JUST last month, over 40,000 fans from around the world packed the Sangam World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea to catch the 2014 League of Legends (LoL) World Championship.
Now we know what you’re thinking – why would 40,000 people travel all the way to Seoul just to watch a bunch of guys play a computer game?
The answer’s simple – LoL isn’t just a computer game; it’s an e-sport, one with an insanely large following. So large, in fact, that the Worlds offered a prize pool of US$2.13mil (RM7.13mil), with almost half of that going to the winning team.
Back home in Malaysia, five young professional gamers are working hard day and night to realise their dreams of qualifying for the Worlds next year.
“We’re living our dreams of playing games for a living! And no athlete in the world wins a championship without hard work, sweat and some failure.”
The members of the Kuala Lumpur Hunters (KLH) – Jason “JaeYoong” Yoong, 22, Poon “OzoraVeki” Kok Sing, 17, Eric “QaspieL” Sia, 19, Tan “13GhostSk” Kah Guan, 19, and Muhammad Atuf “Shu” Aimullah, 19 – are full-time pro-gamers, paid between RM2,000 to RM2,500 a month to play computer games.
Making a mark
LoL is one of the most popular games in the world today. In January, its developer Riot Games announced that it was being played by 27 million players every day.
“The gameplay is so different today from when it began (in 2009). It’s now a true team sport, less driven by individual plays than it’s ever been,” said Garena Malaysia assistant manager Lee Heng Leon.
For the unfamiliar, Garena owns the rights to LoL in Southeast Asia. The game is played between two teams of five. They each select a character, or champion, from the get-go and use its unique abilities to outplay their opponents in skirmishes.
The aim of the game is to destroy your opponent’s base to secure a win. Sounds straightforward enough, but plenty of strategy and team coordination is required, which makes for great viewing for clued-in spectators.
“Many pro players look back fondly on Season 1 Worlds as the last time LoL was just a game and not a career,” Lee continued. “Today, there are now full-time pro leagues in the United States, Europe, China, South Korea and even Southeast Asia!”
Back here, Garena hosts the Garena Premier League (GPL), the highest level of competitive LoL play in Southeast Asia. And that’s where KLH will be hoping to make its mark next year – but it’ll be tough.
While arguably the best team in the country, KLH has yet to win a GPL title since the team’s formation two years ago. Team captain JaeYoong, who – aside from a short stint with another team – has been with KLH since, hopes to finally nab the title that has so eluded them.
“We’re living our dreams of playing games for a living! And no athlete in the world wins a championship without hard work, sweat and some failure,” he said.
Work hard, play harder
Being a pro gamer is not all fun and games (see what we did there?). For starters, KLH players undergo a strict 10am to 7pm training schedule, five days a week. And their weekends are frequently reserved for tournaments, too.
“It’s not just about practising the game. As a pro team, we have to focus on ‘theorycraft’, preparing strategies and working on our team synergy and relationship,” said JaeYoong.
We have to live a disciplined lifestyle – including exercising so that we have a healthy state of body and mind. People think gamers don’t eat and sleep well, but for pro gamers, a balanced lifestyle is essential.
(FYI, theorycraft is a mathematical analysis of game mechanics, which gives players a deeper understanding of the inner workings of a game.)
“Also, we have to live a disciplined lifestyle – including exercising so that we have a healthy state of body and mind. People think gamers don’t eat and sleep well, but for pro gamers, a balanced lifestyle is essential.”
If you take into account all the hours they put in, pro gamers are actually some of the most hard-working people you will meet.
Of course, it’s hardly work for them. Gaming is a passion, not just a job.
“After training in the office, I usually head home and spend another four to five hours on practice and research. It’s very important for us to work hard outside the game, too,” said 13GhostSk.
“Another big part of the game is communication, so we need to learn how to do that in the most efficient way.”
As the youngest in the team, OzoraVeki, who is currently sitting for his SPM examinations, faces an even tougher test of balancing his pro gaming career and studies.
Luckily for him, he has parents who are incredibly helpful and supportive.
“My parents allowed me to pull out of public school for home schooling when I got the opportunity to be a pro gamer.
“That helped me because you have to be mentally and emotionally strong during important matches, and it’s hard to maintain that when you have a lot of distractions in your life,” he said.
The stakes are definitely high for KLH. They stand to win US$80,000 (RM267,000) out of a US$200,000 (RM669,000) prize pool for placing first in the GPL.
And the best part is they get to keep all their winnings. This structure, which extends to e-sports around the world, creates a healthy ecosystem for the industry to thrive, according to Lee.
“Having the group stages of this year’sWorlds in Singapore and Taiwan was a great step by Riot Games in promoting LoL here.
“On our part, we’re developing rookie, semi-pro and pro tournaments locally to help players grow from amateurs to pro,” said Lee.
Nevertheless, JaeYoong reckons the pro players themselves have a part to play to ensure the growth of e-sports in Malaysia.
“Not to stereotype, but I’ve seen many players adopt the mentality that they can’t be better than international LoL players. So, they don’t even want to try,” he said.
“They feel that way because international players have gaming houses, good sponsors and a better ecosystem for gaming compared to us.
“But I strongly believe that when the players make it, big gaming companies and sponsors will definitely come in and help make things better.”
A gaming house is a sponsored home where players from a pro team live, eat, sleep and play under the same roof. It is still non-existent for LoL players locally but, hopefully, it is only a matter of time.
Regardless, that won’t stop the players of KLH, who are already living the dream, from chasing their goal of reaching the Worlds and cultivating the growth of e-sports in Malaysia.