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Ask a room full of esports fans what they think about their hobby becoming an Olympic sport, and they will be divided…at best. But when it comes to the mainstream, something about giving gold medals to gamers seems to resonate. The Southeast Asian Games may not be a household name in sporting events, but its radical decision to include fantasy and sci-fi strategy battlers alongside badminton and martial arts will influence how the wider sporting community feels about esports and its place in future competitions.
As outlined in our recently published guide, there were six ‘events’ for the ‘sporting discipline’ of esports in the SEA Games: two exclusively mobile, two PC, one console, and one card game. The event itself was held in the 1,300 seat Filoil Flying V Centre, located in the Philippines city of San Juan. Entry was free, and the audience could either watch at home via Razer’s channels on Twitch or Youtube, or broadcasting channels which purchased the rights from the event’s official broadcaster, TV5.
“In addition, we featured the stories of the athletes from various countries – how they are preparing to represent their countries in the SEA Games,” Razer Head of Esports David Tse told The Esports Observer, adding that the company released its own landing page featuring match schedules, country groupings, and results.
“This first medal esports event indeed attracted more than just core gaming audience in the region, broadening the reach as the stream had reached 3.8M views, and peaked at more than 90K concurrent views.”
Razer is listed as a “gold” level partner of the SEA Games 2019, and had brand presence not just in the esports portion, but other sporting spectacles as well. Though they were not featured in-game for the esports segment, the SEA Games’ premium and gold partners (including MG and Philippine Airlines) also received logo placement in the San Juan arena.
Razer was presented as the games’ “official esports partner,” and held a booth that allowed attendees to try the company’s various products. Singtel was the sponsor of the Singapore national team, while Acer Predator gaming chairs were also used in the competition.
While Razer headsets, mice, and keyboards were used in the competition, the company’s gaming phones were not as “the most recent Arena of Valor update was required to be played on iOS,” Tse explained.
This latter point about game versions is necessary for any sporting body to understand if it wants to invite esports to play. For example, in last year’s Asian Games, where esports was included as a demonstration sport, the various countries were largely playing different versions (or “patches”) of the game right until they joined under one location.
“Arena of Valor, for example, the patches weren’t harmonized across the countries,” said Nicholas Aaron Khoo, co-founder and chairman of the Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (SCOTA). “Literally, my players were walking in not having played some of the heroes that have been released in later patches. I didn’t hear about that happening this year.”
Khoo used the old analogy of “too many cooks in the kitchen” to describe the added complexity of an Olympic associated esports event. A federation doesn’t just have to look after its country and teams, but there’s the interaction with publishers, Olympic committees, and to some extent, the organizers behind the dozens of other sports on show—in this case, 56.
“Good example: no live casting in the arena,” said Khoo. “You’re sitting, but not hearing any casting or commentary. This is because they don’t do this for any of the other live sports. Should it be the same? Should there be exceptions? Where do you harmonize, and where do you defer?”
In a typical esports event, it would be unthinkable to not have a guiding voice over the PA to make sense of what’s onscreen. But like skateboarding or motorsports, the competitive gaming landscape is almost 100% commercially driven, and has developed its own gold-standard for what is proper in a broadcast, regardless of whether a tournament is run by the game-publisher or a third-party company.
If more government-backed esports events are on the horizon, then the player recruitment processes will also need to align. Most events right now are either open-qualifier, invitational, or a mix of the two. For the SEA Games, all 11 member nations are automatically in for esports, but each can recruit its squads in its own way. Singapore ran its own qualifiers, and then winners were put in a list for selection, alongside players who had an existing competitive history. Indonesia meanwhile ran a selection process, at least for some games.
Picking the top talent is tricky when national leagues are not the norm for your sport. While some games like Arena of Valor featured almost identical teams to the professional scene, a lot of the national rosters were largely amateur. This runs into the age-old problem of how to fit a national sporting event around a league season—for the Asian Games last year, League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK) games were actually put off for a week in order for South Korea to jet some of its best talents to Jakarta.
Multi-game tournaments are less common than in esports’ early days, and while those still running have a standard ‘one game per genre’ mentality, the presence of the publishers alters the planning process for an Olympic committee, which is typically a neutral party. Hearthstone, a card game by Blizzard Entertainment, was added far later than any other game, and sources have suggested this was because the publisher of the previously planned title—a sports game—could not be secured.
The final tally of games for the SEA Games also included three games in the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) genre. Two of those are competing games are both on mobile, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and Arena of Valor, but since both also resonate strongly with a Southeast Asian audience, it would be hard to pass on one for the other. If both publishers agree to play fair, why choose?
When it comes to scheduling, there are also clear divides between what is expected. Both the official SEA Games website and Razer’s own page listed the competition groups, brackets, and timings, but teams would only be represented by their country flag, and players by their last name (not their gamer tag). In esports, even low-tier Counter-Strike tournaments will be fully documented on several wiki databases, with everything from rounds won to last-minute roster changes updated in real-time.
There are many other questions to be raised as esports and sports events continue to harmonize. Should commentators make extra efforts to explain the games to a mainstream audience? Are the event organizers required to provide computer space specifically for teams to train? Will publishers create in-game items that share in the cultural celebration of sport—both metaphorically, and financially?
The Intel Open will be esports’ next brush with the Olympic movement. While it won’t offer medals, the close proximity and association to the Tokyo Summer Games will offer new insights into whether national teams equal mainstream appeal in the growth of competitive gaming.
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