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Hong Kong lured to the table by a global game with billions up for grabs

Players compete in an e-sports match on 22 Oct., 2016.
Zhang Peng
Players compete in an e-sports match on 22 Oct., 2016.

From the outside there is little to indicate this is the venue for a hugely popular gaming event in a sport that's growing rapidly worldwide.

The 2,000 sq ft industrial building in Kowloon Bay offers no clues to visitors who might have stumbled into the area, no signs indicating what is going on inside or directing spectators. It seems more likely to be holding some trade secret rather than hosting an e-sports video gaming tournament.

But once inside all becomes clear. A giant projector displays the action as it happens and there are seats to accommodate 80 spectators, mostly hip-looking youngsters.

On a stage, are two teams of five players, eyes glued to their computer monitors, fingers stabbing at keyboards, and hands frantically trying to manoeuvre mouses.

There is non-stop chatter from gamers talking into their headsets, while spectators cheer every move, with some even yelling out instructions from time to time.

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After a fierce exchange lasting 40 minutes, one team emerges as champions at this March 18 tournament of the insanely popular League of Legends, a multiplayer online battle game that has acquired a worldwide following and continues to attract at least 100 million players globally every month.

The winning team was PandaCute, Hong Kong's first and only all-female professional video gaming team.

The e-sports market is a fast-growing industry worldwide – and Hong Kong wants a part of it. It only came into the general spotlight in the government's budget in February, when the financial secretary described it as a "new sector with economic development potential" that will boost the city's innovation and technology development.

The administration has devoted much effort into driving innovation and technology, seen as a key to diversifying the financial services-based economy.

In particular, Cyberport, the city's hi-tech hub in Pok Fu Lam, has been commissioned to explore the feasibility of developing a local gaming industry.

Responding to an inquiry by the Post, the business park said it had been in touch with relevant e-sports organisations, with findings and recommendations to be submitted to the government by the middle of this year.

"Cyberport will also try to assess the potential economic benefits generated by e-sports, the roles of different stakeholders in the e-sports ecosystem, and how Cyberport can further facilitate the development of e-sports," a spokesperson said.

Market research firm Newzoo indicated in its annual report that e-sport was a thriving business that could help to boost consumer spending.

Globally, the industry is expected to generate revenue of US$696 million this year, a 41.3 per cent year-on-year increase. That figure is expected to reach US$1.49 billion by 2020.

One of the largest events last year was ESL One Cologne in Germany, which boasted a prize pool of US$1 million, with the winning team taking home US$500,000.

The Hong Kong Tourism Board, which recorded a 4.5 per cent drop in visitor numbers in 2016, has set its sights on the lucrative business. It said in February that it was in talks to hold a large-scale e-sports tournament on the Central harbourfront this summer, inviting overseas teams to compete and hoping to attract tourist dollars along with the gamers.

Eric Chan Chun-kit of Cyber Games Arena, organiser of the tournament in Kowloon Bay, believed the government was heading in the right direction.

"The city is the perfect place to host games worldwide. The density here means they can get from the hotel to the venue in minutes," he said.

Last year the company organised the E-sports Festival 2016, which drew over 100,000 visitors in a four-day event at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai and over 500 gamers from overseas.

But Chan said the city should only focus on hosting events, rather than grooming local players.

"The market for the city is too small to draw big sponsorships. But we can take advantage of our reputation as a tourism hub and bring in overseas gamers," he said.

One of the first e-sports companies to set up shop in the city was Hong Kong Esports, which began nurturing its own e-sports performers in 2013.

Founder Derek Cheung revealed that while Hong Kong was the perfect place to manage his business, his contracted full-time players were based in Taiwan, where most e-sports tournaments are held.

"One of the biggest challenges is that Hong Kong's technological development is falling way behind our regional counterparts," he explained.

His team currently takes part in an official global League of Legends tournament, where entrants are placed in five categories, with Hong Kong teams in the same group as Taiwan and Macau.

