E-Sports in Việt Nam: It’s Not All Fun & Games

Published August 1, 2015 in Episode 15

$18 million. That’s the prize pool for this year’s The International tournament. It’s being hosted in Seattle this week. But what’s The International you ask? It sounds like a golf major. Or is it a tennis grand slam?

Nope, it’s actually a video game tournament. $18 million? That’s about 100 times the annual salary of a doctor or an engineer.

“But our parents tell us, ‘stop playing games, go study or find a job. It’s better for you!’”  

Thành playing for team 1st.vn at The Asia 2012 in Kuala Lumpur (Photo: Facebook)

Thành playing for team 1st.vn at The Asia 2012 in Kuala Lumpur (Photo: Facebook)

That’s 24-year-old Sài Gòn resident Nguyễn Đình Việt Thành. He’s better known to the online community by the pseudonym Misa.

He and many of us have heard that line from mum or dad many times. I know I have, especially when I’m playing video games. But what if you believe that playing games is your true calling?

“I have been playing Dota for about nine years. I study university in Đà Lạt City, and I moved to HCM city so I can play competitive Dota while I’m studying.”

Thành is just one of 20 million online gamers in Việt Nam drawn to the competitiveness in a virtual reality.    

Since the 1980s, competitive video gaming has seen a steady rise in popularity worldwide. From humble beginnings as arcade machine duels, which has now developed into stadium-filled crowds, professional gaming is becoming a lucrative career choice. Teenage boys and girls, are realising that they can achieve fame and fortune while doing what they love for a living.  

Video games such as Dota 2, League of Legends, Starcraft II and Counter-Strike are leading the charge in the world of e-sports, short for electronic sports.

Dota 2 in the simplest of terms, is a game of warfare. Two teams of five players face off against each other in an online battleground. Each player controls one character with unique skills and abilities and they basically fight each other until one team manages to destroy the other team’s base.

And it’s no wonder the game is so popular. The top 10 highest e-sports earners are all Dota 2 players.  

Personally, I’ve been playing this game casually for about ten years. I am by no means a professional player. So here’s Thành again.

“I just think Dota 2 is awesome and I want to be the best at this game. So I choose [to be a] pro gamer.”

He has consistently played for the best Dota 2 teams in Việt Nam. For Thành, his ultimate dream has been to compete in Dota 2’s annual marquee event, The International.

“I dreamt [that] I was Dendi in The International 2. Dendi is the poster boy of Dota 2. People [were] just scream[ing] my name.”

Thành has played in several tournaments in Southeast Asia. But he believes there are inherent external factors holding back players like him from competing on the world stage.

“Our parents still think the game is bad and [will] ruin our lives. That’s why we don’t have many sponsors and so many magazines talk about [how the] game destroy our lives.”

This is a sentiment echoed by Dota 2 caster and analyst Cameron Scott.

“My name [is] Cameron Scott [and] my online handle is Basskip. In terms of being involved in the professional side of things and commentary and whatnot, that’s been about the last three years.”

Based in Brisbane, Australia, Scott is one of the leading experts of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Dota scene.

“There’s a lot of people in Southeast Asia who are very good at whatever game that they play but the issue is that they're students or they work part time, or it's just not perceived as viable.”

Balancing professional matches with school or work is particularly hard in a field where the majority of players are in their teens and early 20s.

It’s a problem Thành and his team members are acutely aware of.

“Two members are only 16 years old and one is 17. Sometimes they have to go study. If you play for fun, it will be balance. But when you wanna be a professional gamer, you have to choose one only: study or playing Dota.”

In Việt Nam, young players face an additional obstacle. The absence of personal computers at home with fast and stable internet speeds forces gamers to play in internet cafes.

“By the way I don’t have [a] PC. I have to pay rent for a house, and internet, food, so many things. So I choose the net cafe, not at home. A lot of the culture in Southeast Asia is net cafes, and I think that holds things back somewhat as well because that doesn’t line up the best with times and even just the environment.”

That's a big problem in a field like e-sports which relies on fast connection speeds, since players compete across countries.

“We run into technological issues where it doesn’t matter how good you are. It also matters how good your connection is, to be able to play other people out in the world. And if you have a shoddy connection that drops out or at inopportune times makes it so that your input doesn't register, then that places a ceiling or a cap on just how competitive you can be.”

Slow internet speeds aside, gamers must also contend with the state. In March 2011, the Vietnamese government imposed a curfew on online gaming between the hours of 10pm and 8am. The authorities hoped to curb the negative side-effects that online gaming supposedly has on the nation’s young.

Some kids, as young as six or seven years old, go to net cafes. They tell their parents, “I’m going to the school, I have to do my homework.” But they just lie to the parents and go to the net shop.

It just so happened that when I asked Thành about this curfew, it was around midnight in Saigon and he was training with his teammates at a net cafe in District 10. He claims that “if they wanted the net cafe to stay open at that time, they have to bribe the police.”

As a tournament administrator, Scott has witnessed this ban work to the detriment of Vietnamese teams.  

“They’d make it quite far in a tournament, but the tournament runs sort of late [into the] evening. Because of university and school, they’re only allowed to play so late. They’re only allowed to play until like 10pm local time. So [there’s been] tournaments where they had to bow out, where they would’ve done very well but unfortunately the curfew meant that they just couldn’t keep on playing.”

Team Spirit Gaming at the Asian Cyber Games, Thành pictured middle (Photo: Facebook)

Team Spirit Gaming at the Asian Cyber Games, Thành pictured middle (Photo: Facebook)

One final and big reason why players like Thành are struggling to make gaming work for them money. It seems contradictory since I mentioned that big prize money earlier. Remember $18 million?

But a country like Việt Nam lacks committed sponsors willing to financially support a team or big prize pools, so Thành has found it extremely hard to put in the time necessary to train and compete at the highest level.

“In Việt Nam, we don’t have many sponsors,” says Thành. “When I play on the Aces Gaming team, we were paid only $150 per month. The sponsor left, so we only make money from winning the tournament.”

It’s a vicious cycle. No money from sponsors to build the scene, hence no stable scene to attract sponsors.

Dota 2 is a game dominated by North American, European and Chinese teams and Scott believes Việt Nam still has ways to go before achieving international competitiveness.

“It probably isn’t viable to go and do this in the long run. There isn’t enough support available, there isn’t enough prize money available. So people who are very talented look at it and they’re like ‘Well, even if I was winning almost every single event that’s not necessarily going to support me.’”

As e-sports continue to flourish, it’s conceivable that professional gaming will become more socially accepted, even in Việt Nam. Scott says slowly but surely, the seeds are being put in place for Việt Nam to take its place on the global scene.

“There are international competitions that are being run now where they include a Southeast Asia qualifier and they bring one or two Southeast Asian teams over to compete. I feel like that avenue is already being built and what probably is just lacking is that base level. There needs to be that group of 50 people who are willing to form teams and to grind, and to really take things seriously.”

So far, Thành has yet to find the big bucks. He does face many struggles in his chosen career path but he told me he’s going to continue playing professionally for the next three years and see where it takes him. There is one thing he would like to tell his mum and other parents of Vietnamese gamers out there: He's not just playing for fun..

“But becoming a professional player is damn hard.”