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Is Thailand ready for the global eSports hype?

ESports has become a big thing, and has been recently elevated to the next level. How does Thai gaming industry respond?

Gamers around the world burst into happy tears when the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), together with Alisports, the sports-focused subsidiary of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, announced in April that eSports will be one of the medal events at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou—with an introduction of the event as a demonstration sport at the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan and the 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia. It’s the next big step for an industry that has captured the imagination of an entire generation for many, many years. Finally, somebody of authority has officially approved the existence of the gaming industry—video games are now more than just living room pursuits and those who play it are no longer just gaming geeks.

 

EXL 2015 Grand Final

EXL 2015 Grand Final, photo courtesy of OS

 

What exactly is eSports?
You’re probably not the only one asking the question, especially in a country where video
games are considered by many as a waste of time. According to Patid Mahakittikun, web
content manager for OS (formerly known as Online Station), Thailand’s leading video games
portal, eSports is a form of competition where video games are played at a professional level, and are facilitated by rules and regulations. You may be surprised to learn that eSports date way back. One of the oldest eSports matches took place in 1972, when Stanford University organized a Spacewar video game competition, with a one-year subscription of Rolling Stone magazine as the grand prize. Fast forward to present day at The International 2016, a Dota 2 competition in Seattle, which saw teams from around the world competing for a record-breaking US$20.7 million (US$9.1 million for the winning team alone). 

So is engaging in a Street Fighter battle with the computer considered playing an eSport? Not quite. Not all video games are eligible as an eSport. The event requires games that enable a competition between at least two parties. Three types of games are commonly played at international eSports competition—Firstperson Shooter (FPS), Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) and Real-time Strategy (RTS). Each game from each category usually has its own tournament (see sidebar for details). 

One of the most respected eSports institutions is the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF). Established in 2008, its main purpose is to regulate international eSports tournaments, expand global memberships and develop the standard for every competition. The federation currently has 47 members, and Thailand has been a member nation since 2003.

 

Is eSports really a sport?
You’re definitely not the only one asking this question. “It depends on how you define sport,” answers Patid. “If you look at the list of indoor sports at the 2013 Asian Indoor and MartialArts Games in Incheon, there’s chess. And if chess [which doesn’t involve body movements] is considered a sport, eSports should be as well.” Professional eSports gamer Pongphop "Mickie" Rattanasangchod agrees. “Professional gaming requires similar elements to other types of sports—team managers, coaches, practices, opponent analysis, strategic planning.” The 23-year-old award-winning gamer, who started his career 10 years ago and is now an Overwatch player of US-based Team EnVyUs, one of the best-performing teams in the eSports industry, reveals that his team participated in 28 tournaments in the last year alone. Practice is as rigorous as with any sport—he spends six hours a day training with his team or eight hours in the days leading up to a tournament. “Apart from those, we also have one-hour daily meetings and a total of 20-hour personal trainings each week,” says the gamer. “We take a break only on Saturdays.”

 

Mickie as part of sWeedtime, Thai representation in Overwatch World Cup 2016

 

Meanwhile, in Thailand…
From an estimated number of 10 million casual gamers in Thailand, around 20,000 are eSports players participating in local tournaments—the number grew rapidly in the last couple of years. Some have even developed their skills to be able to join international tournaments, while others, like Mickie, have stepped up to play for foreign teams. 

But regardless of the sheer number of professional players in the industry, eSports is not officially considered a sport in Thailand. While national teams for typical sports boast of government support, the teams representing Thailand in international eSport competitions
solely rely on the same video game publishers who host the tournaments. For example,
companies such as Blizzard Entertainment steps in to provide funds for those joining its
Overwatch World Cup. 

