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Boundless and fearless: the future of eSports could be in the palm of our hands

This month, we've gotten the opportunity to plug into the mesmerising world of eSports. Through our exploration, we hope to share some thoughts and insights into what has grown into a billion-dollar industry, and also what it may mean for us here in Singapore. First up, a trip to the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Professional League Singapore Season 4 (MPL SG S4) Play-offs.

 
And the crowd goes wild...

It is RSG Singapore (RSG) versus Slate Esports in the Upper Bracket Finals of the Play-offs, and Slate are leading 2-1. Both teams have been dominant in the Regular Season, with defending champions RSG invincible throughout. However, RSG's air of impenetrability is pierced when excellent play from Slate and individual mistakes leaves RSG one game from defeat. And they are struggling in the fourth game. With the threat of plunging into the lower bracket looming, RSG's Bellamy "Lolsie" Yeo calls out, half standing, to his teammates with the voracity of a commander on the battlefield:

"DON'T SCARED! DON'T SCARED!"

With a colloquial flair, no doubt, but the message was clear: "Don't be scared. Press on. Victory is just ahead." His team responded to the call. Even as they were put on the backfoot, with all their turrets destroyed, they just didn't let up.

In between matches, Lolsie seemed to always be smiling and having a good time, which makes his impassioned shot-calling even more memorable. Image courtesy of Zenway Productions.

Like in most MOBAs, teams destroy their opponent's turrets before destroying a final base structure in order to win the game. Slate came banging on the door, and even took a chunk out of RSG's base, but RSG held on and fought back, having found what they seemed to have lost earlier in the game: courage.

Amidst the cheering and chanting of fans supporting both teams, some decked out in team jerseys and paraphernalia, RSG would emerge victorious in this game, and then the next, winning the match 3-2. Back on their throne, the defending champions awaited a likely rematch with Slate in the Grand Finals. But, they were made to work.

The call from Lolsie was a turning point for the match, but it's also a great rallying cry to anyone who would call themselves an eSports enthusiast, particularly in Singapore: have courage, forge ahead, and the future could be limitless.

 
Don't be scared.

eSports has come a long way, not just in the strategic or gaming aspects, but also in production. Image courtesy of Zenway Productions.

Globally, eSports has certainly come a long way since it was first staged in - would you believe it? - 1972. Then, 24 players competed in the "Intergalactic Spacewar Olympics", playing the game of Spacewar!. Then, highly specialised equipment only available at universities and similar institutions could host a gaming tournament. The prize? A year's subscription to the Rolling Stones magazine. Today, it is commonplace to hear of prize-pools upwards of a million dollars.

Locally, the MPL SG S4, featuring the relatively nascent Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (in comparison to industry stalwarts like Starcraft or Dota 2) had a prize-pool of SGD100,000. The winners of MPL SG S4 will also go on to compete at the M4 World Championships for a prize-pool of USD800,000.

We were close to the action and felt the palpable excitement of the live audience - seats filled to the brim with friends, families, and fellow gamers who shared in the pains and triumphs of their heroes.

With every play, we gasped and shrieked in fear or excitement. As the teams marched down mid-lane, we chanted their names. During breaks, some of us listened attentively to the panel, seeking nuggets of insight to the game that had just transpired. Others whipped out their phones to play a couple of quick rounds of the game, desperate to try out some of the amazing plays they witnessed.

During the games, all eyes were glued to the multitude of screens onsite. Image courtesy of Zenway Productions

Like with traditional sports, some will shrug it off as just another hobby. But, just like traditional sports, the dreamlike quality of this experience runs deep within our same veins. If we can dream about sporting glory on the pitch or in the pool as we watch our favourite athletes do the seemingly impossible, we too are allowed to dream of sporting glory within the grandest of eSports arenas. Just five months ago, the Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi became the second instance of eSports being a medal event at a multi-sport competition recognised by the International Olympic Committee. A total of eight games were played there, including Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.

We must have the courage to dream big.

 
Press on.

The mobile-gaming and home-gaming phenomena responsible for the meteoric rise of eSports have smashed many traditional barriers to entry to sporting excellence. Once, only those with specialised training or costly equipment could break into a sport. Once, only those with access to suitable spaces and communities could train (especially in land-scarce Singapore).

Now, eSports has spawned whole battlegrounds that are ever present, and always available. With a click of the mouse, or the tap of a screen, we are ready to go. Through a single "+" icon, we make new friends and forge new partnerships. Many have even met their better halves through gaming.

