COMPETITIVE electronic gaming or esports in the Philippines is on a winning streak: raising the flag in international competitions, winning its inaugural gold medals in the Southeast Asian games and booming corporate investments.

That was two years ago; when millions played League of Legends (LoL) and the stand alone sequel to the popular Defense of the Ancients, DOTA 2. Long before the domestic esports industry, a rising leader in the region, faced an unexpected game-changer of all game-changers: the Covid-19 pandemic.

So noted by Irymarc “Tryke” A. Gutierrez, a Philippine esports industry pioneer and co-founder and CEO of Tier One Entertainment.

For Gutierrez, the coronavirus disease of 2019 was a game-changer both for the good and the bad.

Jolted by Covid

GUTIERREZ pointed out that the pandemic accelerated the country’s digital revolution, which was expected to take more than a decade, into a 5-to-9-year period.

“The pandemic forced people to be online, to operate businesses virtually and everyone learned how to work virtually. All of those things made everyone become really ‘tech savvy,’” Gutierrez told the BusinessMirror.

Lloyd R. Manaloto, First Vice President and Head of Corporate Marketing and Strategy at Smart Communications Inc., thinks along Gutierrez’s line. With people forced to stay at home, the gaming industry saw a sudden boom in the player base as Filipinos sought not only to kill boredom but to connect with friends and loved ones, Manaloto told the BusinessMirror.

He emphasized that this connection provided by gaming—albeit digital—showed that “physical distancing does not mean social distancing.”

“The pandemic has witnessed the rise of major games doubling (or even quadrupling) their active user base, while new games started to gain traction during the same period,” Manaloto told the BusinessMirror.

“The sense of community brought about by online video games made lockdowns more bearable to a lot of players—a real-life evidence that physical distancing does not mean social distancing,” he added.

Aspiring players

THE pandemic did not only provide a safe haven for non-gamer Filipinos but also pave the way for aspiring competitive players to stage their potential and skills, Manaloto explained.

“With people staying at home, a lot of new gamers emerged from the pandemic discovering a newfound passion for esports and honing their skills to become better players,” he said, adding that the recent recognition received by esports as a legitimate title game such as in the 2019 Southeast Asian Games inspired more Filipinos to turn professional.

Manaloto explained that Filipino gamers, even non-competitive ones, also found a new outlet to showcase their skills, talents and even charisma by creating online content through streaming and other-related platforms.

“With online video games having a surge of popularity, the audience and resources have grown as well. The esports community is constantly growing and evolving,” he said.

“Gamers are presented with new opportunities to express their passion for esports – by participating in tournaments as professional athletes, by creating content as streamers or ‘shoutcasters,’ or by casually playing for their personal enjoyment,” Manaloto added.

For Gutierrez, the work-from-home setup that most businesses adapted today is “a paradise in disguise” for esports players, who have been living in such set-up even before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“This has been our life for the longest time. We are living in a paradise,” he said.

“And personally, I can say that esports players naturally build tough mentally. There are one million gamers and we are talking about the top 1 percent that can get through the toxicity, challenges and grind that comes with being the best,” he added when the BusinessMirror asked how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the mental health of esports players.

Intense training

MARLON Marcelo, deputy executive director at Philippine Esports Organization (Peso), classifies online gaming into simply gaming (casual gamers) and esports.

“Esports is part of gaming where the best players around the world play against each other for world championship,” Marcelo explained.

Interestingly, Esports athletes have an advantage over regular gamers as these professionals have sharp mental skills and superb motor skills.

Esport athletes are more calculating than traditional athletes in the sense that they must have a good degree of eye-hand coordination.

Playing esport is not a moonlight cruise. Professionals spend as much as from 10 hours to 15 hours sitting straight in front of a computer or console training, which easily adds up to 40 hours to 80 hours—the same amount of hours that traditional sports athletes put into training.

According to Marcelo, the Philippines has 52.8 million gamers per 2020 data. Mobile gamers are the biggest group (74 percent), while 65 percent are using personal computers (PCs) and 45 percent are users of gaming consoles. Players’ age range starts at 16 years old, Marcelo said.

He added that mobile gamers spend two hours to three hours in gaming on a daily basis while PC users average an hour to two hours.

With this scenario, a lot of coaches recommend that esports pro players balance their job with general physical and fitness activities such as weightlifting and cardio, and maintain a healthy diet as well. They are also encouraged to engage in physical activities so it would help them prevent neck, back and hand injuries.

Rising segment

GUTIERREZ describes online streaming as one of the biggest rising segments of the esports space as it provides a more accessible way for gamers to connect with their fans and interested people about gaming, may it be casual or competitive.

