Ho Kun Xian is a picture of steely concentration: Brows furrowed; lips pursed; body arched in anticipation. The round begins. His muscles and joints fly into a blur of activity as he attacks his opponent using the martial art of Chinese kenpō; slipping and sliding across the arena to evade counters; his brain ticking away furiously to unleash combinations for maximum damage. Then comes the ace up his sleeve: Two poison balls which turn his enemy purple and gradually eat away at his health. It is the signature move for the Street Fighter video game character called F.A.N.G, which Ho harnesses to lethal effect when competing at eSports tournaments around the world.
The 26-year-old – better known as “Xian” in the eSports realm – is a full-time professional gamer who remains the only Singaporean to ever win a major global contest. He was the last man standing out of about 1,600 players at the 2013 Evolution Championship Series (EVO) – a yearly event viewed as the World Cup of fighting games.
Yet for Ho, his decades-long passion has already earned the right to be viewed as a sport in itself. “I definitely think what we do is equivalent to sport,” he told Channel NewsAsia recently in an interview.
“We are training just as much as sportspeople train. There is more strategy involved in gaming, and you also need… to maintain focus and concentration,” said Ho. “Games could even be harder than sports as you need mental fitness and hard work – with so many things to put into gaming, it should be taken more seriously.” He added: “If you say talent for gaming, I definitely think Singaporeans have surpassed others (around the world), more so than in any other sports.”
“I wish the Singapore Government would show more support for eSports, because I think our eSports players will definitely win more medals or golds than any sport out there, if we have the chance.”
Ho’s bold claim may raise some eyebrows, but less debatable is the amount of prize money won by Singaporean gamers. According to online user-generated community e-Sports Earnings, Daryl “iceiceice” Koh – a superstar in the multiplayer Defense of the Ancients (Dota) game – has bagged more than US$1 million in overall winnings, placing him on equal financial footing as sporting personalities such as football icon Fandi Ahmad, table tennis stalwart Feng Tianwei and Olympic swimming champion Joseph Schooling.
Another Dota player, Wong Yih Jeng, places second in Singapore with more than US$168,000 in earnings, while Ho comes next with nearly US$65,000. The website also reports Singapore’s 261 players as having earned over US$2 million in total – some way off the near US$48 million sum copped by China’s 1,741 gamers.
The money comes from advertisers and sponsors enticed by the rapidly rising stock of the eSports industry, which in 2016 alone has seen more than 200 million viewers and a global revenue of nearly US$900 million, according to gaming research firm SuperData. Last year, a record prize kitty of nearly US$11 million was up for grabs at a Dota tournament.
But Ho remembers starting out in a very different environment.
He was hooked on fighting video games from the age of seven – “I had this huge sense of satisfaction when I beat my friends” – and carved out a name for himself locally before his international debut in 2009. A second-place finish there, at the DreamHack computer festival in Sweden, convinced him to start travelling the world to compete – a period he describes as tough, despite the impressive displays and podium finishes he would rack up over the years.
“At the start, my family and friends were not really supportive, because I went travelling after NS (National Service) and without a job… Plus, I don’t have much education,” said Ho, an O-Level holder. “So they definitely judged what I was doing. But it wasn’t wrong because I had nothing to justify why I was travelling to compete. People were asking: ‘How are you going to make money?’”
When he was crowned world champion in 2013, the prize money was US$5,700, which did little to help convince his doubters. Sponsorships for fighting game players were also unheard of at that time, said Ho.
His turning point came with an offer by gaming company Razer – who signed him to their eSports team in 2014 and now pays him an undisclosed monthly salary. That cemented his decision to go professional – along with the growing prominence of eSports and fighting games which saw the payout for the 2016 EVO tournament spike to US$150,000, nearly 50 times that of his winnings three years ago.
“Now, everyone is supportive as they see I actually win awards and can make a living just by gaming,” said Ho.
Today, eSports games are broadcast by the likes of ESPN; US universities are offering athletic scholarships to gamers; teams are hiring managers and coaches; and the landscape includes match-fixing and performance-enhancing drug scandals. All of which makes a case for gaming to be viewed as sport – a point echoed by reigning EVO champion Lee “Infiltration” Seon-woo.
“A lot of fans might think eSports, or Street Fighter, is something using your brain and fingers only,” the South Korean said. “But as I see it, it’s more like sports because you have to train hard to get physically in shape to play more, and play better.”
“We train almost eight to 10 hours a day,” Ho explained. “We also do some exercise like jogging to make sure when we go to tournaments, we don’t choke. Because there it’s just a two to three minute game, and you cannot get distracted easily. It’s very important to at least have a good mindset and be healthy to compete.”
Lee said injuries are commonplace. “My left-hand joints are quite sore sometimes. When I was practicing different ways to press buttons, I had some Band-Aids on my fingers because I was practicing too hard.” And there is much more to fighting games than simple button-bashing, said Ho. “They require reflexes; reaction; execution; positioning; experience… You have to make the decisions very fast, you don’t have time to think and you have to do everything in a short time.”
“Being a pro-gamer is not as easy as how people think… Fast-paced chess is how I would describe it.” Ho admitted, however, that eSports continues to be stigmatised as a domain of nerds and geeks. “Sometimes people have the wrong image of gamers because they see players who’re not healthy-looking,” he said. “But in order to compete at high-level tournaments most pro-gamers actually look pretty fit.”
“Besides, for fighting games, during the ‘90s when I started playing, it was all gangsters in the arcades. I don’t see many nerds playing,” he quipped. “Throughout the years, I’ve seen every kind of person playing. Anyone could game right now. It’s definitely good that it has evolved to this stage where you can proudly tell people you are going out to play games, rather than be shady about it.” While Ho was effusive in his appreciation for the burgeoning worldwide eSports scene – “this era is the best time to game” – he also felt more could be done locally.
“Singapore has a lot of eSports leagues. We are on the right track. And with streaming, you don’t really have to be abroad,” he said. “But it’s very difficult to do eSports professionally in Singapore because the support for gaming is not very strong. If you want to go into this, your passion has to be strong enough.” It is a shame, considering Singaporeans already have the raw aptitude, Ho suggested. “For fighting games, we are one of the top in the world. If Japan is No. 1, then Singapore is at least No. 2 in terms of ability.” “We have the talent to go compete. It’s just that Singaporeans are more prone to studying and having a job.”
He added: “I feel we can achieve much more, because Singaporeans have to serve National Service (NS) and during that period we don’t get the chance to play much games. Yet people like ‘iceiceice’ still managed to compete at the highest level in the world.” “When we see a talent in gaming, instead of having him go through NS maybe he can play games like how sportspeople do,” Ho suggested. “If he can go do what he’s good at, to represent the country, that’s more ideal. I hope that will happen one day.” He also called on the authorities to work on sending local gaming talents abroad and to give out sponsorships. “If they win an award overseas, let them have some reimbursement so there’s motivation to continue as a job,” said Ho.