“Some games, such as Dota 2, don’t have a service provider in Thailand so players have to fund themselves or are partly supported by sponsors. Another example is the Pokemon World Championship, which is one of the biggest eSports competitions, but since the game isn’t popular in Thailand, the publisher doesn’t even have a local office. Thailand isn’t even on the list of registered countries,” Patid reveals. “A very skillful Thai Pokemon team had to fight to participate—and sadly some of them couldn’t join the tournament in America due to lack of funds.”

The same obstacle was also experienced by Santi Lothong, editor-in-chief of video games
portal Compgamer News and one of the key players in the Thai eSports society. Santi helped put up the Thai e-Sports Association (TeSA), which he chairs as president, in 2013 when he discovered only eSports players authorized by a government agency could participate in OCA’s official tournaments. TeSA has been working with the Sports Authority of Thailand and National Olympic Committee of Thailand to legalize eSports ever since so that Thai gamers would be able to officially represent their motherland at an international level.

“The Sports Authority of Thailand is showing an intention of approving eSports as a legal
sport, so it can set rules and regulations for players. It’s better to have some kind of standard rather than just let things be,” explains Santi. “If you leave [eSports] untouched, the negative controversy towards gaming will remain.” Having proper rules and regulations will also necessitate the provision of training camps, physical check-ups, as well as mental treatments (for maladies such as homesickness when competing abroad), all of which are currently applied to athletes in other sports. “It’s not something to take lightly, and it’s not just about playing games anymore,” says Santi. He also reveals that even though the Sports Authority of Thailand is showing support for the sport, some departments in the Ministry of Culture have expressed concerns that there is still a negative perception of gaming within Thai society.

 

"It depends on how you define sport. And if chess is considered a sport, eSports should be as well"

 

ESports equals game addiction?
The negative image of video games, portrayed through traditional media (game addicts, violent acts, etc), is one of the reasons why the government approval is not as forthcoming and why sponsors aren’t too eager to back eSports in Thailand. This is a stark contrast to the situation in America, where eSports players share the same support and quality of living as other athletes. “There are big sponsors and a lot of cash flow in the industry,” shares Mickie.

“To get social approval, government approval may be first required,” says Santi. “Official
approval to legalize eSports would only bring a positive light to the industry as well as
professional gamers.” 

Seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, TeSA has partnered with so-called “moral companies” who have put up businesses that don't threaten the gaming society or try to change social perception—like game cafes that allow underage players who, as of yet, are not eligible to become part of the alliance. 

“Approving or not approving eSports has nothing to do with an increasing or decreasing number of game addicts,” says Mickie. “We can’t stop the world from moving forward. If you want to solve [game addiction], it should start from a
family level.” Saroot Tubloy, managing director of local game developer YGGDrazil, who’s
behind phenomenon Thai video game Home Sweet Home, shares Mickie’s sentiments, and
recommends that parents give their children advice and guidance on the games they play.

“Treating eSports the right way will create a better understanding among the people.
Government approval of eSports will also separate eSports players from video game addicts—and then you could find the right way to solve the problem,” Patid reasons. “If gamers
want to be accepted [as eSports players], they would need to prove the stereotype wrong.
Improve yourself, tell your friends about your success and let the good chain continues.”

 

Never. Stop. Gaming: CSGO Championship 2016

Never. Stop. Gaming: CSGO Championship 2016, photo courtesy of OS

 

The road to the Asian Games
The 2022 Asian Games will be the first official regional-wide sports competition to recognize
eSports as a medal sport. With the rise of the gaming industry and the increasing number
of gamers in the country, is Thailand ready to take part? Therein lies the conundrum. The
Olympics-backed Asian Games is a far cry from those competitions sponsored by game
publishers. The first problem is determining which organization has a say in sending a
national team to participate. 

“If OCA allows IeSF nation members to participate, we will automatically be qualified. If not, the National Olympic Committee of Thailand will be the one making the decision—and they would have to recognize eSports as a legitimate sport,” explains Santi, adding that he, on behalf of TeSA, is working hard to find the answers from the government. 

