As eSports begins to gain recognition locally as a competitive sport that merits the same prestige, sponsorship and prizes as traditional sports, are Malaysian athletes willing to stay or will they find their fortunes abroad?
eSports has reached a tipping point, its prize pool and prestige now matching that of popular sporting leagues.
Recently, eSports has begun featuring alongside traditional sporting disciplines, being a demonstration sport at the Asian Games 2018, and in talks as a demonstration sport at the upcoming 2024 Olympics.
A demonstration sport means medals won would not be counted in the official overall medal tally, but the acknowledgement is still valuable as a test run for eSports in a new setting.
The Olympic Council of Asia did confirm eSports would be added as an official discipline in the Asian Games 2022 in Hangzhou, China.
Whatever traditional sports purists may think of eSports, the sheer viewership and sponsorship means these videogame-based sports are also offering the biggest prizes.
The prize pool for The International’s 2017 for Dota 2 (Defense Of The Ancients) was US$24.7mil (RM103.32mil), compared to football’s Confederations Cup 2017 at US$20mil (RM83.66mil) and golf’s the Masters 2017 at US$11mil (RM46.01mil).
Malaysia got a reminder of just how large eSports prize pots were, when Malaysian athlete Yap Jian Wei’s team PSG.LGD won US$4.1mil (RM16.82mil) for placing second at The International 2018 Dota2 Championship in August.
According to eSportsEarning.com, the win skyrocketed him to become the highest earning eSports athlete in Malaysia, making about US$1.073mil (RM4.49mil) in 2018 alone.
In a recent interview with The Star, he said eSports in Malaysia is still growing and not at a level where players can sustain their careers, especially for new gamers breaking into the scene.
A pro gamer since 2013, he has been playing full-time since finishing his foundation course at Sunway University.
“It is really difficult for new players to earn a living now in Malaysia, that’s why we see a lot of potential players joining overseas teams, mostly in China,” says Yap, who is the only Malaysian in the China-based PSG.LGD team.
Like Yap, many of the top earning players in Malaysia made their fortunes as part of foreign teams that played in Dota 2 (Defense Of The Ancients) tournaments.
Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation (MDEC) creative content and technologies vice president Hasnul Hadi Samsudin admits brain drain is a valid concern, with parallels to Malaysia’s loss of game developers to Singapore following the opening of a subsidiary of French videogame publisher Ubisoft there.
He said it took nearly four years of pushing by MDEC to make Malaysian talents see there were opportunities here too and draw them home.
“To support eSports, we would need an ecosystem, not just of players, but managers and coaches for the teams,” he says.
He found another issue to be that most eSports players tend to be very young, and some are below the age where they could legally decide things for themselves, instead requiring their parents’ permission.
Here, the stereotype of the strict Asian parent persists especially among rural parents, who might not be familiar with the developments in the eSports industry.
“It’s easier for kids in a central area, who have more access to games or even parents who used to game too themselves,” he says.
He says the Government needs to play a role in helping parents understand the opportunities eSports could provide plus educate them about healthy gaming.
He suggested that the Youth and Sports Ministry could also work with eSports organisations to give them a sense of legitimacy and structure, which could attract private industry to sponsor the events.
The macro look
Media Prima Digital group general manager Nicholas Sagau Tony Ngimat, whose area of focus includes digital innovation and eSports, suggests that the Ministry should act as a central pillar to govern or guide the various industry stakeholders, and that a grassroots league system be developed to get participation from rural players and also award them the points they would need to be invited to qualifying matches for international tournaments.
He says there is a lack of structure in the Malaysian scene, with different organisers all taking their own approaches to promoting eSports.
He points out that there were 18 different tournaments around Malaysia, all on the same weekend, recently.
“If we don’t come together, this will all just die as hype,” he warns, adding that a fragmented market was not attractive for sponsors and investors.