In conversations about esports culture, the growth and visibility of professional gaming in South Korea often functions as a baseline for discussion. From the creation of its world-leading internet infrastructure, to the proliferation of PC bangs (South Korea’s take on the LAN café), and, finally, to the release of StarCraft in 1998, no other country has come close to South Korea’s cultural acceptance of professional gaming.
This year, however, the Philippines is making a case for being another country where esports has taken root. The capital, Manila, played host to two extremely successful international Dota 2 events in 2016—ESL One Manila and the Manila Major—both of which showed the world just how much the Philippines loves esports. It had been a long time coming before these events brought teams from outside Southeast Asia into the country, and so both events were gifts well-appreciated by the Filipino Dota 2 community. But to understand why the pair of tournaments meant so much, it’s important to look at the history of gaming and esports in the Philippines, and how the country produced one of the largest esports communities in the world but hasn’t, until recently, been especially visible beyond its borders.
It’s important to look at the history of gaming and esports in the Philippines.
Much like South Korea, internet cafes are a dime a dozen in the Philippines. Offering services from printing to PC rental for playing online games, internet cafes in the country are largely responsible for the Dota 2 fever that swept through the Philippines and never let up. Considering that the average hourly rates of these cafés range from 15 to 30 Philippine Pesos (PHP)—about fifty American cents—people of all ages and classes are able to sit down for a few hours of playtime. Schoolchildren in elementary and high school, in particular, make up a significant portion of the Dota 2-playing population in these places, their high-pitched voices hurling expletives at opponents just across the room.
Based on a survey conducted on 545 internet café customers by local university students in 2012, 60% of LAN café users in Manila are age 19 and below, 70% are Manila settlers (impoverished residents of the city), and the aforementioned elementary and high school students combine to make up 26% of the respondents. The survey also says that college students made up more than two thirds of the total number of respondents, but it’s important to note that due to the absence of junior high school levels in the Philippines, college students typically start at age 16. There are laws and city ordinances in place that make it illegal for these establishments to accept minors during school hours (usually 7 AM to 5 PM in the Philippines), but enforcement is light and many delinquent children play anyway.
This tradition started way back in the DotA Allstars (circa 2005), when internet cafes had PCs installed with pirated copies of WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne. In a country where the minimum wage is extremely low compared to more developed territories (just above PHP 470/$10 per day, according to the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment), the fact that Dota 2 players don’t have to buy their own computers and their own copies of WC3 means that the game is available almost 24/7 for anyone with a bit of change in their pockets. Schoolkids therefore have no problems challenging their classmates and friends to matches after school (and sometimes in between). Over the years, this grew into a national pastime for young Filipinos.
According to Steam statistics service SteamSpy, two weeks prior to the time of this writing, Pinoys comprised nearly 10% of all active Dota 2 users on Steam. This amounts to just above one million players, which is about 8% of the total population of Metro Manila — the Philippines’ national capital region and the most densely populated region in the country. Metro Manila had 12.9 million people living in it at the time of the 2015 Philippine census of population.
Comparing the 10% figure to the rest of the world, only China and Russia could boast having more active Dota 2 players in that same span of time. The former had a nearly 12% share, while the latter had a staggering 21% share. It’s important to note that both these countries dwarf the Philippines in terms of total population and landmass, so the fact that the Philippines was able to go toe to toe with China in active users is quite impressive indeed. This paints the picture of just how big the Philippine Dota 2 community is on a worldwide scale.
Local heroes Mineski received a direct invite to the first International in 2011.
From the booming popularity of Dota 2 in the Philippines was conceived a fledgling professional scene. Major current-day organizations, such as Mineski and TNC, participated in and hosted LAN tournaments around the country, laying the foundation for what is now one of the strongest communities in the game. When Dota 2 was announced as a free to play game, the anticipation from young Filipinos was palpable, and even more so when local heroes Mineski received a direct invite to the first International in 2011.
But not everything about the Philippine esports scene is on an upward trend. While interest and player numbers are at an all-time high, one very important aspect of the scene’s infrastructure remains below modern standards. The Philippines is notorious for having some of the slowest average internet speeds per dollar in Southeast Asia. Despite its inferior speed, a typical 5Mbit/s DSL package costs the same as a 1Gbit/s fiber optic connection in Singapore. In comparison to South Korea’s pro-gaming industry, which flourished in part because of the country’s lightning-fast internet connections, it’s abundantly obvious where and why the Philippines’ own esports industry is crippled from the start. Any experienced online player in Manila will tell you that high ping, not their opponents, is their toughest enemy. It’s frustrating to see that a country as rich in gaming culture as the Philippines still suffers from the lack of quality network facilities in 2016.
This, in turn, translates directly into the performance of the local pro teams. When competing in international online events, Filipino teams are placed at an immediate disadvantage due to the higher average latency that they have to contend with when playing against teams based in more developed Southeast Asian countries. Singapore, for instance, had an average speed of 65Mbit/s in 2014. While higher end internet packages are available in the Philippines, they are prohibitively expensive—the only fiber optic plan on offer in the country costs a whopping 20,000 PHP or around $429 per month. In comparison, Singapore’s fiber optic connections cost only PHP 2,000 or around $40 per month. Therefore, it really is easy to see why Filipino teams have never really made it big outside of the region.
Until this year, that is. Philippine aspirants TNC Gaming, a Dota 2 team captained by veteran American player Jimmy “DeMoN” Ho, managed to qualify for this year’s edition of The International. After a harrowing trip through the Southeast Asia open qualifiers, TNC blitzed through the group stage of the main qualifier to secure a slot to Dota 2’s premier event. Defying even greater odds, they finished within the top eight spots in Seattle, eliminating tournament favorites OG along the way in one of the biggest upsets in Dota 2 history. Although they themselves were knocked out of the event by eventual second place finishers Digital Chaos, few can say that TNC’s run was less than inspiring. Their performance was a true testament to the unheralded skill and passion of Filipino Dota 2 players, and formed a touching story of the little team that could. Despite serious structural disadvantages, they proved that Southeast Asian teams were no longer a walkover win.
They proved that Southeast Asian teams were no longer a walkover win.
It’s hard to overstate the immediate influence of TNC’s historic run at The International 6 on the Filipino Dota 2 superego. From humble beginnings in cheap, poorly-lit internet cafes, just trying to pass the time with friends by playing some Dota 2, to securing $500,000 in prize money playing the game they love? That sounds like a fantastic deal to the average teenager in the Philippines. Hopefully, the network infrastructure in the country improves drastically within the next few years in order to better support the rising talent in the local scene. After all, with more good, consistent results come audience interest, and with audience interest come sponsorships. With sponsorships? More prize money, and in turn a viable career in pro gaming. For the video game-loving Filipinos, that dream is closer than it’s ever been before.