Over the three days at the MPL SG S4 Play-offs, the powerful feeling of community that eSports is capable of fostering was in full force. Having witnessed it first-hand, it is evident that the eSports scene, perhaps including Mobile Legends, has a bright future ahead here.

Every day, swarms of fans joined the queues to get a coveted seat. The unlucky ones who arrived later would stick around, just outside of bounds, hoping to catch the action through some of the outward facing screens. As if to make up for their distance to the stage, they cheered louder with every play. A passionate team of talents hosted and commentated on the games, sharing their knowledge of the game to both live and online audiences. Some fans even dressed up as their favourite characters, getting a nod of approval from the hosts and fellow audience members.


Images courtesy of Zenway Productions.

It was a gathering of gamers from all walks of life. Some play the game casually as a way to pass time, while a group of streamers who play the game semi-professionally were also present. Speaking to some from the organising parties, there is deep appreciation for the scene as a whole. They speak fondly about the rich narratives they have witnessed and share of the joys the game brings to them.

The players themselves are friends, too - outside of the arena, of course. Even in defeat, they wear bright smiles and wish each other all the best. Rivalries like the one that played out between RSG and Slate, where games are won on the finest of margins, is important to the scene as well. After all, the strongest steel can only be forged from the fiercest of flames.

Bearing witness to such a strong core was heart-warming. It spoke volumes of the hard work put in behind the scenes to foster a community that was equally excitable as they were compassionate to each other. Fans who cheered their team on would jokingly taunt their opponents with "oohs and aahs" when they whiffed their skills. But, the same fans also showed appreciation to both sides for a good game played, regardless of outcome.



Images courtesy of Zenway Productions.

It takes a lot of effort to build communities like this, and it takes even more effort from all sides to keep it going. It carries the seeds of what we may - someday soon - call a spirit, or culture. Here's hoping that we press on to invest more into the scene, so that it can be propelled to greater heights. Meanwhile we should also learn from the larger, international events that we welcome onto our shores, such as the recently concluded F1 Singapore Grand Prix, or the upcoming Dota 2 The International 11.

 
Victory is just ahead.

Ultimately, Slate would get their rematch against RSG in the Grand Finals, as many had predicted. There was a touch of deja vu, as both teams went neck and neck in a sweltering best-of-7 series. Slate's Tristan "Gear" Nathanael even wore a fever patch throughout most of the match to combat the heat. Once again, it was Slate leading with match-point, this time at 3-2.

Yet, once again, they fell short. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that RSG rose to their challenge. Finals MVP Yeo "Diablo" Wee Lun from RSG put on a performance akin to a magician, refusing to get pinned down and escaping near-death situations while stretching the play across the map. His teammates responded in kind by excellently pressing the positional advantage he created for them.

Only in the final moments of the match, when the result was sure - thanks to a full-team wipeout by RSG - did the furrowed brows of the RSG players finally morph into raised brows of elation. (The fans, meanwhile, had been screaming themselves hoarse.) As the Slate players buried their faces in their hands in disappointment, RSG celebrated a hard-won victory. Four games to three. Time elapsed since the first game started: 5 hours.

RSG SG lifting the Championship Trophy. Photo by PotionOnline

Amidst the euphoria, one would be forgiven for shedding tears of both delight and sadness. For Slate, the crowd appreciated the herculean effort they put up: their day of competition had started 11 hours ago as they had to fight through the Lower Bracket. For RSG, there was both joy and relief on the faces of the repeat champions.

Neither team ceded an inch without fighting tooth and nail for it, and their story bears telling because they showed how eSports can move forward as a scene: Don't be scared. Press on. Victory is just ahead.

Of course, we know that the current generation of eSports athletes like RSG and Slate teams only see so far because they stand on the shoulders of giants - from the likes of Tetra to Xian, and even iceiceice. But that is a story for another day.

 

The Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Professional League Singapore Season 4 Play-offs featured the following teams: RSG Singapore, Slate Esports, Evil, Revival, SMG SG, Stellark SG, Team Flash, and Zion Esports.

The event was hosted by Cheryl Yao and featured a casting and analyst panel of Amoux (Ariff Iswandi), ABSTRACT (Eugene Eu), Churros (Ryan Chin), Jayz (Chris Yeo), Kindoufu (Gian Kin Toh), Hauler (Gene Hyun), ScrubbyCheeks (Mae Wong), V3RTIG0 (Rhys Dhammasiri Chua Cheng Jun), and 0Eris0 (Justin Koh).

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