Esports tournaments, though entirely virtual, involve lots of real cash.

Reporting
Bjorn Biel Beltran

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Nina M. Diaz
Paolo L. Lopez

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Fortunato V. Dañas

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Criselda R. Valentin

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Sam L. Marcelo




The games are short, just about 10 to 20 frenetic minutes of action each. The mechanics of play are similar to basketball in that there are five people per team and winning requires cooperation and strategy. In a sense, they’re also like boxing, in that each side considers the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses when fine-tuning their formula for success.

Furthering the analogy: like basketball games and boxing matches, the tournaments for Mobile Legends: Bang Bang draw hundreds of enthusiastic spectators, fans wearing the shirts of their favorite teams, chanting the names of their favorite players. Such was the case at the grand finals of the recently concluded second season of the Mobile Legends Professional League (MPL), held at Ayala Malls Circuit in Makati City on January 12 and 13.

And like basketball games and boxing matches, these contests involve real cash with real trophies. The winners of the MPL took home over $25,000—over a million pesos—in prizes. But unlike basketball and boxing, the sport of Mobile Legends is entirely virtual.

As the name suggests, the game is played on mobile phones: it is a free-to-play app available on the Apple Store and Google Play. Developed by Chinese developer Shanghai Moonton Technology, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang is a multiplayer online battle arena, where the objective is to destroy lest ye be destroyed. It has become one of the world’s most popular games, with tens of millions of players across countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia “laning, jungling, and tower rushing” to victory since it was released in 2016.

Here in the Philippines, Mobile Legends is one of the first mobile games to have garnered a competitive esports following. In organizing the MPL Grand Finals, Marlon Marcelo, country manager of MET Events, the event-organizing arm of Mineski Corporation, the largest esports organization in Southeast Asia, told BusinessWorld that they had to book a separate viewing area outside the main arena to accommodate the massive number of people who showed up to watch.

“Five or six years ago, you wouldn’t imagine a mobile game drawing this kind of crowd,” he said, almost shouting over the passionate cheers of the crowd after the event.

 

A BILLION DOLLARS BY 2020

Indeed, around a decade ago, esports, or organized competitive gaming, barely existed in the Philippines. Despite the mounting presence of esports associations like Major League Gaming in the US, or the Electronic Sports World Convention, many video game tournaments in the country had been largely amateur, held within the confines of the local computer shops and internet cafes that dot Metro Manila.

“At the time, it was very hard to see esports as what it is now. Before, eight or ten years ago, there were no big events in the Philippines,” Mr. Marcelo said, noting that the general attitude toward video games at the time was outright dismissal.

People were not sold, he said, on the idea that video games could become anything other than a pastime that was either an enjoyable—if unproductive—hobby between friends at best or an addictive blight on the youth at worst. Despite predictions that the industry will become a billion-dollar business by 2020, with an estimated audience of over 380 million viewers all over the globe, the stigma of video games remains a rather prickly concern.

That so many students were spending so much time in computer shops to play video games lends a semblance of credibility to such negative views on gaming. According to an exploratory study published in the International Journal of Cyber Society and Education in 2012, 73% of internet cafe customers in Manila were found to be students.

The study, titled “Pattern of Internet Usage in Cyber Cafes in Manila,” found that 72% of those surveyed had attained or were pursuing a college degree, and 20% had finished or were still in high school. Presumably, a number of such students were playing video games at the expense of their studies.

“For now, the main challenge is educating everyone that esports is becoming an actual sport,” Mr. Marcelo said, adding that Mineski has been an avid proponent of responsible gaming since its inception.

“You can be successful and be a gamer at the same time. It doesn’t mean that if you’re a gamer, you’re a loser or an addict, or you’re not successful in life. That is a very big misconception. Gaming is not equivalent to addiction, and gaming can be done right,” he added.

It was because of this stigma that Katrina Flores-Doctolero, head of project management at gaming-and-esports-event-organizing firm Gariath Concepts, expressed her excitement at how far the esports industry has grown in just a few years.

“It feels like we are now a legitimate kind of sport as opposed to before,” she told BusinessWorld following the conclusion of a separate NBA2K esports event that her company organized. “Esports is not just about gaming—it’s about the passion of the individual gamers who team up and make it something bigger. I think it will take time, but we’re getting there.

Ultimately, it was through companies like Gariath Concepts and Mineski that esports gained its foothold in the country. In the early 2010s, when small internet cafes started holding their own tournaments for games like Dota 2 and Counter-Strike, Ms. Doctolero said they saw an opportunity for esports to become something bigger.

