SINGAPORE - When Alaric Choo was competing in real-time strategy game Starcraft II semi-professionally eight years ago, there was little to play for.
Back then, opportunities to make a living from e-sports were scarce. Sponsorships often came in the form of products such as a gaming mouse or keyboard in exchange for having the sponsor's logo on the athletes' attire.
Since then, the e-sports industry has grown rapidly, with international tournaments boasting prize pots worth several millions while market research firm Newzoo estimated that the global e-sports audience will grow to 495 million people in 2020 - an 11.7 per cent increase from 2019.
Singapore has produced several e-sports athletes who have made their mark on a global stage, including Dota 2 player Daryl "iceiceice" Koh, whose total earnings from tournaments exceed $1 million.
Last November, three Singaporeans - Charleston "Scythe" Yeo, Jerome "Response" Kwek and Nicholas "CoupDeAce" Wilson Ng - were part of the Paris Saint-Germain e-sports team of four that won the Brawl Stars World Finals and won US$200,000 (S$265,184).
With more e-sports organisations being set up here and the backing of Government agencies for various e-sports initiatives, the number of opportunities for local players to grow have also increased.
For example, two local teams will compete at the Jan 18-24 M2 World Championship at Shangri-La Hotel Singapore for game title Mobile Legends: Bang Bang. The event, which has a prize pool of US$300,000, is supported by the Singapore Tourism Board (STB).
Choo, who is the co-founder of gaming chair manufacturer SecretLab, said: "You will see the scene has grown in - welfare is much higher and I think that with organisations like this coming up, it's definitely a step in the right direction."
Bridging the gap
While the emergence of various e-sports organisations and Government backing are seen as encouraging signs, some feel that Singapore's e-sports landscape still lags behind those in Asia such as powerhouses South Korea and China.
As compared to these two countries, Singapore still has some way to go to position itself as a destination for major tournaments to take place.
South Korea and China have hosted many prestigious events such as the League of Legends World Championship. The 2018 World Championship held across South Korea - Seoul, Busan, Gwangju, and Incheon - had a prize pool of over US$6 million.
In contrast, one of the biggest events held here was the One Esports Dota 2 Singapore World Pro Invitational in December 2019, when 12 of the world's best teams battled for a share of the US$500,000 prize pool.
The US$1 million Dota 2 Singapore Major by One Esports was also supposed to take place here last June, but the offline event could not be held owing to the pandemic.
Having a clear pathway for talented players to progress so that they see e-sports as a viable career is also something that many feel Singapore can improve on.
South Korea, often seen as an e-sports pioneer, boasts one of the top e-sports ecosystems in the world, which has produced multiple world champions in game titles such as League of Legends and The International, an annual Dota 2 world championship.
Since the first season of the League of Legends World Championship, six titles have gone to teams from South Korea, while Chinese teams have claimed two.
According to an estimate by Newzoo, China has the largest e-sports market by revenue at US$385.1 million, surpassing that of the North America (US$252.8 million).
In a bid to become a leader in e-sports, Shanghai has begun construction of the US$898 million Shanghai International New Cultural and Creative E-sports Centre, an arena where teams and companies can be based and compete.
Zuber Mohammed, chief marketing officer of Singaporean-American gaming company Razer, believes that more cohesiveness is needed within the scene for it to move forward.
He said: "I believe that Singapore can continue to develop the e-sports landscape even further. This includes uniting federations and agencies together as one for the betterment of the industry.
"There are good agencies around, but it is important for them to band together with a single-minded approach. Without a single objective, there will be either overlapping resources or there could be a fragmented approach."
One of the main differences between Singapore and top countries in the region is that gaming is not woven into its culture.
In South Korea, youths spend hours at PC Bangs - gaming cafes where patrons can pay an hourly rate to use facilities - that are scattered across the country.
Last year, China recognised e-sports professionals and e-sports operators as official job titles.
Choo said: "It was many years in the making even back then when I was gaming I think it's probably been like at least eight to nine years ago, the Korean gaming scene was very, very developed so they are leaps and bounds ahead of us, but it's part of the culture as well.
"For us, it's still something that's very unheard of, from a cultural perspective to be doing gaming full-time."
While gaming may not be as prevalent in Singapore as it is in other countries in the region, another one of Singapore's best e-sports athletes, Ho Kun Xian, 30, believes that the perception towards e-sports has improved since he picked up fighting games over two decades ago.
Back then, making a career out of playing fighting games such as Street Fighter was not a thought that crossed Ho's mind.
Ho, who won the 2013 Evolution Championship Series Super Street Fighter IV in Las Vegas and won US$5,600, said: "For fighting games, Singapore has grown a lot since I started gaming when there was no such job as a professional gamer.
"It was just a hobby so we did it because we really liked it. Now, there are a lot of different paths available for it - you can do things like commentate, be a content creator, and that's how you know it's come a really long way."
Building the amateur scene
Zuber believes that developing the amateur gaming landscape is also a key part of growing e-sports locally.
He said: "Since the early days, e-sports was seen as just a marketing tool for the game publishers. Now, the audiences have grown tremendously over time, both online and offline. I think as of now, we are close to 500 million worldwide and the e-sports industry is seen as a professional and legitimate spot.
"But this has resulted in several drawbacks. For example, if the athlete is not part of a professional team, it is hard to gain access to the industry - it is no longer inclusive. Furthermore, the amount of time and training required by the athletes is extremely intensive."
This was what led to the company launching the Razer SEA Invitational from June 26 to July 12, which saw over 500 teams from 10 countries in the region.
Observing that there was a market beyond the professional e-sports circuits, global media network and tournament platform, Esports Players League (ESPL), which is headquartered in Singapore, was founded in August 2019.
The ESPL focuses on creating events and platforms for amateur e-sports players, especially for mobile games.
Leveraging on e-sports' growth during the pandemic
With the Covid-19 pandemic seeing many around the world confined to their homes because of lockdowns, more have turned to e-sports.
Lawrence Chan, managing director of Internet service provider MyRepublic Singapore, believes that this bodes well for the local e-sports scene as it plays catch-up with other countries in the region.
He said: "While Singapore is located right in the region where e-sports was first popularised and continues to grow exponentially, receptiveness to the industry has been somewhat lukewarm as compared to pioneers such as South Korea, up until recently - and further accelerated with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic."
Apart from creating a broadband for gamers, MyRepublic has also organised several regional e-sports tournaments.
The growth of the e-sports industry has also created new job types such as community managers for games and tournament producers, but its nascence means that it may need time to develop individuals with the necessary expertise and skillsets.
Last August, trade association for the gaming and e-sports industry, the Singapore Games Association (SGGA), which is supported by government agencies Enterprise Singapore, Infocomm Media Development Authority and STB, was launched.
SGGA vice-chairman Elicia Lee shared that the association intends to assist those looking to enter the industry through initiatives such as its SGGA Industry Day that it held in August last year, which was a virtual event to find out more about the industry and what it takes to have a career in e-sports. It also held Indie Soapbox sessions - sessions for indie game developers in the community to share about their projects - virtually among other things last year.
SGGA has been working closely with students to match them with internship opportunities in the local games industry and is planning outreach efforts to schools this year.
Lee said: "What SGGA aims to do is to create an environment where our gaming and e-sports companies can flourish, and prepare Singaporeans to fully harness the growth of e-sports. We intend to train and create awareness of the opportunities available across a wide spectrum within the e-sports industry."