Hong Kong gamers line up for rich pickings

Professional video gaming lucrative for local champions, but sceptical parents need convincing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 August, 2014, 10:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 August, 2015, 11:51am

It's not easy convincing a parent that playing video games can become a legitimate career. But e-sports, as it is called, is a growing global phenomenon, and a Hong Kong company is grooming local enthusiasts to compete on the world stage.

Derek Cheung, the 23-year-old CEO of Hong Kong Esports, embraces the challenge and, for the second year running, his company is hosting a contest to find the city's best players and show that it is possible to make a living from gaming. The 2nd Hong Kong Electronic Sports Tournament Grand Finals, which will take place at Kitec this weekend, has a prize pool of HK$1.5 million and is expected to attract about 3,000 spectators.

Cheung's company has a team of five players competing in the hugely popular game League of Legends, but he has bigger plans.

"For this market to flourish, we need a certain amount of money so star players can really make it their life," Cheung says. The money and viewers are certainly out there. Players on Hong Kong Esports' roster make HK$6,000 to HK$80,000 a month, depending on their exposure. Prizes can run to millions of dollars. A tournament for the online multiplayer game Dota 2 last month, for example, yielded a prize pool of US$5 million for the winning team.

A recent study by US research firm IHS found that viewers of e-sports spent 2.4 billion hours watching games last year, three times the amount of time people spent watching television. The firm estimates e-sports video will be worth US$300 million a year globally by 2018.

Also betting that the audience will continue to grow, Amazon this week announced a US$970 million purchase of Twitch - a site that allows users to watch other people playing video games. Illustrating just how big e-sports audiences can be, the October 2014 World Finals for the League of Legends championship will be held in South Korea's Sangam Stadium, which was a venue for the 2002 Fifa World Cup.

Nevertheless, parents are generally unconvinced. Kim Dong-hwan, a 24-year-old professional StarCraft II player from South Korea, says his parents didn't approve of video games, so he practised when they were at work or asleep. A few years ago he qualified for a tournament in Seoul, but he needed money for a plane ticket and a hotel room because his family lived on an island. So Kim worked part time to earn the US$200 he needed, and left home the night before the tournament.

He taped a note in the kitchen for his parents that night. It read: "Hey Mum and Dad, I'm really sorry about this, but this is a really serious thing for me. Saturday, 7pm, turn on the TV, channel 56 , I'll probably be on TV. Don't say anything, just trust me … I love you".

He later ignored the phone when his parents tried to call, instead sending them a reassuring text message.

He did get on TV, but he came up short in the tournament. Still, Kim impressed TV commentators by performing better than several professionals.

Kim's parents called later to tell him they'd seen the programme and were proud of him. They also told him they'd support his decision to pursue a career as a gamer. Kim cried hearing the words.

Earlier this year, Kim became the first StarCraft II player to be granted a US visa normally reserved for athletes, and he now plays in the US. In the past two years he has made about US$100,000.

Although Kim has succeeded in chasing his dream, Cheung hopes it doesn't have to be so difficult for aspiring pro-gamers. For players on his company's team - HK Attitude - Cheung says he has spoken to some of their parents. They didn't warm to the idea of pro-gaming initially, but eventually came around.

HK Attitude's players stay together at a house in Fanling five days a week, following a rigorous daily training schedule that includes gaming but also strategy-planning sessions and an hour of exercise - usually running or swimming.

Teenagers might not know when to follow their own path. But if they're still playing video games in university, then they know what they want to do
Derek Cheung, CEO, Hong Kong Esports

Cheung understands the potential health hazards associated with playing video games all day and avoids targeting secondary school students with tournaments and discounts. Hong Kong Esports has organised contests for local universities, however, and this weekend's tournament includes finals for collegiate events.

"We realise that teenagers can sometimes be very lost and won't know when to follow their own path," Cheung says. "For example, they might get addicted to e-sports without finding the right balance. But if they're still playing video games in university, then they know what they want to do."

Even professional gamers acknowledge the problem of addiction. Kurtis Lau Wai-kin, a 22-year-old who goes by the name Toyz, used to play League of Legends professionally and his team won the 2012 World Championship, bagging a US$1 million prize. Lau says he started gaming as a secondary school student and couldn't stop.

"I would play as soon as school ended; I rarely studied," Lau says. He left school after Form Four and went to live with his team in Taiwan. For two years, he trained for about nine hours every day. Late last year, Lau decided to retire from pro-gaming after injuring his hand. He now works for Hong Kong Esports, making money from streaming his games online. He's also thinking about starting his own business.

Kim moved to the US in part for health reasons. At one point in South Korea, he spent eight months living with 24 other team members in a house with just two bathrooms. "It was really crazy, and if one of the guys got a cold, everybody got it," Kim says.

In the US, Kim's daily schedule involves more than two hours of exercise. He says he'll probably retire from pro-gaming in four or five years.

Players who compete in games such as League of Legends and StarCraft II need quick reflexes - quick enough to press the keyboard or mouse several times a second. Others, such as competitive arcade game Street Fighter, are less demanding.

Jonny Cheng Lai, a 32-year-old known as Humanbomb, has been playing Street Fighter for 20 years. In 2012, he ranked fifth in the Evolution Championship Series, the World Cup of fighting games. But although he competes, Cheng does not play professionally.

"I thought about becoming a pro-gamer, but there aren't that many companies sponsoring pro-gamers," he says, adding he wouldn't be opposed to moving to another country if the right sponsor came along.

He still goes to tournaments, most recently to Shanghai (China declared e-sports the 99th sports category in 2003), but it's not always affordable. His trip to the 2012 Evolution Championship Series in Las Vegas, for example, cost him more than HK$10,000. Last year, he took part in several contests.

Cheng helps run his family's jewellery business but also makes money on the side by giving one-on-one tutorials for Street Fighter. "Your performance in this game really depends on experience," he says, adding that he's not thinking about retiring just yet.

Whether or not more gamers in Hong Kong take the professional route remains to be seen, but Cheung has staked his company's success on it. He has enough money from investors to keep going for three years, and he's focused on expanding. He says attracting investors wasn't easy, but he succeeded by presenting a broad-based business plan.

"We need to promote e-sports first," Cheung says. "We convinced our investors. With more exposure, then casual gamers - the real spenders - will get on board."