“Of course, at first we didn’t see it as becoming something nationwide,” she added, admitting that it took time for them to realize the untapped potential of esports. “We only made events for very specific games in very specific locations, mostly in Metro Manila.”

Today, Gariath Concepts organizes the Esports and Gaming Summit (ESGS), one of the largest combined gaming and esports activities in the country, held at the SMX Convention Center in SM Mall Of Asia. This year, the company is also organizing the inaugural season of The Nationals, the first franchise-based electronic sports league in the Philippines, sponsored by the MVP Group of Companies.

Since opening in 2004, Mineski, for its part, organized grassroots tourneys that grew along with its empire of Mineski Infinity cybercafes. Moreover, the company had been one of the first to sponsor a professional esports team in the country.

“From small cybercafe events from Mineski Infinity, we slowly garnered the industry’s trust and earned the community’s belief that Mineski Events Team is an event organizer that actually cares for the players, the sponsors, and everyone we deal with,” Mr. Marcelo said. “Slowly, it grew and grew. One of the crowning glories of our organization was within the last two years we were able to host an event in SM Mall of Asia Arena called The Manila Masters.”

The Manila Masters was one of the biggest Dota 2 competitions in the world that Mineski hosted with the Electronic Sports League, with participants from the United States, Europe, and China, and a prize pool of $250,000, or over P13 million. In 2018, Mineski also partnered with Globe Telecom to launch the Philippine Pro Gaming League, a nationwide esports tournament featuring three major esports titles.

The growth in business was accompanied, or perhaps driven, by the success of Filipino gamers in esports tournaments all over the world. TNC Predator, the professional gaming team of Philippine net cafe chain TheNet.Com, placed first in the Southeast Asia Qualifiers at the 2016 season of the Dota 2 tournament, The International, the first Philippine team to do so since Mineski in 2011.

Recently, they took home top prize at the 2018 World Electronic Sports Games Southeast Asian Dota 2 Finals after defeating a Malaysian team. At the same event the year before, Euniel “Staz” Javiñas emerged as the champion for the digital competitive card game Hearthstone.

In the fighting game scene, a Filipino player named Andreij “Doujin” Albar stunned the world by defeating the long-time Tekken 7 champion Jin-woo “Saint” Choi from South Korea at the locally held Rage Art tournament in 2017. Meanwhile, Filipino teams Bren Esports and Digital Devils Professional Gaming were making their names in international tournaments of Mobile Legends.

LEGITIMACY AND COMMUNITY

The Philippine Games and Amusement Board (GAB), under the Office of the President, allowed professional esports players to secure athletic licenses in 2017, giving it the same legitimacy as conventional sports. The move aims to give esports players more freedom to participate in international tournaments to represent the country. In the past, Philippine teams have been forced to drop out of international tournaments because players were unable to secure travel visas and were subsequently barred from leaving the country.

Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aguirre Aquino IV, an ardent supporter of Philippine esports, welcomed GAB’s decision.

“We’re very happy that these athletes are now legitimized and recognized by the Games and Amusement Board,” Mr. Aquino said in a statement. “We hope to continue developing the esports industry in the Philippines and supporting our professional gamers as they represent the Philippines.”

The government’s move to legitimize the industry is nothing if not timely. At the 30th SEA Games this year, which the Philippines will host this November, six esports titles will be included as medal events. Following that, there are talks of esports becoming official medal sport for the 2022 Asian Games.

The development of esports has been organic, as far as Ms. Doctolero is concerned. “One factor [of esports’ growth in the Philippines] is the community itself. The Filipino gaming community is very supportive with these kinds of events,” she said.

Moreover, she said the developers of esports titles have been more than keen to nurture local competitive scenes. Ms. Doctolero said that American developers like Valve Corporation for Dota 2 and Riot Games for League of Legends have in the past expressed their commitment to helping the homegrown communities that have risen around their games.

“The community is very passionate about gaming and we want it not only to be competitive but also something that is celebrated by all gamers,” she said.

Added Mr. Marcelo: “Surely, we’re very optimistic of what’s going to happen in esports especially here in our country… More and more people are getting involved. More and more people are seeing that this is not a bad career, and government recognition is coming into light. Schools and universities are recognizing what esports is, and I feel that the future is very bright for this industry.”

Granted, the Philippines may lag behind countries like South Korea or the US in terms of the support it gives to its esports community. But all things considered, things are just beginning.

“It’s a good start,” Ms. Doctolero said.