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Leveling up: Can Singapore become a global e-sports powerhouse?

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Once just a hobby, video games are now a lifestyle for professional gamers and casters. Even government entities and other major stakeholders are now involved in ‘s e-sports scene.

As co-founder and chairman of SCOGA (Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association), a nonprofit bringing e-sports opportunities to local youths, Nicholas Khoo has not only witnessed the industry’s massive growth in Singapore in recent years, but in many ways is one of the individuals most responsible for these developments. As of last year, he co-founded Yup.gg, a marketing platform designed to connect brands to e-sports and gaming audiences.

Khoo credits his part in shaping the local e-sports scene with his background in conventional sports. “In school, I was the basketball coach and a competitive badminton player, so I applied the discipline of sports training to e-sports and experienced good results in a very short time.”

In 2007, Khoo saw an opportunity to elevate e-sports from an audience of around 500 in Singapore to a present-day local audience of over 1 million gamers. He wondered, “If e-sports became a trend, why weren’t the government and other stakeholders involved?”

The ONE Esports Dota 2 World Pro Invitational Singapore, held in the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Courtesy of SCOGA.

Thus, SCOGA was born as a nonprofit to promote the still-nascent industry and assist gamers on their journey towards professional careers in e-sports, as well as to give gamers a voice at the table. Unlike purely commercial enterprises, SCOGA was able to win over the support of those who might otherwise have been skeptical of the value of a career in e-sports, such as parents and local government agencies.

Thanks in large part to programs such as Esports Academy, which currently offers part-time programs as well as a collaboration with Informatics Academy for a full-time diploma in e-sports and game design, Khoo and his associates were able to garner the support of the National Youth Council and skeptics alike. They brought together industry experts from companies such as Twitch, Riot Games, and ESL, along with partners who had a long track-record in educational development, to create a national talent development infrastructure unlike anything else in the region.

Supporting players

Singapore’s growing e-sports industry wouldn’t be possible without local government support. In addition to providing base funding for programs such as Esports Academy, government partnerships have paved the way for large events and attractions aimed at putting the local industry on the map, such as the One Esports Dota 2 World Pro Invitational. This year, Singapore intends to host the world’s largest gaming festival, Gamescom Asia 2020, a four-day event.

For a country topping global rankings in education, where academic achievement is deeply ingrained in the culture, schools and campuses play an important role in nurturing talent. Campus-wide tournaments have served as venues for competition between amateur players, such as Singtel’s PVP Campus Championship, which is still ongoing despite the lockdown, albeit from an online venue with players competing from the comfort of their own homes. And two other major events targeting campuses in the past few years are Campus Legends and Campus Game Fest; the latter was held at the Indoor Stadium and received government funding.

One misconception about the industry is that e-sports is limited to a select group of game companies and an exclusive pool of successful professional players who draw in large prize winnings. Yet in reality, the industry consists of a wider network of shoutcasters, broadcasters, and journalists, as well as event organizers, merchandisers, advertisers, and sponsors. E-sport’s revenues extend beyond those generated from ticket sales and in-game purchases. With an industry worth USD 1 billion (SGD 1.4 billion) globally, and one set to triple in value within the next three to five years, e-sports remains an opportunity for growth that Singapore hopes to capture.

Explosive growth

Over the past decade, one of the biggest shifts in e-sports has been the explosion of streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube, which attracts online audiences who vastly outnumber those able to attend live events. In addition, the sport’s popularity has been boosted by game companies’ production of e-sports-first titles. For example, on its first day of closed-beta testing,  Riot Game’s anticipated, new tactical shooter, Valorant, garnered 1.7 million concurrent viewers on Twitch.

More recently, e-sports has witnessed a spike in growth heralding gaming’s ascendance to global pop culture. Gaming, once considered a niche hobby, has shifted to become a lifestyle. Companies such as Uniqlo have sought collaborations with the game company behind Fortnite to attract millennial consumers. With much of the world currently under lockdown from the COVID-19 outbreak, video games and streaming have become the main activities many turn to in the fight against isolation in a time of physical distancing.

Read this: E-sports is the only game in town

Challenging times 

Like other local industries, e-sports has not been spared from the economic fallout of the COVID-19 virus. While brands and sponsors are holding back to focus on core businesses, at the same time, marketers are realizing they have leftover budgets for the year to spend. “With millions of dollars allocated to football and the Olympics, which no longer seem possible, sponsors are wondering where they can shift to,” Khoo says, of Yup.gg. “We’re seeing a lot of brands and sponsors holding back, and at the same time we’re seeing money that wasn’t there before now coming in.”

Neo Yong Aik, founder of Asia’s first 24-hour e-sports co-working space, The Gym, which opened in February in Singapore, still anticipates expanding despite current impacts. “While we are closed, we are still conducting our business online. There are still opportunities to expand our brand name in the market, and we are accelerating our opening of other branches. You will possibly see one in Shanghai in two months, and one each in Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur by the end of the year.” The Gym’s goal is to engage grassroots communities and develop an ecosystem for e-sports to flourish.

The Gym is a co-working space in Singapore that targets clients who are part of the e-sports ecosystem. Courtesy of The Gym.

The closure of live events, however, represents a significant hurdle for the industry, given the uncertainty of when these events may resume. “Championship players have found themselves out of work. Event organizers all over the world are suffering,” Khoo says. Lawson Lee, COO of Team Reality Rift, reports that “the closure of [their] e-sports arena due to the circuit breaker measures has resulted in a huge loss of revenue and delayed plans for expansion.” Donald Yeo, regional manager at Team Flash, echoed these sentiments, adding that they are “working with various partners to dish out online content and videos, and having online interactions with our fans.”

Global leadership opportunity

E-sports is becoming increasingly normalized across Southeast Asia. Last year, Thailand’s sports minister said he would support the serious development of e-sports in the country, and bolster the country’s capability to host video game competitions. And last year, e-sports was part of the Southeast Asian Games’ medal events in Manila, incorporating PC, console, and mobile titles for the contests.

Last December saw the official founding of the world’s first e-sports governing body, the Global Esports Federation (GEF), headquartered in Singapore. With the naming of Paul Foster, a former International Olympic Committee official, as the federation’s chief operating officer, the GEF has clearly signaled its ambitions for the future of the sport. “The GEF represents the opportunity to have a structured, strong approach to country-based e-sports,” says Khoo, who also serves as an advisor to the board. “It represents a real opportunity for Singapore to take leadership globally.”

Whatever the future holds for the industry, Singapore’s “connectivity, VC money, governance, and multicultural institutions [make it attractive] for people to come in and leap frog from there,” says Mr. Neo. Now, it only remains to be seen whether these factors will lay the groundwork for e-sport’s success.

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