"Every year the winners earn NT$1.5 million in prize money, which is about HK$380,000 ... but on the mainland the champions get 1.5 million yuan (HK$1.69 million)," Cheung said, revealing the difference in prize money.

The rewards are handsome but the road to success is rough. For example, the triumph of the PandaCute team at the Kowloon Bay tournament came with a price; members trained 10 hours a day, five days a week, which included taking part in friendly matches with other teams.

Asked about their performance on the day, captain Deer Chan Ka-ching said they were not particularly satisfied and felt they could have made fewer errors.

"[As a professional team] we definitely feel the pressure. People expect us to win all the time," she said.

And Chan admitted there was still a long way to go before e-sports gained mainstream recognition in Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong Federation of Students' Electronic Sports, which takes a backstage role by organising events for schools and non-profit organisations, believed they were on an important mission.

"One of our goals is to prove that we're doing something meaningful, that we are 100 per cent serious and dedicated," founder Gabriella Leung Nga-chi said.

The group compares itself to the Jockey Club.

"If you want to have good quality horse racing events, there must first be a world-class racing ground, well-maintained stables and a solid training programme for jockeys," vice-president Karl Chun Yat-long said.

Gamers in the past shared their passion quietly with friends, but many quit under pressure from parents who felt video games were a negative influence and a distraction from their studies.

Samuel Chu Kai-wah, associate professor at the Hong Kong University Faculty of Education quickly debunks such common beliefs.

Citing neuroscience studies, Chu said playing certain action games for 30 minutes a day over a period of two months could actually stimulate brain growth and boost memory, sight, hearing and decision-making skills.

"But the interesting point is once you go over the limit, growth becomes inhibited – the key is to avoid addiction," Chu said, adding that a good rule of thumb was to do it in moderation, no more than 20 hours a week.

Chu recognises the benefits and has been promoting the concept of gamification – the application of game elements in teaching and learning.

Looking ahead, Leung said the ultimate goal was not just seeing the best local players on the professional stage but about making people regard e-sports as a positive activity.

It's tough at the top for an e-gamer

It's common knowledge that on average a professional athlete's career is more or less over by the time they reach their late 30s. But the career lifespan of an e-sports gamer is even shorter.

E-sports athletes constantly make split-second decisions in a fast-paced environment. It is highly demanding, both physically and mentally, and requires tip-top reflexes and fast brain responses. Both attributes often peak at the age of 24, according to a 2014 study by Simon Fraser University in Canada.

That's why Aaron Ho Ho-nam has made a bold move. Months away from obtaining a licence to practise Chinese medicine, the 26-year-old decided to pursue a career in e-sports.

A rather frail-looking individual who speaks with a soft voice, Ho appeared rather confident when he began to talk about his knack for video games. "I have had this natural talent since I was young. I was always better than others."

After graduating from Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, Ho took a master's course at Baptist University to obtain the necessary qualifications. But his passion for video games never waned. "Because of the support I got from my friends, I came to [Hong Kong Esports] for a series of tests, which I survived. That's how I ended up here."

He is now one of four full-time players at Hong Kong Esports for Clash Royale, one of the most popular card games on the smartphone platform, which has attracted 100 million players since its release in 2016.

"Being able to play anywhere, any time, it gives me the flexibility to juggle between my studies and fulfilling obligations as a paid gamer."

The biggest difference between professional and amateur gaming, Ho explained, was that paid gamers had to maintain a certain level of popularity in order to draw sponsorship. One of the ways Ho achieved this was to broadcast his gaming sessions on Twitch, a streaming video platform owned by Amazon. Other duties included discussing strategies with teammates and coaches to constantly improve his skills.

Although once in fourth place on the global leader board, Ho acknowledged he may not be a professional gamer forever. "Maybe I'll stay on for a few more years. When my reactions and reflexes start to wane, then I'll know it's time to go back to Chinese medicine."