Esports at the 31st SEA Games – Niko Partners


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On May 23, the 31st Southeast Asian Games in Hanoi ended with a spectacular light show. (Source: Bernama)

Vietnam hosted the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in May 2022, the first major in-person sporting event in the region after a two-year hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was the second time Vietnam has hosted the event. This year’s SEA Games featured 40 sports across 526 events with nearly 10,000 athletes from 11 nations participating. Spectators in venues – who did not have to undergo a COVID-19 test – were a contrast to last year’s mostly fan-free Tokyo Olympics. This year’s SEA Games carries the theme “Let’s Shine”, with organizers intending the event to embody the desire to emerge victorious and the message of solidarity, resilience and sustainability showcased by the Southeast Asian nations amid the pandemic.

The 31st SEA Games is significant for the inclusion of esports as a medal event— a reflection of this youthful region’s vibrant gamers and burgeoning esports landscape, as well as the growing cultural and political significance of esports. In 2021, Niko Partners tracked growth of more than 25% in the Southeast Asia esports market, with a value of USD $80 million. This growth reflects the popularity, significance, and increasing support for esports, which goes hand in hand with their recognition as an emerging sport.

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Esports events held at the 31st SEA Games

Esports events at the SEA games took place at the Vietnam National Convention Center in Hanoi, from May 12-23. It was the second time that esports was contested as a medal event in the SEA Games – they made their first appearance at the 2019 SEA games in Manila, Philippines. Esports are increasingly being included at multi-sport competitions sanctioned by the International Olympic Committee. We next expect to see esports make their official debut at the currently-delayed 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. Through cooperation between the Olympic Council of Asia, and the Asia Electronic Sports Federation (AESF).

Esports have a growing political significance in the region. Since esports were first introduced as a demonstration sport at 2018 Asian Games in Indonesia, countries in Southeast Asia have been actively promoting their national esports industries. Esports is quicky becoming one of the most popular sports in the world, attracting massive attention and participation. Nowhere is this more true than in Asia. According to Niko’s research, esports viewership in Asia has grown to more 675 million fans in 2021, with growth continuing into 2022.

Esports have also been included in political activities, similar to traditional sports. From political mobilization to encourage more youth to vote, to sports diplomacy fostering regional peace and sustainable development. As a result, countries in the region are receptive to esports being featured at the biggest regional sports events.

Major Sporting Events that Feature Esports

This year’s esports event awarded 10 gold medals across eight titles. That was four more esports medals than the 2019 SEA Games. Previously, the host country Philippines had a remarkable medal haul, winning gold medals in Dota 2, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and StarCraft 2, silver in Tekken 7, and bronze in Tekken 7.

The 31st SEA Games Esports Medals

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In this edition of the Games, the host country Vietnam continues the home field advantage, becoming the biggest winner in the esports category with 4 gold and 3 silver medals.

Coming in second in the esports medal count was Indonesia, winning gold in Free Fire and Team PUBG Mobile, silvers in Free Fire and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, and Individual PUBG Mobile, and bronze in CrossFire. This was particularly impressive because the Indonesian Esports Executive Board (PBESI) was forced to withdraw 4 other esports teams due to budgetary constraints issued by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (Kemenpora). The teams withdrawn were scheduled to compete in Arena of Valor, League of Legends PC, League of Legends Wild Rift Men, and League of Legends Wild Rift Women competitions.

Meanwhile, Philippines continued its strong track record in MOBA esports titles. In 2021, Blacklist became the second Filipino team to bag the Mobile Legends world championship crown after Bren Esports won the previous edition of the highly competitive tournament in 2020. Given this pedigree, it is not surprising Philippines won gold in Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and Women’s League of Legends Wild Rift at the Games and won silver in League of Legends PC.

Finally, Thailand clinched gold medals in Arena of Valor and FIFA Online 4. And notably, Brunei selected 10 athletes to take part in esports for the first time at the 31st SEA Games, accounting for nearly half of the total 23 athletes from Brunei who participated in the Games. Collectively, Southeast Asian countries share a vision to promote esports on par with traditional sports.

What’s next for the 32nd SEA Games?

The new 60,000-seat Morodok Techo National Stadium Phnom Penh will be the centerpiece venue for tournaments when Cambodia hosts the Southeast Asian Games for the first time in May 2023. Total cost for the project was around USD$160 million, financially aided by the Chinese government.

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Cambodia is slated to host the 32nd SEA Games in May 2023, with the capital Phnom Penh as the primary hub with 40 sports already on its competition program. It will be the first time Cambodia to hosts the biennial Games. Esports are agian among the sports to be included. The E-Sport Federation of Cambodia (EFC) will work with the Vietnam Recreational and Electronic Sport Association (VIRESA) to organize esports events at the 32nd SEA Games next year.

Esports’ inclusion in major sports events in Asia are significant milestones. While the 2022 Asian games have been further delayed due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic in China, countries that are edging away from the zero-COVID policy are allowing more in-person sporting events and promoting esports tourism to revive their economy. On May 24, Vietnam Express reported that Hanoi welcomed 700,000 domestic arrivals and 31,500 foreign visitors during nearly two weeks of SEA’s largest sports event, a sure sign that the SEA games had a positive impact on the local economy. By legitimizing esports as a full medal sport at the SEA Games and Asian Games, host countries are able to attract a new demographic of fans.

Lastly, esports being featured as full medal events drives greater government initiative in the region such as the creation of esports policy, providing relevant infrastructure support to nurture esports athletes and more. Thus, multi-sports events are an important demonstration of how advanced Asia is in the development of its esports industry. Niko Partners closely tracks all esports developments across Asia. For a complete overview of the growing Asian esports markets see our 2022 Esports in Asia report which will release later this month.

Author: Edward Tien