competition. The two PVP community leagues drew over 2,000 gamers from across South-east Asia and 1.4 million online views last year and more than 50,000 attended the regional grand finals at Singapore Comic Con last December.
Arthur Lang, chief executive officer of Singtel's International Group, said: "The global appeal of e-sports is undeniable. In Singapore, there has been a lot of interest in e-sports over the past few years, especially after it was introduced as a medal sport for the first time at the 2019 SEA Games.
"Given our local infrastructure and strong industry and community support, we expect this interest to continue growing exponentially and put us in good stead to become a focal point for gaming and sports in the region."
Professional Fifa e-sports player Muhammad "Pog_Denixl" Yazid welcomes the rising interest, saying: "It's brilliant for the scene, it helps e-sports thrive. Especially the athletes because it also leads to the rise in prize pools."
E-SPORTS SLOWED BY PANDEMIC
But e-sports has not been immune to the effects of the pandemic. While some events have been shifted online, major gaming competitions are usually held in arenas, resulting in loss in revenue and sponsors.
The Overwatch League cancelled all of its live events last month and announced that it would be playing out its entire 2020 season online. Last year's Overwatch League Grand Finals held at Wells Fargo Centre in Pennsylvania, United States, drew 12,000 fans and 1.12 million viewers per minute online.
But unlike mainstream sports, professional gaming has more leeway to continue.
In the absence of live games, traditional sports leagues and teams are now trying their hand at e-sports. Formula One flagged off its virtual Grand Prix on Sunday (April 26), while the Bundesliga organised a 'Bundesliga Home Challenge', a Fifa20 tournament involving e-sports professionals and footballers such as Borussia Dortmund's Achraf Hakimi.
English footballers Raheem Sterling and Trent Alexander-Arnold have also played virtual games in the Fifa20 ePremier League Invitational Tournament.
Locally, Tampines Rovers midfielder Joel Chew paired up with Team Flash's e-sports player Armaan Gani to win last Friday's Stay and Play Asian Series 2020, a friendly Fifa20 quadrangular tournament involving Japan, Chinese Taipei and Malaysia.
HOW TO GROW E-SPORTS HERE
In recent years, Singapore has notched several milestones in e-sports, including two medals - a bronze and silver in Hearthstone and Starcraft II respectively - at last year's SEA Games in the Philippines, where e-sports made its bow.
As interest soars, e-sports could attract more investments, which would be crucial to growing the local landscape.
Nicholas Khoo, chairman of the Singapore Cybergames and Online Gaming Association (Scoga), said: "The ecosystem should grow if these investments are properly managed and directed, and it will benefit individual talents more directly.
"Singapore has a chance to take global leadership because of the long-term work that we provide in long-term development."
But other countries in the region are quickly catching up or surpassing Singapore with the rise in mobile gaming. According to Newzoo, South-east Asia's mobile games market raked in revenues of $2.6 billion last year, a 17.4 per cent growth from the previous year.
Team Flash chief executive officer Terence Ting, who also works with players in Vietnam, believes that the local e-sports community would benefit from having a local league, which they have in Vietnam.
He said: "The difference is Singapore is there isn't a proper league system or tournament schedule for fans to really follow. It's a bit hard to build interest in the sport.... bring up new faces."
Public perception of e-sports also remains a problem. Some are dismissive of competitive gaming as they think it is for addicts who spend most of their time in front of their computers.
NOT 'A WASTE OF TIME'
When professional Dota 2 player Wong "NutZ" Jeng Yih, 30, tried to make a career out of e-sports while he was studying, his pursuits were deemed as a waste of time.
He eventually ventured out of Singapore, joining Korean side MVP.Phoenix in 2014 for a year.
Wong, who is part of Team Reality Rift, said: "It was not justifiable for the energy and time spent on the games as people around me were thinking I was wasting time."
E-sports athletes often follow training programmes which include a strict dietary plan and gym workouts, before a competition.
Jayf Soh, CEO of local e-sports organisation Resurgence said: "You don't just continually play the game - you have to watch other people, understand the maths behind certain skill shots and there is research that has to be done."
Some local e-sports players have even made their mark internationally, with 2018 Dota 2 Asian champion Daryl "iceiceice" Koh topping Singapore's money chart with over US$1.5 million in prize money.
A key part of educating the public lies in developing role models, said Yip Ren Kai, a former national water polo player who is the managing director of sports marketing agency Reddentes Sports, which organised the inaugural SEA Clash of Champions Mobile Legends: Bang Bang tournament last year.
He added: "We need role models so that parents better understand what e-sports is, so that they don't just think that their child will play 20 hours a day. It spikes the interest of the community to compete too."
Making sure that there are clear pathways for e-sports players is also important in Singapore's pragmatic society.
Scoga's academy engages about 500 participants annually and its programmes cover topics such as tips to play certain games better, and casting classes to equip participants with a range of skills.
In collaboration with Informatics Academy, Scoga launched Singapore's first diploma in e-sports and game design in 2018.
Team Flash is partnering with Safra to set up a nation-wide academy, and Ting said: "We want to show the bigger picture, that there are careers in e-sports as well."
This article has been edited for clarity.