The players, themselves, proves to be another problem. Many eGamers in Thailand can’t survive on playing games alone, which means that they would have to leave their full-time jobs or schools to dedicate time for training. “If I had not joined Team EnVyUs, I would have had to continue my studies, work full-time and have eSports as a part-time job,” shares Mickie. 

 

Games are no longer just games
Outside of eSports circles, gaming is also one of the fastest rising entertainments in Thailand. According to Manop Pahira, Sony Thai’s senior marketing manager for PlayStation,
the growing sales figures of PlayStation 4 in Thailand have determined that the country is one of the key markets for gaming in Southeast Asia. Sony attributes this to various factors—higher spending power, increasing demand for high-quality entertainment and the audience’s appreciation towards authenticated products from official publishers.

The rise of the local gaming industry has also provided an opportunity for new games-related careers—game casting, for example.

Game commentators (better known in Thailand as "game casters") are those who play, review and comment on games, usually published or broadcasted live via their own YouTube or Twitch channels. Local game casters such as Heartrocker, Zbing Z., Maser Gamer and Xcrosz have more than 1 million subscribers each on their YouTube channels. These people have the ability to influence gamers and make or break a certain game. Indie game Dead by Daylight, an example given by Patid, became more popular in Thailand than other countries mostly because of the partiality it was shown by these local game casters. 

Also, some universities in Thailand, such as Dhurakij Pundit University, Mahidol University and Sripatum University, have started offering game-related courses for a few years.

 

"Last year, the market value of the gaming industry in Thailand was worth more than B10 billion"

 

Thais play, Thais win: The business of gaming
An increasing number of gamers in Thailand helps boost the local games industry as well.
“Last year, the market value of the gaming eSports industry in Thailand was worth more than B10 billion,” reveals Patid. “However, Thailand is an end-user country, so 80 to 90 percent of the money goes to importing and licensing games. We buy the licenses, translate the games into Thai, and set up local servers. Exporting accounts for only 10 to 20 percent.”

The growing popularity of video games have also benefited local game developers, some
of which have been receiving support from government-backed organization Software
Industry Promotion Agency (SIPA) and the Thai Game Software Industry Association (TGA). YDGDrazil’s Home Sweet Home, which is inspired by Thai urban legends, is favored by players from around the world, and has proven that a Thai developer can also design a world-class game.

“There are many factors involved in making a successful game,” says YGGDrazil managing director Saroot. “Gameplay is important, as well as graphics and marketing. You need to know exactly what the game is about, who it’s for, and how to promote it. Then you leave the rest to the players.” But, on the flipside, lack of funding and team members are some reasons why some local developers are unable to cannot create a game with the best possible quality. “We don’t have enough game testers as well as designers as most of the people in the industry are programmers and artists.” 

 

HEARTROCKER's Home Sweet Home demo playthrough

 

Whether we like it or not, video games have become ingrained in modern society. It would
be foolish to neglect its existence or see where it may lead us. The future is still unclear for
eSports in Thailand. What we can hope for now is a serious discussion on the gaming issue an hope that we can find a common ground that is best for everyone instead of pointing fingers and blindly discrediting video games as a social problem.

Three main eSports categories

FPS (First-person Shooter)

It is a weapon-based game in the first-person perspective. Famous games in this category include Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO), Call of Duty and Overwatch.

MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena)

It is a strategy game where you compete as a team to complete a mission, mostly to destroy opponent’s base. Games in this category include Dota 2, League of Legends (LoL) and Heroes of Newerth (HoN).

RTS (Real-time Strategy)

It is a military game in which you construct buildings, develop units and gather resources in order to defeat another players “army” and dominate the virtual landscape. One of the most famous e-Sports games is StarCraft II.

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There are eSports games that can’t be grouped in the above-mentioned types, and are thus less popular among eSports players such as Tekken (fighting game), Fifa Online 3 (sports game) and Hearthstone (card game).

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