(photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Gaming can be addictive and can cause people to waste entire days playing, but it can also be a crucible for honing perseverance, willpower, and the drive to chase your dreams. With the quiet efforts of competitors, coaches, and members of the gaming industry, esports is gradually losing its old stigma as it turns a new page in its history.
One of Taiwan’s few dedicated esports clubs is located in Yonghe, New Taipei City. Unlike the razzle-dazzle people tend to associate with esports, though, ahq eSports Club is much more like some unconventional athletics dormitory. Some 60-plus competitors and coaches, averaging about 20 years of age, are packed into this two-story space. There are rules governing rest times and gaming, and everyone is expected to meet their targets. Like a well-disciplined military unit, they must all adhere to these strict living conditions.
Harder than testing into NTU
“Honestly, I never dreamed I would become an esports competitor,” says Chen Yi, one of Taiwan’s top gamers, who goes by the gamertag “Ziv.” When he started gaming, it was simply for the enjoyment of playing. “If you enjoy something, you do more of it. Just because you like basketball, for instance, that doesn’t mean you dream of getting into the NBA.”
There’s a common saying around Taiwan’s esports community: “Becoming a pro gamer is harder than testing into National Taiwan University.” They’re absolutely right. NTU admits thousands of students every year, but professional esports teams in Taiwan number only about 80 people in total, while easily over a million people play video games.
But being good at games is not enough to become an esports competitor. Talent is a must, but not the most important thing; “Lots of people play well, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you can get into esports,” says Chen. Take League of Legends, for example. A game of two teams of five, each team member has a strategic role to play, and it is essential that they be able to work together to optimize the team’s performance.
“The most important thing is passion,” Chen believes. Passion is what enables one to make it through the hard work of being in training and never knowing if or when you’ll make it to the team proper. Along the way, one must endure as much as ten hours a day of rigorous training, along with the inevitable merciless ridicule of viewers online.
The rise of esports
While modern home video games have only been around for some 40 years, in the past decade the spread of high-speed Internet access and the maturing of streaming platforms, smartphones and other related technologies have created the conditions for a boom in the industry.
At its core, esports differs little from traditional sports: both are about respect for the spirit of the competitors, the entertainment of matches, and the commercial value generated. However, the explosive growth in esports and in the attention being paid to it is unprecedented. The most popular games right now, like League of Legends, Hearthstone, and Dota 2, enjoy audiences on a par with professional baseball. In Taiwan alone, LoL can have as many as 2 million players online at the same time, while the League of Legends World Championship attracts over 100 million viewers, and these numbers continue to grow.
As a result, esports is slowly gaining mainstream recognition. In 2013, the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games included esports for the first time, and it was featured as a demonstration sport at the Asian Games for the first time in 2018. In Taiwan, the Legislative Yuan amended the Sports Industry Development Act in 2017 to include esports, and the Ministry of Culture has added esports as an option for substitute military service. As you can see, esports has begun to earn a legitimate name for itself.
However, while the market is growing rapidly, the surrounding environment has not kept pace, which is a major concern. CEO of ahq eSports Club Henry Lin remarks frankly that “in this industry, competition and business have always come first.” Just like traditional sports, though, esports also requires health management, psychological counseling, physical therapy, career planning, and other professional assistance, but at present this is still lacking.
Chen Yi (Ziv), who got into esports at the age of 18, has a wealth of competitive experience and has witnessed the growth of esports in Taiwan from its birth to the current boom. (photo by Lin Min-hsuan)
Esports education goes legit
Another group that is having trouble keeping up is the general public. As a result, people like Chen Yi, whose parents don’t really understand esports, end up in cross-generational arguments over and over again. Regardless of how the public perceives esports, though, the skyrocketing of the industry is an indisputable fact. Statistics show that esports generates as much as US$1.1 billion in value a year, and that figure continues to rise.
“I used to hate to see kids playing video games,” says Chan Hsun-hung, chair of the Department of Computer and Communication Engineering at Taipei City University of Science and Technology (TPCU). He was among the first to notice the potential of esports in Taiwan and has been a major advocate for esports education.
Chan’s first exposure to esports came about a decade ago, when he had a pro gamer in one of his courses. After about half a year looking into overseas research into the industry, his attitude toward video games took a turn for the positive, and ultimately he realized that the competitors made up only 1% of the esports industry, with the remainder involved in other work.
In 2016, six schools—TPCU, Far East University, Neng Ren Home Economic and Commercial Vocational High School, Nan Chiang Vocational High School, Tongtex Secondary High School, and Li-Chih Valuable School—formed an alliance to launch a “3+4” curriculum that incorporates esports into formal education. Their goal is to prepare fertile ground for the next generation of esports competitors.
New industry, new culture, new era
“Esports isn’t just playing video games!” Such are the heartfelt words of many who work in the industry.
Esports is known for being a high-pressure, high-intensity activity that demands great concentration. Just looking at LoL, there are the two professional seasons (spring and summer), post-season games, invitationals, and all-star tournaments, leaving those at the top level with virtually no time off all year. Each match is best of five, and each round can take 30 to 40 minutes, with no breaks in between. It can be tough going, and if competitors lack self-discipline and don’t keep themselves in good condition, their performance will suffer.
In the esports industry, the players may be the center of attention, but the teams behind the scenes can’t be overlooked, from coaches and analysts to game designers, video directors, sound engineers, editors, match commentators, and even event planners and organizers, as well as marketing planners. Chan has focused on the broader shortage of available talent, incorporating these areas into the curriculum of the Department of Computer and Communication Engineering and asking students to get involved with as many different areas as they can to develop their professional skills.
When we set foot in the esports complex at TPCU, Chan proudly remarks that the entire venue was created by him and his students, starting from the design drawings. A small space, it is fully equipped, boasting a hosting and commentary booth, relay room, and competition space, all fit for hosting small-scale competitions. The department has also developed a professional team of 30 people able to organize competitions. In 2019 they handled the Ryunetsu International Esports Competition at the Christmasland shopping mall in Banqiao, New Taipei City.
Esports education may still not be fully mature—Chan admits that he and his students are “learning on the job”—but the early days of such an industry are always going to have their share of adventure. In fact, that’s the fun of the esports industry. What enticed Henry Lin of ahq eSports Club to switch to esports from a stable accounting job was not that he himself is fascinated by video games—indeed, he admits he never even plays them—but rather the enjoyment of creating a new culture alongside the competitors.
“I consider esports the leader of a new culture,” he says. While the core ideas and personnel needs are much the same as those of traditional sports, the business model, interaction with fans, and cultural aesthetics are entirely different. The impact of video games can be both positive and negative; it all depends on perspective. As a pioneer, Lin hopes to do his best to move esports forward in a positive direction.