Meet the Malaysian female esports pioneers who are breaking boundaries

The Malaysian contingent snapped up four medals at the 32nd SEA Games. — Photos: Team Haq

Still revelling in their success at the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia this May, bronze medallists for the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) Women’s Category, Sharifah Alia Husna Syed Fakrrurozi aka Aria and Vanessa Natasha Abdullah aka Bunny, have been far from just resting on their laurels and instead are busy training daily for any upcoming opportunities that may arise.

Ladies tournaments are scarce in these parts, so Aria and Bunny want to be prepared when anything turns up.

“In Malaysia, there are hardly enough tournaments for us ladies to compete in, especially if we want to make gaming our main vocation,” says Bunny.

“We also definitely need more experience competing in tournaments if we want to stand a chance against gamers from Indonesia and the Philippines.”

Aria agrees wholeheartedly, saying that there was very little differentiating the Malaysian team from the gold and silver medallists in terms of micro or macro skills at the SEA Games.

“But when it came to experience, we were clearly outmatched. Indonesia and the Philippines are so much more developed in terms of their esports infrastructure, and so their players – even the women – are at an advantage.

“I feel if we had more experience, we would have been able to do much better at the Games,” says Aria, who at the time of this interview was busy training for the Unipin Ladies Series SEA Championship.

In fact, the ladies are so heavily invested in training that it’s hard to get a moment for an interview.

“From Mondays to Fridays, training is compulsory; then on either Saturday or Sunday, we often choose to go in for an extra training session. Effectively, this means we get just one day off every week!

“We usually start playing at about 4pm, then have a dinner break at about 7pm and resume an hour later, until about midnight every day.

“We spend time watching others play, practising our own games, and meeting with our coaches, who evaluate our gameplay and suggest new strategies.

“There are, of course, a lot of different formations and strategies that you can employ, so we’re constantly learning. Games can be completed in just six minutes or go on for as long as half an hour,” Aria shares about what a day in training would usually be like when LevelUp managed to catch her online.

Bunny and Aria (standing, from left) are part of Team Haq, and esports team named after owner Aiman Haq.Bunny and Aria (standing, from left) are part of Team Haq, and esports team named after owner Aiman Haq.

Aria and Bunny are both part of Team Haq, a Malaysian esports team named after owner Aiman Haq that has both men’s and women’s squads.

Aria and Bunny’s expertise lies in MLBB, a mobile multiplayer online battle arena game where two teams battle to destroy each other’s bases while using unique hero characters.

There are five players on a team, each with his or her own role and job task.

Bunny says that she likes MLBB because of its gameplay.

“I used to play Dota during my teen years, and I think Dota and MLBB’s concepts are pretty similar. MLBB is also active when it comes to tournaments here in Malaysia, so we have a better chance to show off our skills and talent and compete against each other.”The “ExpLaner” on her team, Bunny, 31, has been active in esports for the last half decade.

“In the beginning, I would join male teams because there were no ladies teams, and I started out with small tournaments. “Along the way, I bumped into a few talented female players and decided to form a team. Since then, I have been actively participating in every ladies or mixed tournament that comes my way.”

The self-employed gamer rattles off a few of her achievements thus far, including first runner-up at the Purge Ladies Tournament 2021, second runner-up at the MLBB Women’s Invitational (MWI) Season 1 2022, and champion at the Gladiatrix Cup 2022.

“I feel blessed and really grateful to have taken part and earned those accolades.

“All of that success has been because I am part of such a great team. My reputation in the MLBB gaming scene has strengthened because of those achievements.

“So I am really very grateful,” says the University Putra Malaysia Bintulu alumna, who grew up in Kota Belud, Sabah, but now resides in Selangor.

Twenty-year-old Aria, whose position is “Roamer” in MLBB, has been actively gaming since she was in Form 4.

“When I first started out, it was mainly in small tournaments just for fun. But as I grew better, I began to go in for the bigger, international women’s tournaments, and then came the invitationals.

“I guess the biggest tournament that I have been to apart from the SEA Games was MWI last year.”

The girl from Bangi, Hulu Langat, Selangor, says that growing up at school, there were very few other girls who were gamers.

“I went to SMK Bandar Baru Bangi, and only the boys were into games at the time. I am not sure why I initially started gaming, but after winning one tournament, I caught the bug and wanted to have that feeling of winning again.

“So that’s why I kept on going!” Aria says, sharing that she was in Standard One when she got her first iPad and began playing online games like Graal Era. These days, to destress, she indulges in a bit of Candy Crush or Piano Tiles.

Aria and her sister Faisty (also from Team Haq) were at a Wild Rift offline tournament one day when they bumped into Bunny, who asked them if they would like to join her then-team, Suhas.

“That’s really how all of us met. Either through Facebook’s gaming communities or at offline events.

