MANILA -- Competitive video gaming will debut at this week’s Southeast Asian Games, with 9 teams, led by gold medal favorite Philippines, gunning for the top podium finish.
The esports tournament, set from Dec. 5 to 10, will gather some of the region’s toughest and most accomplished gamers, who’re wildly popular among their online followers but may still relatively unknown to casual sports fans.
But despite video gaming’s vast global reach, players and organizers are still confronted by a rather basic question: is it even sport?
One argument is that the game entails more machine than man, a misconception Ren Vitug believes can easily be addressed if only people will look more closely.
“For the most part, the things that you see in sports — competition, camaraderie, teamwork — those are the same things you see in esports,” said Vitug, who serves as the international technical official for the SEA Games tournament.
“So, in that sense, we’re not much different.”
Esports is considered a global multi-million-dollar industry, gathering top players in organized leagues and watched by millions of audiences on platforms such as Twitch or Facebook.
In the Philippines, the best Dota 2 players—about 5 to 10 of them—earn more than 6 digits, excluding prize winnings and endorsements, Vitug told ABS-CBN News.
The global industry is expected to breach the $1-billion mark this year, with the number of viewers worldwide swelling to more than 500 million by 2021, according to analytics firm Newzoo.
But for this year’s regional meet, gamers will play for flag and country, the biggest prize being the gold medal and staking their claim as the best in Southeast Asia.
Such achievement can also further boost their profile once they resume competing in other leagues, Vitug said.
The 27-member Philippine team, including a 16-year-old gamer, will participate in 6 events: Dota 2, StarCraft II, Hearthstone, Tekken 7, Arena of Valor, and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.
Like ordinary athletes, they also went through a strict training regimen for the SEA Games, backed by a team of sports psychologists, statisticians, nutritionists, and fitness trainers.
“I know people would argue that it’s not much of a physical sport, but people who do play, especially if they compete, they would know it is also very taxing as well in a very different kind of way,” Vitug said.
“There’s a natural skill capacity to it. If you do play, you’re gonna realize that people do train a lot.”
The introduction of esports during the Philippine hosting of the SEA Games, he said, was not unexpected considering the immense popularity of video gaming here.
A Newzoo study listed the Philippines as the 29th biggest market for gamers with an estimated revenue of $354.2 million for 2017.
The number of gamers was pegged at 29.9 million that year.
A survey by PUBLiCUS Asia Inc. earlier this year showed that 81.6 Filipino aged between 23 and 28 played online gamers.
“We have a very high player base and I think with that, it translates to more people who can possibly excel,” said Vitug.
In a Facebook post, he stepped back from the “esports-is-not-a-sport” debate, saying “it is already here” and “there is nothing they can do that will change that.”
“What we can do though, is to become dignified ambassadors to our sport,” he said.
“Make sure your gaming does not affect your school, work, and relationships. Be a good example.”
For more sports coverage, visit the ABS-CBN Sports website.