Whoosh! go the giant eruptions of steam that shoot out of the ground, scantily clad dancers with toy guns attack the stage, and a giant construction featuring four huge screens hangs over the middle of the Nguyen Du Stadium. Welcome to the world of eSports, no longer the domain of the solitary bedroom dweller. It’s big business now, and Vietnam wants a piece of the action.
eSports is competitive video gaming, and — if you consider it a sport — it’s comfortably the fastest-growing sport in the world. Global revenue is expected to top US$1billion by 2020, and games such as League of Legends, Dota 2 or FIFA 17 attract huge worldwide numbers as millions either watch live streams or fill stadiums around the world. The 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China will include them alongside traditional sports for the first time. Could an Olympic gold medal for gaming be on the horizon?
The best players in Vietnam might be sitting next to you on the bus, or in the coffee shop as they play on their phone. Anyone can play, providing you have a smart phone, a PC or console and an internet connection. Take a look around Ho Chi Minh City and you won’t have to look far before you see one of these gaming centres, usually packed full of young people with a headset on and their faces fixated on a screen.
The spirit of competition is there, but you don’t have to move from your backside. It’s a 21st-century phenomenon.
Best Of The Best
Crossfire Legends has been out for two months. It’s a mobile version of the smash hit, first-person shooter, Crossfire — a 2007 release made by South Korean publishers which is the second-highest grossing eSport of all time, behind League of Legends.
The debut tournament in Ho Chi Minh City in June brought together a community of professional, semi-professional and casual players from all over Vietnam.
The muscle that is pumping cash into eSport is sponsorship, and a Chinese mobile phone manufacturer attached itself to the event, which will see the game included on its new mobile phone handsets.
Hao is here as a fan of Team Ahihi, and just like a fan of Barcelona goes to the Camp Nou to admire the skills of Messi and the others, he’s here to watch the best.
“I like the way they play,” he says. “They attack really fast. The way they defend and catch the enemies is really skilful. This is the most professional event that I have ever seen in Saigon. It’s awesome.”
It’s team-based action, and two teams of five players each line up against each other, with each member having a different role to play in their squad. During the breaks in between matches, a hyperactive compere keeps the crowd entertained with Chinese chess games, quizzes and a slightly odd competition where people line up to see who can hold a singing note for the longest. For people who might be puzzled as to why people go and watch other people play video games, it’s clear an effort has been made to make the experience more inclusive.
The tournament runs from 11am all the way through to 10pm, and admittedly the neon glowsticks that have been handed out earlier in the day are being shaken with less vigour once the sun has set, but the host refuses to let anyone in the crowd flag, and he continues playing more games with the audience. At around 6pm the motor mouth commentators that have called the action in the arena since 10am rest their eyes for a little on the plinth that looks over the gamers; you can’t blame them, if they were getting paid by the word, they’d be rich men by now.
More Than a Game
Speaking to Pol, the organiser of the event, it’s clear that he’s excited to be part of the upward trend. He’s been working in eSports for seven years, and in that time has seen it grow to what it is today.
“It’s better the players can live their passions,” he says. “It’s my aim. eSports didn’t have enough money in it before. It’s growing every year.”
He explains that the champions of this game alone could pocket around VND1 billion in a single year. Nice work if you can get it, and as long as sponsors see value in attaching themselves to these events, the riches on offer will only grow.
Ho Chi Minh University of Sport now even include an eSport major as part of their programme. It teaches them about the games, the tournaments and how you can organise them. It’s part of the strive towards legitimacy that has been the biggest obstacle in its growth. There are naysayers that refuse to accept video gaming as a respectable career path.
Compared to China, Thailand and South Korea, the gaming infrastructure in Vietnam is way behind, but is gradually catching up. Vietnam doesn’t have many game publishers, which has made the industry harder to grow. Unlike in other Asian countries, eSports in Vietnam haven’t had backing from the government.
The older generations have also been slow in understanding its appeal. Pol explains that for Team Ahihi, which had two young players, he had to go and see their parents to get their permission to come and play in today’s tournament.
“I had to convince them [to let them play] — it took three days. I showed them that this is a good job. The parents are really happy now.”
Winner Takes All
Vietnam’s reliably unreliable internet connection poses the biggest threat to the action on the day, and it threatens to throw the event into chaos, as the four internet lines they had prepared all fail before the final round of action. A move over to mobile internet saves the day, and the final can proceed.
After a tense final which goes down to a deciding round, Team Ahihi win and take home today’s prize money of around US$5,000 (VND114 million). Confetti rains from the ceiling and the winning team’s players embrace each other in a rare show of emotion, as their opponents sink their heads in disappointment. This is what makes it feel like sport to an outsider — the elation of victory and crushing lows of defeat. Hao, the Team Ahihi fan I spoke to earlier in the day, pumps his fists wildly into the air. He’s going home happy.
A Real Sport?
Hieu, one of the players of Team Ahihi, talks afterwards of the special emotions that came with their big win, and the man with the golden thumb predicts big things for eSports in Vietnam: “I believe eSports will become more and more popular, like traditional sports such as football or basketball,” he says.
But could the popularity of eSports come at a price? After all, the physical exertion required is minimal. Another fan tells me that he plays eSports because he doesn’t have time to go outside and play traditional sports. Are we getting too lazy?
Ultimately it’s down to personal choice, and Pol, the tournament organiser, is excited by the opportunities that eSports can present to young people in Vietnam. “I want to make Vietnamese players better than they are today.
I want to make superstars so they can live with their passion, really live, get more money and show that eSports is real sport.”
Photos by Bao Zoan