The mascot of the 31st SEA Games is Sao La, which is based on the
saola, a rare animal native to central Vietnam listed in Vietnam’s Red
Book of Endangered Species and one of the world’s rarest animals.

The Southeast Asian Games (commonly known as the SEA Games) is a biennial multi-sport event that involves athletes from 11 Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam was slated to host the 31st edition in November-December 2021, but the event was postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns. In order to protect the health of 10,000 athletes, officials, and other participants, the 31st SEA Games is now planned for May 2022.

Abraham Tolentino of the Philippines Olympic Committee declared in January, “It’s clearly a go for the SEA Games in Hanoi in May.” The event will be held between May 12-23 and will feature 40 sports, including esports. This is the second time Vietnam has held the SEA Games since 2003 and the second time esports has been included as a medal event.

Esports returns as a medal sport event at the 31st SEA Games  

While esports is already recognized as a medal sport at the SEA Games, and the upcoming 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, it is yet to be recognized as a sport at the international summer Olympics according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC.)  Although the IOC has shown its interest towards esports, they are not planning to include esports in the Olympics anytime soon. The IOC stated that the inclusion of esports in 2024 is “premature”, but the door is open for 2028, when the games will be held in Los Angeles. Casey Wasserman, the head of Los Angeles’ Olympic committee, is an esports supporter. Asia  has led the way in recognizing esports as a sport by introducing esports as an exhibition event at Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta and as a medal sport at SEA Games 2019 in Manila.

With the incredible growth of the global esports industry—Niko’s estimates put the Asian esports market alone accounting for more than 54% of the nearly $1 Billion-dollar global esports market in 2021—it is not that surprising that the IOC is slowly changing its perspectives regarding esports. In order to support the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, the IOC decided to partner with five International Sports Federations and game publishers to produce the Olympic Virtual Series (OVS). It was the first-ever, Olympic-licensed event for physical and non-physical virtual sports. The OVS brought together virtual sport, esports, and gaming enthusiasts from all over the world to reach new Olympic audiences, especially the youth, while also encouraging the development of both physical and non-physical forms of sport, as recommended by the IOC’s Agenda 2020+5.

A history of esports at the SEA and Asian Games 

While IOC officials have been mulling the inclusion of video games as early as 2017, the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA) has played a crucial role in terms of including and promoting esports at events in Asia. The OCA, Electronic Sports Federation (AESF), and the Indonesia Asian Games Organizing Committee first included esports as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta, Indonesia. The debut of esports at 2018 Asian Games not only has demonstrated the esports growing appeal around the world, but also its growing popularity in Asia. After the successful debut in 2018, esports became a full medal sport at the 30th SEA Games 2019 in the Philippines and as noted, will continue to be a medal event at the upcoming 31st SEA Games in Hanoi, Vietnam. Esports will also be a full medal sport at the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, where as many as 24 medals will be given out in esports.

At the upcoming 31st SEA Games, the Southeast Asian Games Federation regulates the sporting events which are overseen by the IOC and the OCA.  Esports is among the 40 sports being competed at the SEA Games as a medal sport, which will be held at the Vietnam National Convention Center. Organizers of the 31st SEA Games initially removed it from the program due to budget constraints caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With the growing appeal for esports in Asia and across the globe, the AESF had led the bid for its inclusion. After months of lobbying and several discussions, the AESF was pleased to announce that esports will be officially reinstated as a medal sport at the Games.

Esports titles at the 31st SEA Games 

The esports titles chosen for the 31st SEA Games are highly reflected from the region’s esports landscape. The Vietnamese Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism released a list of sports for the SEA Games and confirmed that the esports event will award 10 gold medals across eight titles. That will be four more esports medals than at the SEA Games during the 30th games in the Philippines.

Mobile titles remain the strongest driver of growth of esports in the region. According to Niko’s Esports Tracker, the number of PC competitions declined by 20% during the pandemic and the number of mobile competitions rose by 10.9%. Thus, it is unsurprising that five of the eight esports titles that will be held at the 31st SEA Games are mobile games, while the rest are PC titles. Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, League of Legends: Wild Rift, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Mobile (PUBG Mobile), Free Fire, and Arena of Valor are the mobile titles. Among the esports titles, League of Legends: Wild Rift will split into men’s and women’s events. Similarly, PUBG Mobile will split individual and team categories. The PC games are League of Legends, CrossFire, and FIFA Online 4.

Mobile esports titles are dominating the event, PC esports titles came in second place with the most participated sports medal, there are no console titles. Thus, the upcoming competition arrangement is according to the popularity of video games among youth in the region in recent years. Niko Partners estimated the games revenue for PC and mobile in Asia, including China, at $81 billion in 2021, making the continent the largest game market in the world.

All 11 countries will compete   

The Southeast Asian Games Federation expects all 11 members to compete in the 31st SEA Games.  Currently, countries are preparing their national esports athletes for the respective sports program. To name a few of the countries’ preparations in esports, the Malaysian Esports Selection 2022 has been established on February 18 to host the official qualifier events for various esports titles in Malaysia. After the selections have completed, the national players will undertake a two-month bootcamp at Casa Bukit Jalil and the EBN Esports Arena at Quill City Mall in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia hopes to win at least four medals in esports this year. In the 30th SEA Games, the country won a gold medal in Hearthstone and a bronze medal in Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.

The Philippines national esports team Sibol have also begun their campaign for the games on March 17 at a face-to-face meeting held by the Philippines Esports Organization. Sibol currently has 64 delegates (55 athletes and 9 coaches), all of whom were chosen through team-based qualifications. Sibol will be competing in all ten events at the upcoming Games. Leo Escutin, Sibol’s team manager, stated that they expect all teams to finish at the top. After all, the Sibol had a remarkable medal haul in the 30th SEA Games, when they won three gold medals in Dota 2, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Starcraft2, a silver medal in Tekken 7, and a bronze medal in Tekken 7.

Meanwhile, Pengurus Besar Esports Indonesia (PBESI) also officially announced 66 national esports athletes to compete at the upcoming games. The 66 esports athletes  of the Indonesian esports national team were selected among the 128 athletes during the first stage of the National Training Center (Pelatnas). The country won 2 silver medals in Arena of Valor and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang during the previous SEA Games.

Final thoughts   

By legitimizing esports as a sport, from a demonstration sport to a full medal sport at SEA Games and Asian Games, the society and sports community have become more receptive towards esports. It should also be noted that this year’s organizing committee is giving out more medals for esports compared to prior events. The increasing number of medals illustrates the growing importance of esports in the major sports events in Asia. With the unified effort in pushing for esports in the major sporting events across Asia, hopefully, the Olympics will be the next to organize esports. That will be another historical moment created for both the sports and esports world. Niko Partners will keep a close eye on the esports competition in the SEA Games, and on future regional and global esports events.

Edward Tien, analyst
Niko Partners