The business reality of being a S'pore gamer

The Beijing Olympics came to a close last weekend, and Singapore spent much of this week celebrating the nation's lone medal--a silver piece from its women table tennis team. It's only the second in Singapore's young history, and comes 48 years after the first was won for men's weightlifting in 1960.

The Beijing Olympics came to a close last weekend, and Singapore spent much of this week celebrating the nation's lone medal--a silver piece from its women table tennis team. It's only the second in Singapore's young history, and comes 48 years after the first was won for men's weightlifting in 1960.

It's rather ironic then that, as the country cheered on and congratulated the three women paddlers for their hard work, another group of athletes are struggling to raise sufficient funds so they can represent Singapore in a global games event.

Despite their desire to carry the country's flag and do Singapore proud on the international platform, these sportspersons have received no financial support from the relevant government bodies. Out of desperation, they have resorted to taking their own initiative to appeal for funds so they can pay for the air tickets, accommodation and entrance fees to attend the tournament in Cologne, Germany.

Why the lack of support? Because the sport these men represent is still considered by many--including the Singapore government, it seems--as child's play. The athletes I'm talking about here are cyber gamers.

The men are winners at the national installment of the World Cyber Games (WCG) in their respective game categories, including popular titles Fifa 2008 and Dead Or Alive, and have won the right to represent Singapore at the main WCG event in Cologne in November 2008.

I spoke with Nicholas Khoo, co-founder of the Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (SCOGA), and he confirmed that this isn't the first time local WCG winners have missed out on the main event due to insufficient funds.

However, Khoo said this is the first time that at least three of the local gamers stand a good chance of winning a medal at the global level. SCOGA on Tuesday sent out a press release to help with the fundraising after the gamers went public with their appeal. "We felt we really needed to come out and help them. That's why you see the fundraising efforts happening in a bigger way this time," Khoo said during the phone conversation with me.

"We think there's a divide in the local games industry and gaps between the different stakeholders, including the gamers, industry players, regulators and government, and even the educators and parents." He added that it was the desire to eradicate this problem that he co-founded SCOGA in March this year.

His association has been trying to garner support from the relevant government bodies such as the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), as well as the Singapore Sports Council (SSC), but usually ends up a dead end.

The problem lies primarily in the fact that there isn't anyone within these agencies assigned to look after cyber gamers and assume responsibility for driving the cyber sports or e-sports market.

Khoo explained: "When we look at e-sports, it won't specifically fall under the purview of the MCYS or SSC. They'll tell us that it's digital and suggest that we try approaching the Media Development Authority (MDA) or Infocomm Development Authority (IDA)."

He said he has tried talking to various personnel at the two authorities, but is often told that the two government agencies focus primarily on driving the games industry, not the gamers per se. The officials would then point him back to the MCYS and SSC.

"We've been pushing for e-sports to be accredited and recognized as an official sports," Khoo said, noting that Asian countries like China and Korea, already acknowledge cyber game as an official sport, and have government agencies looking after local gamers.

"The SSC and MCYS are my biggest hurdles right now, but that's not to say they haven't been nice to us," he said. "They will try to support us with whatever help we need, but it's the accreditation of cyber games as an official sport that has been our main stumbling block." Khoo believes this will be the key solution to future funding problems such as the one the Singapore WCG gamers currently face.

There hasn't been much financial support from the corporate sector, likely because gamers at the global WCG event are required to wear a WCG-approved t-shirt when they're competing--and the attire cannot be covered by any other clothing like a sweater or jacket. However, show organizers "won't stop you from wearing other sponsor apparels outside of the competition", Khoo said.

He noted that the only corporate sponsors at the event usually are companies with vested interest where, for example, the company's game platform is being featured in one of the categories at the WCG.

I completely empathize with the predicament facing Khoo, the local WCG gamers, and even the personnel working at the related government agencies and games companies.

The gamers are passionate about their sports and are eager to represent their country on a global platform, but they need the funds to do that.

Games companies are key stakeholders in the industry, and can well afford to cough out the funds that the gamers need to fly to Germany. However, they are businesses that need to operate on profits and will be hard pressed to find the commercial justification to sponsor the gamers, if there are limitations to how they can use the gamers as a marketing platform at the global event.

The respective government agencies may be "nice" and sympathetic, for example, over the efforts of game associations such as SCOGA, but there's also a limit to how much they can help if the top government guy doesn't support calls to endorse cyber games as an official sport.

So, are cyber games doomed in Singapore? No, I think there's still hope yet for this market to boom.

But, for this to happen, all relevant stakeholders--as Khoo calls them--must recognize that it will take only a combined effort to cultivate each component within the entire ecosystem.

Games companies, for example, should not decide not to sponsor the WCG gamers simply because there are no direct commercial returns for them. So what if they can't place their corporate logos on the gamers' t-shirts during the competition? They can think about alternative publicity efforts, such as sending out press releases to say they're sponsoring the gamers. Or, they can request that the gamers, in exchange, provide free training workshops to be held in a public venue like a shopping mall, where the games companies can then proudly display their corporate logo--free of any marketing limitations like those at WCG.

As for the Singapore government, if it is indeed serious about the country's ambition to become a regional game development hub, then it needs to demonstrate its commitment.

I covered the opening of WCG in 2005, when the final global event was held here. Quek Swee Kuan, then-director of infocomms and media cluster at Singapore's Economic Development Board, had said at the games: "Being a host to WCG sends a strong signal to games companies all over the world that Singapore is serious about games."

For a start, perhaps the best "signal" would be for the government to recognize cyber games as an official sport?