JAKARTA/BANGKOK (Reuters) - “Slay the dragon!” Thailand’s national coach yells, rallying his players as they rehearse an elaborate assault for the 2018 Asian Games.
Their sport, making its debut at a major global athletic event, requires only one piece of equipment: a mobile device for playing Chinese tech giant Tencent’s online game Arena of Valor.
Competitive video gaming, dubbed esports, will appear at the Asian Games in Jakarta as an exhibition event sponsored by Alibaba’s sports arm Alisports.
It is a trial run for inclusion as an exhibition event in the Paris 2024 Olympics. But companies and telecoms are betting that the spotlight will grow the region’s esports market to match its East Asian peers, where tournaments can sell out entire stadiums in minutes.
“Everybody wants in. I’m getting so many calls that I have to charge my phone four times a day,” Thailand Esports Federation President Santhi Lothong told Reuters.
The region’s youthful population is already the world’s fastest-growing esports market, with PC and mobile games revenues hitting $2.2 billion in 2017, a number projected to double by 2021, according to research by Niko Partners.
“The Asian Games will help esports become more mainstream in Southeast Asia and Asia,” said Johnson Yeh, who manages the region for the Tencent-owned studio Riot Games, whose blockbuster game League of Legends will be in the event.
Analysts also expect a significant boost in sales for the six games featured, half of which are owned by Tencent. Two more titles - Hearthstone and Starcraft II - are made by U.S gaming powerhouse Activision Blizzard, while Pro Evolution Soccer is from Japanese firm Konami Holdings.
Esports’ regional governing body, the Asian Electronic Sports Federation (AESF), chose the games for the competition, but has not made its criteria public. The federation said in May that each title must promote “integrity, ethics and fair play.”
The AESF did not respond to requests for comment. The International Olympics Committee has said games involving violence or shooting would not be considered for exhibition events.
“Being in the Asian Games legitimises our sport further among mass audiences and governments, while providing a legitimate sports dream for the players,” Yeh said.
Thai Arena of Valor competitor Krit Suphattaraphong, 23, said taking part in the Asian games felt like validation of his nascent career.
“I feel like I made the right decision to pursue gaming professionally. This gives me strength to go on,” he told Reuters.
Krit - one of Thailand’s 2,000 professional gamers - said that for most of his life he played on his laptop or mobile phone late at night while hiding under a blanket from his parents.
They blamed his low grades on gaming and threatened to kick him out of the house if he didn’t quit.
Instead, he secretly registered to compete on a Thai reality TV show named King of Gamers, which pits would-be esports athletes against each other.
He was put on a makeshift team called Diamond Cobra that won the show and now represents Thailand in the Asian Games. He and his teammates are sponsored by Toyota and Thai entertainment company Kantana, which ran the TV show.
“Now my parents see it as me doing my job,” said Krit, who practices 10 hours a day. “Since I’m on the national team, they keep telling me to practice hard.”
Before they represent their country on Sunday in front of 5,000 spectators and a television audience, the team is competing in a professional Arena of Valor tournament sponsored by Singapore-based gaming and e-commerce firm Sea Ltd and Thai telecom True.
At stake? A prize pool of 6 million baht ($181,000).
“Thailand was one of the first to embrace esports,” Sea chief strategy officer Alan Hellawell told Reuters. “Vietnam is one of the fastest-growing markets, while Indonesia is the one that’s coming of age in the mobile era.”
The startup, which describes itself as the region’s largest gaming platform, is partly owned by Tencent and sponsors tournaments, leagues, and training.
“With the explosion of smartphones, everyone can be an esports player. The infrastructure that took 15 to 20 years to cultivate in China is taking less than a decade in Southeast Asia,” Hellawell said.
Activision Blizzard told Reuters it has translated one of its games into Thai and was considering further language localisation for the region.
“The majority of Southeast Asia countries have recognised esports as an official sport. We really see it as a growing market,” said Southeast Asia head Paul Chen.
But for esports to graduate to being a medal event at the Asian games, it must be represented by just one organization.
Although AESF says it is the “sole competent authority for electronic sports” in Asia, South Korea’s International e-sports Federation organises separate world championships. There is no single international body.
With two mobile titles selected for the Asian Games, regional telecoms are also set to benefit from esports. Some, like Thailand’s Advanced Info Service (AIS) and True, already sell esports data packages.
Singapore’s Singtel, the region’s biggest operator, is making esports a focus, launching a multi-game esports league and partnering with gaming hardware firm Razer on related tech. Singtel has stakes in AIS, Indonesia’s Telekomunikasi, and the Philippines’ Globe Telecom.
Singtel Group international chief executive Arthur Lang said esports’ presence at the Games shows how they are becoming mainstream, creating demand for data services.
“Southeast Asia is a mobile-first region and gaming is only just taking off,” he said.
Reporting by Fanny Potkin in JAKARTA and Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK; additional reporting by Jessica Damina and Cindy Silviana in JAKARTA and Chayut Setboonsarng in BANGKOK; writing by Fanny Potkin; editing by Gerry Doyle