When A Sport Is Not A Sport
By: Arif Zahran
Editor: Saeid Juwanda
Are e-sports athletes “real” athletes? (Source: Overwatch League official Twitter page.)
Remember the times when families would get together to watch football matches on the weekends? The crowds at the mamak stalls during big games, or the general crowds that appear and get together during the FIFA World Cup or the UEFA Champions League? I remember. Those were the days before the Covid-19 pandemic hits. Back when we are all forced to stay at home and social distance. All this time at home however was not for naught as I was left with ample time to think about another type of sport that has started to gain traction in recent times. It has been a subject of support and admonishment from various people for just as long. Now that everyone is stuck at home, e-sports has taken the spotlight as it provides a platform for people to engage in activities that are resilient to Covid-19.
The International 2019 (TI 19). (Source: https://blog.dota2.com/2019/07/the-international-compendium-update-3/)
What is e-sports?
Short for electronic sports, e-sports is basically playing video games at a professional level, similar to traditional sports such as football, basketball, badminton, etc. E-sports bring together top players from all over the globe competing in professional leagues or tournaments in competitive games such as League of Legends, Defense of the Ancients 2 (Dota 2) and Overwatch. E-sports has garnered mixed responses ever since bursting into the limelight in the early to mid-2000’s. Back then, e-sports did not command the scene like football or badminton does. They still lack the ability to garner viewers today, due to being a medium more common to the younger generation, and not as universal as most sports are. One tournament hosted by FUN Technologies back in 2006 only had a prize pool of US$1 million (RM4.278 million, not counting for inflation). That is nothing compared to tournaments nowadays, with the top e-sports tournament, The International (TI) 2019, which had a prize pool of US$34.33 million (RM146.864 million). Seems like a huge amount, right? Compare that to the prize pool for the UEFA Champions League, one of the most celebrated annual football competitions, with a prize pool of €1.3 Billion (RM6.3 Billion), a prize pool 42.6 times larger than that of TI 2019. Shows just how big of a difference the Goliath that is football (one of the most globally reaching sports) has on the David that is e-sports.
Not to mention, the controversial term “e-sports”. There are some out there that outright reject that playing video games competitively can even be considered sports. In Germany, for example, the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB) decided that e-sports was not a sport, stating that “e-sports are in a different galaxy”. The argument was made that e-sports lack a certain “physicality” that other sports require. By that logic, how did darts, motor sports, chess and even table-football got the classification of being sports? Alas, the move to make e-sports an official sport is still slow, with South Korea, Japan, Brazil, the United States and France being a few of the early adopters of e-sports.
E-sports in Malaysia
That brings us to the domestic scene. E-sports in Malaysia has been inconsistent, to put it lightly. That is not to say that Malaysia has never achieved anything in the industry. Team Malaysia managed to obtain 8th place worldwide, and one of the best South East Asian team with a win rate of 79% and total earnings of $20,697 (RM88,510) in Dota 2, a popular e-sports game title. Even recently, at the World Cyber Games, Team Unicorn (another Malaysian team) managed to get 3rd place in the regional finals. This shows that e-sports has started to be taken seriously, even domestically, to a certain point.
However, it is not always sunny for Malaysian e-sports. During the 2019 SEA games, Esports Malaysia (ESM) claimed that the National Sports Council (NSC) gave a lack of support for the Malaysian Esports Selection 2019, prompting the NSC to respond to those allegations amidst fan backlashes. The ESM claims were countered with claims that the NSC had agreed to contribute RM750,000 if they received an official request and budget breakdown, but never got one from ESM. This lack of communication from the e-sports industry and the governing bodies of not only Malaysia’s sports committee but also the Ministry of Youth and Sports leads to lack of support for the country’s e-sports scene. I am not saying one side is right or wrong, but I am stating my disappointment that both sides could not properly manage Malaysia’s e-sports as efficiently as possible.
Overwatch, a popular e-sports title. (Source: Paris Eternal official Twitter page)
On the other hand, in a tweet last year, Team Malaysia Overwatch released a statement on their twitter account that they had to withdraw from the Overwatch World Cup 2019 (OWWC) due to lack of support and funding from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. They claimed that the promised funds would only be available after the OWWC 2019 ended. Yang Berhormat Syed Saddiq did respond on twitter, stating that RM60,000 in funds had been approved and that it took time for it to be approved since this is the first time such a fund existed. But at the end of the day, the funding might have come a little too late, as Team Overwatch Malaysia did not update anything after announcing their withdrawal from the tournament.
The state of e-sports in Malaysia is now in limbo. Back in 2019, then Youth and Sports minister, YB Syed Saddiq wanted to allocate RM10 million and further increased this amount to RM20 million from the 2020 budget to promote and develop e-sports as an activity and industry that can be enjoyed by everyone, especially the youths. Sounds perfect. Or at least, it was perfect. Earlier this year, political squabbles booted out the government, YB Syed Saddiq, and with him, any plans to empower e-sports for Malaysia. All the while, looking at how politicians treat youths and their opinions (I am looking at you, Parliament) tells me that e-sports will stay in limbo for the foreseeable future. Not to mention, the state of the world, with COVID-19 response being of utmost importance, puts any talks regarding e-sports empowerment on the backburner.
E-sports in school
Another challenge faced by e-sports in Malaysia is the lack of acceptance by parents, specifically on the introduction of e-sports in schools. Understandably so, as video games have at times been linked to addiction and violence. Besides, I understand the challenges that e-sports in school would face, such as funding and qualified staff to properly guide and train students. Teachers are stretched thin enough, and with e-sports not only needing experience in gaming but also in computers, this could also be another
hurdle in the introduction and
implementation of e-sports as a school activity. That is not to say schools are the only viable option, however. But this does not stop some groups, like the Parent Action Group for Education to oppose the introduction of e-sports to school, and sometimes rightfully so. It is up to the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Youths and Sports in addition to e-sports organizations in Malaysia to create an environment that nurtures e-sports enthusiasts healthily and safely. Malaysians should ask; where did the RM10 Million (2019) and RM20 Million (2020) allocated for e-sports go?
This all comes as a shame, as the e-sports audience breakdown by Newzoo in their 2019 Global Esports Market Report stated that 57% of e-sports enthusiasts comes from the Asia-Pacific (APAC) region, unsurprising due to the large presence of the APAC region in the gaming industry. With over half of the global audience being in this APAC region, Malaysia faces strong competition from other countries as well, especially those from first adopters like South Korea and China. But it also shows that Malaysia can learn from these countries to create an e-sports presence domestically. At the very least, if Malaysia cannot create an environment for e-sports to flourish, then we could always nurture those e-sports enthusiasts with potential, to go overseas and learn from the best in the industry, rather than keeping them tethered in Malaysia.
I personally believe an academy dedicated to e-sports, or the introduction of a more serious e-sports competitive scene in institutions of higher learning would greatly benefit e-sports players in Malaysia. I remember days when people would tell me that playing video games would not apply to the real world. Well, e-sports is a way to take something that is looked upon as a hobby and elevate it to something practical in the real world. Give a place for these youths who have the skills and passion to do something with that passion. Malaysia has always lagged behind other countries in entering sports, and with legends such as Datuk Nicol David and Datuk Lee Chong Wei retiring from their respective fields, maybe it is time for us to look for the next generation of legends not only in traditional, established sports, but also in this new era of e-sports. And with a lot of people stuck indoors and online due to the pandemic, this would be a great time to find aspiring e-sports talents and start involving ourselves in the larger international e-sports scene.