They may be underdogs, but the eSports audience in Southeast Asia is growing faster than anywhere else in the world.
While the other teams at the Overwatch World Cup were nervously fidgeting and checking their keyboards, Ubon “Oputo” Dara and his comrades leaned in close to the camera. They grinned, they dabbed, getting friendly with their fans. In short, while everyone else was fretting about their performance, Team Thailand was plain goofing around.
“We were so proud to be there. That’s why we were having so much fun,” said Oputo. Team Thailand weren’t the favorites to win, but out of all the teams at the international tournament, they were clearly the ones enjoying themselves the most.
They know much more than having a good time though. In the group stages of the tournament, Thailand destroyed the Singapore team, thanks in no small part to heroics from Oputo himself. Thailand even took a game off of China, whose team featured some of the top players in Asia. By the end, Oputo and his teammates proved that their region could go toe-to-toe with the giants of professional gaming.
Team Thailand didn’t make it to the playoffs in the end, but it’s clear that underdog eSports scenes from around the world are on the rise. Their desire to be a part of the pro gaming world, both as audiences and players, are driving them to defy the unique obstacles that stand in their way.
“Southeast Asia’s region is one of the fastest growing audiences in the world, even if it’s not that big right now,” said Newzoo’s financial market analyst Jurre Pannekeet. “As infrastructure is improving, more and more people can game and watch eSports.”
By 2019, experts are predicting the number of diehard eSports fans in Southeast Asia to reach a total of 19 million, growing at a growth rate of 36% every year. That’s higher than anywhere else in the world, with the global annual growth rate sitting at only 18%. Major investments are already flowing in. Nazara Games, a major Indian mobile game publisher, intends to invest 20 million dollars over the next five years to develop India’s eSports ecosystem.
But despite the stupendous growth, the eSports world remains small in the region. “That has to do with language issues, as well as infrastructure, PC owning, those kind of things,” said Pannekeet. To succeed, these investments need to pay off too. In 2015, Singapore’s Garena Stadium—originally built as a hub for eSports in the region—shut its doors for good, due to a lack of return investment.
Language barriers are also a big hindrance to eSports growth. “There are a lot of different languages around Southeast Asia, so it’s hard to organize large events in the region that everyone can follow,” said Pannekeet. Despite having less than half as much overall land mass as North America, the Southeast Asian region contains more than nine major languages. In other words, the diversity of cultures that makes the region so colourful and unique has presented a challenge for those trying to plan big tournaments. “That’s not a problem that America or South Korea has,” Pannekeet said.
Even Japan, the third biggest market in the world for video games, has been slow to develop a robust eSports scene.
“Japan is traditionally a huge console market. Console games are really popular there, but the biggest eSports titles of the moment are on PC,” said Pannekeet. That’s why, according to analysts, the most watched and played eSports in Japan are fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter, which are native to consoles.
These countries may still be developing their eSports audiences, but one doesn’t need to look far to see evidence of their passion around pro gaming. Dota 2’s Manila Major in 2016 filled up all 15,000 seats of the Mall of Asia Arena. The crowd was nearly deafening in recordings. While players from regions with smaller eSports scenes face unique challenges when competing on the global stage, they approach it with spunk and determination, like Oputo and the rest of Team Thailand.
“This wasn’t the big moment for Thai eSports, but it might have been enough to inspire Thai players to follow their dreams,” said Oputo after the Overwatch World Cup. With Southeast Asia’s growing presence in the world of eSports, we should expect a lot of those dreams over the next few years to come true.