Esports. What feeling does that conjure up in you? The thrill of the rush? Excitement? Or perhaps somewhere at the other end of the spectrum like disdain? Whatever it is, you’re probably either on one side or the other, with fewer people sitting in the middle on the subject.
As a multi-million dollar subset of a billion-dollar industry, there isn’t any doubt that esports isn’t huge. The sport itself has attracted a worldwide audience of around 400 million – close to competing with traditional sports – as well as garnering close to a billion dollars in revenue, mostly through brand investments and sponsors. With the audience growth rate averaging about 15 per cent year-over-year and total revenue itself having an average of over 30% in growth, it really is a no-brainer to get involved in it.
But yet, unlike the die-hard fanaticism seen in traditional sports like football or basketball, Singapore has been somewhat partial to the rapidly growing industry, despite it being located well-within the region that made it popular in the first place; South Korea, in particular, being the pioneers in that respect during the early days of the sport as the 2010s rolled in.
That’s not to say that it has not been growing in the country. In fact, more companies are getting into bed with organizers of tournaments, government bodies are getting involved and there’s been a marked increase in media coverage on esports news, reported even by traditional media. All of them with the sole purpose of tapping into the lucrative industry.
The rise in involvement is something that is of particular interest to Ampverse’s Co-founder and Chief Commercial Officer Charlie Baillie, who recently launched his company here in Singapore in order to engage and develop top gaming talent in the Southeast Asia region.
“It’s great to see government bodies and the media giving esports a platform to shine. This type of support helps bring it further into the mainstream and away from the legacy perceptions of it being a fringe form of entertainment,” said Mr Baillie.
“From our perspective – we see our role in championing gaming influencers and esports teams, working together with them to further enhance their brand potential and maximise their influence.” Mr Baillie continued, “This increased market awareness helps with that education process which we can leverage positively.”
All of this is mostly due in part to the reveal that esports making its debut in the 30th Southeast Asian Games back in November 2018; the announcement causing a fervour in Singapore that has led to an increase in esports-centric events being introduced to the country, such as the Esports Festival Asia. You’ll even see cabinet ministers at these events, like Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who herself graced YouthX Campus Game Fest back in August (pardon the pun).
But while the sport has never been bigger as it is right now, the general perception gleaned from the public is one that is in contrast to that rise. Sure, you’ll be able to find a few fans who will wax lyrical about the player or team they support, but more often than not, there’s a dismissive tone when talking about the subject in general, even from people who identify themselves as gamers.
A lot of this has to do with the culture of within Singapore. While the sentiment that gaming is detrimental has lessened somewhat, with modern parenting relaxing its stance on the subject, a person spending their time hunched over a computer at a LAN shop is one that is still strongly discouraged today. Singapore is built upon hard work and meritocracy as the populus would say, and the dark, enclosed and almost mind control-like imagery that the LAN shop evokes does not align with those beliefs.
The thing is, that is exactly how the love of esports is bred. It is cultivated from a growing involvement within a community that shares a love of a particular game, starting from talking about with friends to eventually cheering on your favourite team that is competing in a competition. This is why LAN shops are commonly cited as an important cog in the journeys of professional esports players; it is a facilitator in the process of introducing a person to a wider community.
LAN shops have ostensibly been made into a villain. And since esports has such close ties with it, it too is a victim of this consequence.
The notion that being a professional esports player can be considered a respectable job is treated even worse than supporting esports. Singapore has always been a country that is career-oriented, and with it comes the desire to project “success” through one’s image.
Though work attires have evolved to become more relaxed and even trendy in some regard, the traditional white collar attire is still typically seen as the barometer for career success.
Juxtapose that with the almost stereotypical “gamer” uniform of professional esports players, and it is clear to see the disparity between the two. Sad to say, but hoodies plastered with logos of numerous sponsors simply do not evoke the image of success, comfortable as they may be to wear.
With that being said, there is a degree of truth seeded in the accusation that professional esports is not a viable job. The players from worldwide take the headlines with the multi-million dollar winnings while Singapore players are way down lower the ladder, though admittedly with a respectable million with change.
The problem really is seen when you focus your attention solely on Singaporean players. Yes, the top player earned a million dollars, but the person following him barely exceeds the $200,000 mark. And this disparity carries on further down the line, which is worrisome.
The combination of these two aspects is probably why professional esports is still scoffed at by people. And this will no doubt affect the professional players that we currently have.
Mr Baillie, however, is not fazed by the earnings gap, feeling that the exploits of players from well-known competitions have exaggerated the true number, explaining: “Despite the noise of multi-million dollar player winnings from events like the Fortnite World Cup or International Dota 2 championship, those numbers are far from the reality for most players.”
The upsurge in interest makes it all the more intriguing. We Singaporeans love competition; we crave it in fact. Olympics, Commonwealth and yes, SEA games are always magnets for public, media and government attention. It makes for an excellent stage to finally reverse the opinions of the medium.
As mentioned before, efforts have at least been noticeable, with the inclusion of esports in more public events. Inclusivity, a problem that plagues esports worldwide, is also being addressed here, with more female players being put center stage to drive up enthusiasm and encourages a wider variety of audiences to come together and enjoy the show.
But will this prove to be a flash in the pan once the competition ends? After all, we lose attention just as rapidly as soon as a medal is no longer up for grabs. The impetus is on organisations to continue the positive momentum in order to keep it in the public’s mindset. It is hard to determine if the current efforts are being made solely to profit upon the vehicle that the SEA Games has provided, cutting loose as soon as the competition ends.
For Ampverse at least, there are no plans at abandoning the scene, with Mr Baillie hinting at future plans to help cultivate the next generation of talent that are yet to be unearthed here in Singapore.
“We’ll soon be announcing the launch of our talent management arm, to partner with and develop existing teams as well as form new teams over time. We are very much focused on Southeast Asia and part of our vision is helping these gamers understand the benefits and process of gaming at a competitive level.”
In order for Singapore to truly reverse the line of thinking for esports, the current issues that present within the industry need to be ironed out first. A major one is inclusivity, where esports is still very much male-dominated and of which major attention is only given to certain genres like MOBAs.
Female-only tournaments have already started sprouting up, while more games are also on show as opposed to the usual showings of Dota 2 and LoL; an initiative that Mr Baille hopes his company can continue towards.
“You are absolutely correct that the players and audiences are more diverse than many are aware of. From our perspective, we are a talent-driven business that is focused on supporting and developing the best content creators and esports players regardless of genre or gender across the region,” he said.
“There are many great female esports players and engaging content creators, and on our end, we will continue to identify that talent, help support their career development and showcase them to the world.”
Mr Baille also had a hopeful outlook on the future of the sport, exhibiting optimism in the face of negative perception.
“Esports is not a new industry given the fact that it has been around for decades, with competitive gaming being held as early as the 1970s. Those involved from the start have had to deal with tremendous negative press and public perception for some time. And yet despite all that, the passion for gaming still stood its ground.
Fast forward to today and we can see that way thinking already changing for the better, though more can certainly be done. For example, continued investment into building a healthy ecosystem that includes investment into the mental and physical well-being of players, development of neutral governing bodies and an increasingly professional service layer to connect the different constituents within the industry.
I’m confident that as more people experience the live and visceral nature of an esports event and see what a great social event it can be with friends or families, they will increasingly see it on par with a live traditional sporting or entertainment experience.”