Wednesday, December 11 marked the conclusion of the 30th biennial Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, held this year in Manila, Philippines. The competition is notable for including esports as a medal event. While this isn’t without some historical precedent, it is the first time esports has been included and awarded medals at a tournament of this scale. It may still be several years before we see esports at The Olympics, but their addition at the SEA Games is a significant step in this trajectory and signals a growing acceptance of esports by international sporting organizations.

The 2019 SEA Games featured esports competition in 6 games: Mobile Legends Bang Bang, Dota 2, Tekken 7, StarCraft 2, Arena of Valor, and Hearthstone. This roster of games is a mix of console, PC, and mobile titles, and highlights some of the most popular games and genres in the region. Of the 10 countries participating in the games, 8 fielded teams for at least one of the esports categories. Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam all participated in esports competition. The only Southeast Asian countries not participating in the esports events were Brunei and East Timor.

Industrial Partnerships Made SEA Games Esports Debut Possible

The road to esports inclusion in the SEA Games began in 2018, but is also part of a longer trend in the region dating back as far as 2013 when esports were a medal event in the 2013 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games. In November of 2018, Min-Liang Tan, CEO of Razer, a gaming technology company based in Singapore, lobbied the Philippine SEA Games Organizing Committee on behalf of esports. In December of 2018, the Philippine National Federation of Esports formally sought esports inclusion in the games with the help of the International Esports Federation (IeSF). Mobile Legends Bang Bang was the first title announced, Dota 2, Tekken 7, StarCraft 2, and Arena of Valor, were added in December. The 6th slot was originally intended for a console title, but was later given to Hearthstone, a mobile and PC game. The game selection reflects gaming trends in the region, where mobile gaming dominates the market. Razer was the official esports partner for the games, providing the technology and infrastructure for esports competition. Razer also streamed matches on its Twitch channel, and Mediacorp had a dedicated channel on Toggle to stream esports

Esports Inclusion at the SEA Games Follows Regional Trends

Inclusion as a medal event is a significant step for esports in the region, and one which may lead to esports inclusion at larger internationally sanctioned sporting events in the future. Esports addition to the SEA Games, does not come as a surprise though. For over a decade the IeSF has worked to bring esports international recognition, and the SEA region has been warming to esports. In the 2013 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, held in Incheon, South Korea, esports were featured as the host country’s addition to the roster of sports. They were included again in the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, held in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and the 2018 Asian Games, held in Jakarta, Indonesia, as an exhibition medal event, meaning medals did not count towards countries’ total medal count. Esports have also been gaining recognition across the region. Over the last few years Indonesia, Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, have all developed national-level governing bodies for esports, working with government Ministries of Youth and Sports to develop national esports teams and esports competitions.

Looking toward the future, we already expect to see esports completion at the 2022 Asian Games. In 2017 the Olympic Committee of Asia announced plans to include esports as a medal event for the 2022 Asian games in Hangzhou, China. Similar to Razer’s partnership with the SEA Games, Alisports, a division of Alibaba, has partnered with the OCA to bring esports to the Asian games. This will be the another big step in esports recognition as a sanctioned sporting event on an international stage.The International Olympics Committee (IOC) also updated its stance on esports earlier this month, noting that they see great potential for esports and incorporating it into the sports movement. The committee concluded that at this stage it will focus on players and gamers, rather than specific games.

SEA Games Esports are a Success for Philippines and Razer

Esports at the 2019 SEA Games were a huge success, especially for the host country. Sibol, the Philippines national Esports team, won three gold medals: one for Dota 2, one for StarCraft 2, and one for Mobile Legends Bang Bang. Thailand won 2 gold medals, its first in Arena of Valor and second claimed by Nopparut “Book” Hempamorn in Tekken 7. Malaysia’s Dr Yew “Academician“ Weng Kean won gold in Hearthstone. The SEA Games Committee hopped the scale of the games and the addition of esports would result in the largest viewership to-date, and early reports seem to suggest this worked. Razer, the official broadcast partner for the esports completion, announced nearly 2 Million streaming viewers tuned in the first day of completion alone, and expected millions more before the close of the games.