“One ‘Ghost Wrecker,’ one Bianca Yao, one Alodia Gosiengfiao, playing games with 5,000 to 10,000 viewers—that’s very dynamic. Those streamers help the industry to educate the people about gaming,” he said. “We now have a lot of gaming evangelists.”

Gamers and popular streamers Elyson “Ghost Wrecker” Caranza and Bianca Yao are talents of Tier One Entertainment, which Gutierrez co-founded with Gosiengfiao, the country’s recognized “Queen of Cosplay.”

The combined number of Facebook followers of Ghost Wrecker, Yao (also known as “Biancake”) and Gosiengfiao is about 13 percent of the country’s total population (109 million, 2020) or about 14.65 million. Gosiengfiao’s Facebook page alone has 6.5 million followers.

For Gutierrez, the top three mobile games today in the Philippines are “Mobile Legends,” “Call of Duty: Mobile” and “LoL: Wild Rift.” For the PC category it is “Valorant,” a first-person shooter multiplayer game.

Unraveling opportunities

“SHOUTCASTER” Caisam Nopueto believes esports will also bring a lot of career opportunities to Filipinos, especially those belonging to members of the Generation Y and Generation Z.

In a webinar organized by Acer Philippines Inc., Nopueto, known as “Wolf” in shoutcasting, pointed out that esports offers the same extensive line of work whether playing the game, coaching players or organizing events.

Nopueto urges the people passionate about esports to give a try as a shoutcaster. He says it is just like covering traditional sports programs wherein commentators or announcers describe a blow-by-blow account of the games.

“We hear them describing what’s going on during team fights or any aspect of action that we viewers cannot see for ourselves,” he said.

Online streaming also opened the doors for everyone to become a professional gamer, just like Ghost Wrecker, who recently became a member of a “Mobile Legends” team, Gutierrez shared.

Scrambling for ways

FOR an industry that was born and raised by the digital space, Covid-19 was still a boss-level enemy to confront.

For one, esports-related tournaments and events were closed and physical events remain prohibited until today.

“The stakeholders in the events-place are not as liquid as before today. Right now, deal sizes, which are mostly online, are smaller compared to physical events,” Gutierrez told the BusinessMirror.

“If you think about the logistical hell that comes with physical events: it’s hell moving people from one place to another, with all the requirements and permits needed as well as tests. It’s hell,” he added.

But if there was one industry that could make a quick turn-around with the digital environment being braced under the so-called “Pandemic Normal” or “New Normal,” it would be esports.

“Lockdowns have left tournament organizers scrambling for new ways and workarounds to keep the scene going,” Manaloto said.

“Unfazed by these limitations, esports practitioners have quickly adapted to this new normal to continue engaging both players and fans, on the back of esports being a truly digital-first space,” he added.

Like what a video game requires of players, the esports industry became flexible and adopted methods in terms of tournaments to survive. Purely digital competitions were livestreamed at the comfort of people’s homes while some utilized hybrid formats e.g., a bubble where esports athletes compete physically sans spectators.

Decline, engagement

MANALOTO expressed surprise that despite losing the crowd-filled stadiums with thousands of spectators, esports tournaments saw a rise in viewership.

“This method is actually quite familiar to most of the people that came on early in this space. This is how esports started to grow decades ago and how grassroots tournaments are still being done now to a degree,” he told the BusinessMirror.

“With this transformation, coupled with new ways to engage fans with vibrant and interactive experiences, viewership numbers have actually increased despite the pandemic,” Manaloto said. He added that data suggests this trend will continue in the coming years, “even as we see more fans pack stadiums in international competitions.”

A manifestation of the prodigious growth in viewership brought about by the pandemic was the over 2.2-million peak viewers that the “Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Southeast Asia Cup 2021” hit in July with matches involving Philippine teams having the most views.

“Esports made the biggest jump after people invested more into cellphones more than PCs. Through mobile phones they learned how to appreciate esports,” Gutierrez told the BusinessMirror. “Before, esports was all about PC games. Today, it is about mobile games.”

Looped in

ONLINE social networking platform provider Twitter Inc. sees a bright potential for Esports in the Philippines.

Maurizio Barbie, Head of Sports and Gaming Partnerships, Southeast Asia and Greater China at Twitter, told the BusinessMirror that the current pandemic has enabled Twitter to become the “stadium for gamers and fans to connect and talk about the latest games, happenings and trends within the Esports community.”

