Tech

How Philippine Esports Went from Neighborhood Cybercafés to the SEA Games

It's the first time athletes will receive international sporting medals for competitive video gaming.
IMAGE Courtesy of Mineski / Gariath Concepts
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While the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, which will be held in the Philippines from November 30 to December 11, has so far received the most buzz from its questionable logo, it’s also going to make history as the first Olympics-sanctioned international sporting competition to feature electronic sports (esports) as a medal event.

Last November, the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee (PHISGOC) and multinational gaming firm Razer Inc. announced that esports will be offering six gold medals in the 30th SEA Games. In the weeks that followed, it revealed five of the six video games that are shortlisted for the event.

PHISGOC announced that esports will be a medal event at the SEA Games last November 2018.

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IMAGE: Courtesy of Razer

For mobile, medals will be offered for Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Arena of Valor. For PC, athletes will compete over Dota 2 and StarCraft II. And for console, only Tekken 7 has been announced so far, with the second title still being finalized.

“What is most significant this time around is its recognition as a full medal event at an established international sporting event like the 2019 Southeast Asian Games, which brings esports to mainstream audiences for the first time in history, alongside traditional sports like athletics and aquatics,” said David Tse, global esports director of Razer, in an e-mail interview with Esquire Philippines.

“This announcement is the result of many years of hard work and it’s the latest milestone in our long-running quest to boost the global status of esports,” he added.

Where it started

It’s hard to pinpoint how competitive video gaming was introduced to the Philippines, but we do know that it’s been around since the last decade. Ronald Robins, founder of cybercafé chain Mineski, formed his first Dota 2 team back in 2003, and he had already been competing in local and international gaming tournaments by then.

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In a speech at an April 2018 conference, Robins revealed that when his team competed in Dota 2 tournaments abroad back then, he noticed how largely outmatched Filipino players were compared to other nationalities. He credited this as the main reason why he transitioned from a professional gamer into a businessman, opening the first Mineski Infinity cybercafé in 2008.

It's a result of years of hard work from the esports industry, which established its roots locally through cybercafé chains like Mineski Infinity.

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IMAGE: Courtesy of Mineski

“When I experienced traveling in Thailand and Malaysia, I told myself, bakit parang ang gagaling nila tapos ang hihina ng Pinoy?” he shared in the conference. “So then and there I realized that something needs to be done for a Filipino to raise a championship trophy.”

By then, another local cybercafé chain was already starting to gain some traction—Eric Redulfin’s The Net Café or TNC, which opened its first branch the year prior. Both Mineski and TNC started with branches that were right next to universities, making them a big hit for college students who wanted to play competitive PC games in between and after their classes.

Over a decade later, both businesses have grown a network of over 100 Internet café locations in the Philippines. Both have also opened branches in neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Global recognition

Mineski and TNC aren’t the only cybercafé chains in the country giving local players the venue to hone their esports skills, but the two are major reasons for getting the Philippines on the radar of the global esports community.

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Today, over 30 million Filipinos are gamers, while around 17 million watch esports tournaments online.

IMAGE: Courtesy of Mineski

Aside from their Internet café business, both Robins and Redulfin established their own professional esports teams under the Mineski Pro Teams and TNC Pro Team brands respectively. Both organizations compete in various international tournaments of several competitive video games, and started getting attention because of their performance in the Dota 2 tournament scene.

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Both teams have already taken home championship trophies in prestigious Dota 2 tournaments, with Mineski placing first in the 2018 Dota 2 Asian Championships and TNC emerging as the winner of the 2016 World Electronic Sports Games. As well, the two teams placed within the top 20 of The International 2018, a global Dota 2 tournament with a total prize pool of $25.5 million (P1.3 billion), the largest for any esports event ever.

Local popularity

While Mineski and TNC are bringing Filipino pride to the global competitive gaming scene, the large and continuously growing number of local esports fans hasn’t escaped the radar of the industry.

“There is an estimated count of over 30 million gamers here in the Philippines,” revealed Joebert Yu, president of the Esports National Association of the Philippines (ESNAP) and managing partner of local esports event organizer Gariath Concepts. He's also part of the organizing committee of PHISGOC. “In terms of the players, or people who are actively joining tournaments, it could easily reach tens of thousands spread across different esports genres.”