“Even though we were rivals back then, we somehow got together, and today we’re all part of Team Haq,” Aria says, adding that the team currently consists of seven women in total and includes Fai, Yuki, Faisty, Anatasha, and Yann.

For Aria and Bunny, representing Malaysia in the MLBB tournament at the SEA Games was a dream come true.For Aria and Bunny, representing Malaysia in the MLBB tournament at the SEA Games was a dream come true.

Bunny loves the social aspect of gaming.

“I really enjoy playing games because I get to connect with a lot of friends; I also like the sense of achievement and the thrill of going through challenges.”

Aria reckons she has always benefited from playing games.

“Even when I was younger, I learnt that patience and practice can help you get ahead. Often, I end up playing games with random partners and opponents, and that’s when you come across people with all sorts of attitudes.

“What’s good is that you learn how to take things in your stride. You’re not going to get easily offended by something someone says or does because you are so focused on winning the game.”

Aria adds that while she enjoys gaming, it is also always important for her to keep up with her studies at school.

“And so I was very motivated when it came to time management. I became very disciplined because I was committed to both gaming and my education.

“I would make a timetable and stick to it. And that practice has stuck till today.”

The young gamer has just completed her diploma in Business Studies from Mara Beranang Professional College, Selangor, and hopes to venture into streaming and start her own business someday.

She’s currently getting all the practice she needs on her TikTok channel, @ariariaeyey, where she has accrued 41.6K followers!

“One of my role models is Soloz, a real legend in the local MLBB scene,” Aria says.“When you retire from active gaming, people tend to forget about you after a while. But Soloz has remained popular, has his own branding and following, and is still going strong. I want to be like him someday.”

Representing the nation

The opportunity to play at the SEA Games was a dream come true for the ladies.

“It was my one big goal to be able to play on a big, international stage. So I was so grateful because I had the chance to represent Malaysia in Phnom Penh after years of playing and honing my skills.

“I was so proud to be able to team up with other great players too,” Bunny says.

“Yah, me too. I was just so happy to be part of one of the female teams for the Malaysian esports contingent and one of the first few to represent Malaysia in MLBB. Happy gila because, among so many others, I was chosen!

“And to be able to bring home medals to inspire the next generation of players was just an incredible feeling,” Aria shares.

Aria says her parents have always been very supportive.

“Whenever I am in a tournament, my father will watch all the live shows because he kind of gets the games. My mum too, will keep up with all the results and tallies.”

Bunny’s story is a little different. At first, she says her family didn’t quite approve of her “playing games”.

“But after a lot of involvement and achievements, they slowly began to see how committed I was and started to believe in me,” she says.

“Now, they continue to support every tour that I join. They were really proud of me for being able to represent Malaysia and win the bronze medal!”

Aria chimes in: “My parents were happy we got bronze, but I think they were expecting us to do better!”

Both ladies are keen to continue gaming for as long as they can.

“I hope that the Malaysian esports scene continues to strengthen and that there will be more tournaments for women to participate in.

“For example, if there were a Malaysia Premier League tournament for women, that would be great,” Aria says.

Bunny adds: “My goal as a gamer is to someday play in the Olympics! Hopefully I inspire others too, and I will be able to make a living from gaming in the future.”

Right now, both gamers agree that there just aren’t enough tournaments to keep one afloat financially.

Aria says: “There may be small tournaments, but they are not sufficient for us to make a living; even if you become champion, you might receive something like RM1,000, but that has to be divided among five members, so you end up getting RM200. You definitely need a day job unless you’re one of those MPL pro players who receives a regular salary.”

Nonetheless, the ladies are hopeful and glad that they’ve come a long way since they first started.

According to Aria, before 2020, female gamers were often discriminated against.

“If we were slightly better than others at a game, people were quick to say something like, ‘Oh, a boy must have taught you how to play’, implying we couldn’t have gotten this far on our own.

“I would get that sort of treatment all the time. But now, people are a lot more open and accepting of women in the pro-scene. They have started to recognise that it’s not just men making strides in esports, but women too.”

Bunny concurs, saying that back then, esports was dominated by male players.

“Most gamers didn’t trust female players and felt it was not worth having them on their team. I had to find a team that would accept me and prove to them that I was able to compete just as well as a guy.

“As women, it’s also so hard for us to find ladies tournaments to participate in, which is another huge hurdle to cross.”

LevelUp with Aria and Bunny

Q: What’s the secret to getting better at MLBB?

Bunny: Always check on pro tips and build techniques. Try every meta and find one that suits your team. But most importantly, always be confident and believe in yourself. Never give up because failure is part of the learning process to be great!

Aria: You need to be super hardworking, always checking out the new patches, and following your rivals’ gameplay. I believe if you equip yourself with this knowledge, it will make it easy for you to adapt and switch strategies on the fly.

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