“We’re seeing Filipinos ‘tweeting’ their support and following their favorite esports teams, personalities, even the casters around the world,” Barbie added.

With the majority of people stuck in their homes, Barbie believes the pandemic has helped Twitter to grow. It started during the pandemic last year when there was a 75-percent increase in the growth of conversations regarding gaming and esports compared to the results in 2019. Now in the first half of 2021, there has been an 18-percent increase in tweets about gaming year-on-year.

According to the company’s insights for the first half of 2021, the Philippines ranked 6th on countries tweeting the most about gaming. It was three notches compared to 2020 wherein the Philippines placed ninth.

In terms of helping Filipinos express their love for the game, Barbie said the growth momentum will continue to grow as they enjoy and explore more about esports and gaming in general.

Owning Twitterverse

BASED on the activity and conversations among Filipinos on the platform, Barbie is seeing a positive outlook on the state of Esports in the country as more Filipinos are tweeting in 2021 compared to 2020 which enabled the Philippines to be a major contributor to the 2 billion tweets about gaming globally.

“Perhaps, being at home for the year sparked their interest in esports and online games,” Barbie said.

Based on Twitter’s research, the first half of 2021 indicated that Filipinos tweet about Valorant the most next to “Genshin Impact,” an open-world action game. Other popular games for Filipinos are LoL and DotA 2, which are in the top 10 list in the Philippines, Twitter data revealed.

Apart from the games, Filipinos are known to be vocal in supporting their favorite esports teams. For the same period in 2021, local teams like TNC Predator is one of the most tweeted about esports teams in the Philippines.

To heighten their excitement and experience, Barbie said there are Twitter features such as topics wherein they can follow particular gaming topics such as Dota. So tweets related to these topics will appear in their timeline without the need to follow specific accounts, he explained.

Place to go to

BARBIE said “Twitter Spaces” has been generating interest from the gaming community so far.

He cited the case of Ranboo, an American who’s been famous for his Minecraft content. Although he is streaming regularly on Twitter Spaces, people still got hyped up when Ranboo went live on Twitter Spaces.

“This shows how conversations on Twitter help in keeping the gaming spirit alive; and we hope to see the same trend in the Philippines soon,” he said.

Barbie sees higher growth for Twitter in the second half of 2021 and beyond.

Leagues are ramping up since the beginning of the year so while we are still staying safe at home and Twitter will continue to be the go-to place for gamers and fans to talk about what’s happening in esports, he said.

Barbie said gaming and esports brought a sense of levity and entertainment to a rather mundane stay at home and allowed people to connect and bond with each other during the pandemic.

Although Twitter is not directly a gaming space, it functions as a gathering place for enthusiasts. He said people go to Twitter to bond with the community and conduct discussions among themselves.

“We believe it is only on Twitter where you can get gaming conversations as vibrant, honest and authentic as what we are seeing now,” he said.

Esports future

MOVING forward, Manaloto sees esports as a more lucrative venture for sponsorships—both in terms of teams and tournaments—compared to traditional sports due to “wide and diverse” audience reach.

“Sponsoring esports tournaments and teams presents the same opportunities as taking part in traditional competitive sports leagues in terms of visibility and reach, but with the added and understated advantage of the audience being a demographic that continues to get younger as it grows,” he told the BusinessMirror.

“The same cannot be said for traditional sports where we see the average of their fanbase getting older over time,” he added.

Manaloto pointed out that the rise of online streaming by both professional and casual gamers was also an opportunity for companies and brands to connect to more audience.

“We, as brands, can not only attach ourselves to the performance of the teams in rankings and tournaments but also in the more human interaction that these players have with their fan base,” he said.

Zooming ahead

ACCORDING to Manaloto, data would also suggest that a vast majority of gamers, esports fans and athletes are always early adapters of new technologies and innovations in connectivity, content consumption and devices.

This, he added, “makes them an invaluable audience for companies that continue to push the boundaries in communications and product.”

For Gutierrez, the growth of esports would remain unstoppable in the coming years, both in terms of capturing corporate investments and marketing and driving its audience and fanbase to the roof.

“Traditional sports is technically non-existent in Southeast Asia. All this money poured in the sports IPs will eventually transfer somewhere, and that could be esports,” he said, noting that corporate brands have ventured into esports.

And not only esports would rake in profits and provide a new era of entertainment to everyone, but it will also—at its very core—connect people.

“Esports is going to be the center of everything. Esports is the culture that will bind this digital world out of all the happenings,” he said. “This will bind us, like what sports did before.”

Image courtesy of BM graphics: Job Ruzgal | freepik.com/pikisuperstar





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