Mobile Legend, Starcraft II and Dota II at the SEA Games? You read that right.

05 Dec 2019
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By Colin Koh

At the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the Filoil Flying V Centre in Metro Manila will host a sport never seen before at any major Games.

Within a cavernous sports hall, two teams of players will go head to head, yet remain firmly seated. That’s because instead of competing on a track, a football pitch or a swimming pool, these players are taking the fight to the digital space.

After more than a year of intense lobbying and campaigning, esports will debut as a medal event at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in the Philippines. It signals a monumental breakthrough for the sport, as it makes its first official appearance at a major multi-sport competition.

The EVOS Esports SG team

“This shows how it (esports) is starting to mature as a genre, and how it’s getting wider recognition outside the communities exclusively for gaming,” said Mr Ng Chong Geng, president of the Singapore Esports Association.  “People are starting to recognise that there is a growing population who are participating in esports.”

Singapore will send 20 esports athletes to compete in all six events: Dota 2, Starcraft II, Hearthstone, Tekken 7, Arena of Valor and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, with six gold medals up for grabs.

In the past, gaming used to be viewed with much disdain among the older generations in Singapore, with youths at LAN gaming shops often associated with rebelliousness and addiction. But fast forward to today and this unwholesome image is slowly diminishing.

In recent years, the esports industry has boomed in Southeast Asia. Popular games like Dota 2 and Mobile Legends have held prestigious tournaments in Singapore and Malaysia this year. Arenas are packed with thousands of spectators and are watched by thousands more on livestreaming platforms. International brands like Mercedes-Benz and Acer are pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund these events.

To those who think that esports is not a ‘real’ sport, that it simply involves competitors sitting down and staring at a screen, think again. With games becoming increasingly complex and even unpredictable, it is extremely demanding on both mind and body.

For instance, unlike other sports which are mostly in played in rigid formats, esports matches may change anytime between events as the game updates with new content.

Players would need to adapt to the new challenges and game settings almost instantaneously. Quick wit, split-second thinking, and even lightning-fast reflexes are what sets the best from the rest.

Training for these situations must be equally intense – players put in up to 30 hours a week honing their skills. Like any other sport, it is all about hours of mundane practice and repeated movements.

Alvin “Lobo” Toh

Alvin “Lobo” Toh, who will be representing Singapore in Manila in real-time strategy game Starcraft II, trains nightly on weekdays and the entire weekend. Following a regimental training regime, these sessions are more than just fun and games.

The 26-year-old, who started playing the game in 2011, would watch countless games and replays of top players to mimic what they are doing. Frequent sparring sessions with online opponents allows him to tailor his approach and technique.

“Training is rather repetitive, but when I’m able to execute a plan flawlessly in a tournament because I’ve done it so many times in practice, that sense of accomplishment makes all the work worth it,” he said.

In the Philippines, these athletes will not only be relentlessly clacking away at keyboards, but also furiously tapping their mobile screens. Mobile gaming is a new phenomenon that has also emerged in recent years within the esports field.

Leading this charge will be Mobile Legends captain Robert “OhDeerBambi” Boon, 22. His team, EVOS Esports SG, recently won silver at the South-east Asia Clash of Champions tournament, hosted in Singapore, in May this year. They will be looking to improve on that result in Manila.

Robert “OhDeerBambi” Boon

Boon made the switch from the big screen to a pocket-sized one simply for convenience, and has since found the game to be a better fit. “I like the play style where the matches are much shorter. It’s more action-packed and faster paced,” he said.

With its SEA Games debut, esports is finally gaining some recognition in the world of sports. But there is still more room to grow, pointed out Mr Ng: “There’s still quite a way for it to mature – it doesn’t have the storied history like other sports.

“What we’re trying to grow is the professional attitude, with a more systematic approach about playing the game. A lot of our athletes have fought their ways through with very little support, and we hope to change that with the association.”

For now, the focus is now firmly fixed on winning medals for Singapore. The association has set it sights on three podium finishes in Manila.

In addition to delivering glory, athletes hope that the SEA Games will push esports into a new, more positive definition.

“I hope that this would serve as a platform for us to show the public that the common negative perceptions associated with gaming are just misconceptions, and that there are benefits to it just like other traditional sports,” said Toh.

“Maybe someday esports athletes would be regarded in the same way athletes of traditional sports are.”