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Moreover, a survey by Digital in 2019 showed that 23 percent of Filipino Internet users watch esports tournaments online every month, translating to over 17.4 million people. That figure grows to 42 percent when talking about Filipinos who watch live streams of gamers online.

Because of this, the Philippines has hosted several world-class esports events in the last few years. Some are sponsored by global esports organizations such as Electronic Sports League (ESL), while others are locally produced such as Gariath Concepts’ annual Electronic Sports and Gaming Summit (ESGS), which claims to be one of the largest esports conventions in Southeast Asia.

Getting to the SEA Games

For Yu, these two factors are what led the local esports scene to grow large enough to get on the radar of international sporting organizations. And with esports having recently been featured as a demonstration event in the 2018 Asian Games, the push to make esports a medal event in the 2019 SEA Games became much stronger.

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“All of these events showed the world just how huge the support and community for esports here in the country and has led to many people within the industry, from fans to companies and brands, to dream big and do big,” he told Esquire Philippines in an e-mail interview.

Yu also pointed out how the entry of a global gaming brand such as Razer was critical in getting esports into the SEA Games. On Razer’s part, Tse believes that the company’s collaboration with PHISGOC and gaming publishers are what made it possible to elevate the status of esports.

“The close collaboration between all parties empowers us to lead the conversation with industry federations and stakeholders, challenging the boundaries and establishing the fundamentals for esports to be recognized as a medal event,” said Tse.

The huge popularity of esports events in the country, such as Gariath Concepts' ESGS, paved the way for its inclusion in this year's SEA Games.

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IMAGE: Courtesy of Gariath

Taking it seriously

Before becoming a medal event, the esports industry overcame a lot of assumptions, stigmas, and challenges to get to where it is today.

“There are people who still treat not just esports but also video games as taboo,” admitted Yu. “This makes it difficult for them to understand the positive aspects of esports [as] they focus on the youth getting hooked into playing them (i.e., addiction).”

Yu is referring to the World Health Organization’s decision to recognize video game addiction as a medical disorder, validating several years’ worth of complaints, fears, and concerns about gaming as a whole.

On the professional level, esports has also come a long way in getting recognized as an actual sport. Tse said that the argument “is not without precedent. For decades, people have been arguing about whether chess, motor racing, or even card games are real sports.”

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But both Yu and Tse are optimistic that esports’ inclusion into an international sporting event such as the SEA Games is a big step forward in addressing these negative views on gaming. Its rise in prominence allows it to be held in the same regard as physical sports.

“As more events are being hosted in the country, more people are finally accepting esports for what it is and are now supporting it,” said Yu. “It can be now considered in the same caliber with actual sports being shown on TV to the new generation.”

Six medals will be given out for esports in the 2019 SEA Games, with two each for PC games, console games, and mobile games.

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IMAGE: Courtesy of Gariath

Tse also argued that esports athletes are comparable to their traditional counterparts, even if they’re taking part in what’s perceived as a non-physically-demanding activity.

“The mental and physical pressure that esports demands of its athletes clearly places it in the realm of competitive sport,” he said. “The best players possess a potent combination of sporting attributes: mental focus and lightning fast reflexes to stay ahead of your foes, stamina to endure hours-long tournaments, and the strategic teamwork and fighting spirit required for victory, just to name a few.”

Locally, the popularity of esports and video games has also caught on outside the competitive scene. Earlier this year, De La Salle University launched the John Gokongwei, Jr. Innovation Center in partnership with game developer Ubisoft, which offers bachelor’s degrees in game development and design.

Fearless forecasts

While it remains to be seen how esports will play out in the 2019 SEA Games, both Yu and Tse are already looking forward to how its status as a medal event in an international sporting competition will affect the growth of the industry.

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“It's going to be an exciting learning experience on how these ideas can be refined further for everyone that is involved,” said Yu of its inclusion in the SEA Games. “It won’t be long until more sporting events will feature esports as part of their main feature and we are seeing a bright future ahead.”

As for whether or not will see esports athletes in the Olympic level? Tse has high hopes.

“We are confident that we can take esports to even bigger stages in the near future, such as the Commonwealth Games and even the Olympics,” he said.

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Lorenzo Kyle Subido
Lorenzo Kyle Subido is a staff writer for Esquire Philippines.
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