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Your deep dive into Southeast Asian tech
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Hey readers, it’s Rachel here!
I do business development at With Content. I’m also an avid reader and writer.
I stumbled across the idea for this edition of Deeper when our Managing Editor Katrina introduced us to the game Among Us.
Searching for information about the game, I found gameplay videos by a popular gamer on YouTube called Disguised Toast. Even though I haven’t played the game much, I binge-watched his videos because they’re so entertaining.
A lot of people must feel the same way considering his Among Us videos consistently get around 2 million views.
When someone gets that many views on YouTube, it’s only natural to ask… how much money is he making from this?
This led me to explore the world of gaming and the various ways that people are making a living from it. It turns out that there are a multitude of opportunities for gamers, as well as businesses looking to take advantage of the growing gaming audience.
- The Southeast Asian gaming industry is growing
- How people make a living from gaming
- Esports competitions
- Live streaming and YouTube
- Is a gaming career sustainable in the long term?
- How brands can get in on the action
- The future of the gaming industry looks bright
The Southeast Asian gaming industry is growing
Southeast Asia is currently the fastest-growing market for online games, with mobile games accounting for over 70% of the region’s game revenues in 2019. Around 80% of Southeast Asia’s online population play mobile games, owing to factors such as increased access to mobile data and rising smartphone penetration.
Esports, which refers to playing games at a professional competitive level, is the most important driver of growth in the Southeast Asian gaming industry. Since mobile games don’t require any expensive equipment to compete, the barrier of entry into esports is low, allowing more players from lower income areas to compete.
Some of the most popular games in Southeast Asia include Arena of Valor (ROV) and PUBG Mobile, with the two amassing a combined viewership of 127 million hours watched and over 1 million viewers across their most popular tournaments in 2019.
The popularity of esports is only trending upwards. The collective esports scene in Southeast Asia had a viewership of around 30 million at the end of 2019, up 22% from the previous year.
As the gaming industry continues to grow, it brings a range of opportunities for players and businesses looking to leverage on the popularity of esports and mobile gaming.
How people make a living from gaming
There are many ways to make serious money through gaming. An episode of CNA’s Young and Boss series featured two young gamers in Singapore who made money through different income streams. Turns out there are several means of profiting from gaming: esports competitions, coaching, live streaming, and boosting.
The first gamer, 20-year-old Amos Ker, became a professional esports player for the mobile game Vainglory.
Esports competitions are very attractive for gamers as there is often a huge amount of prize money on offer. The International 2017, a Dota 2 championship tournament, saw the biggest prize pool in esports history at over US$24 million.
In 2018, Malaysian gamer Yap “xNova” Jian Wei and his team won more than US$4.1 million by placing second at The International.
Apart from winning prize money, esports players can also get a monthly salary anywhere between US$1,000 to US$5,000, which includes income earned from sponsorships.
However, becoming a professional esports player is no easy feat. They can practice between ten to 12 hours a day, which is so mentally draining that psychologists are hired to help them deal with the stress. A study found that esports players faced as many as 51 different stress factors, such as team communication problems, anxiety about competing in front of live audiences, and trash talk from opposing teams.
Sometimes, games can change and the esports scene can disappear overnight. That happened to Vainglory in 2019, forcing Amos to find something else to play.
This can be tough on esports players because “changing a game is like changing a sport,” Amos said. It takes time for a gamer to get familiar with a different game and build up their skills all over again.
While waiting for a new game to come out, Amos became a coach for a Cambodian professional esports team playing Mobile Legends. He didn’t disclose his earnings as a professional esports coach, but they are reported to make anywhere from US$69,000 to US$83,000 a year in North America.
Gamers can also treat it like a side hustle and charge an hourly rate for their coaching services—Fortnite coaches in North America reportedly make between US$10 and US$25 an hour.
Even though coaching is less lucrative, it’s a good option for gamers who wish to make money from participating in esports without having to undergo the mental stress that players face.
Live streaming and YouTube
The other gamer, 21-year-old Zhen Xiong, does a combination of streaming and YouTube videos. Streaming involves showing the audience your live gameplay, often with some commentary. The footage obtained from streaming can then be reused by cutting out the most entertaining bits and posting them on YouTube.
Disguised Toast, the gamer that inspired me to write this piece, made a video in 2018 detailing how much money Twitch streamers make. He estimated that the top streamer Ninja, popular for streaming the Battle Royale-style game Fortnite, was making US$423,000 per month off subscriptions alone.
Twitch takes a 50% cut of the US$4.99 monthly subscription, though for top tier partners who average at least 10,000 viewers, they only take 30%. In Ninja’s case, he gets US$3.50 per subscription.
Streamers can also make money through ads shown during their streams as well as “donations” from fans. Occasionally, they may be able to strike lucrative sponsorship deals through their streams, YouTube videos, and even live appearances at events.
Since streamers mainly get paid only when they stream live, they’ve turned to YouTube as a way to earn money from their content while they sleep.
In fact, repurposing videos for YouTube is a smart strategy utilized by many popular streamers. The most well-known examples are PewDiePie and Markiplier, who both earned around US$13 million from YouTube in 2019.
In the CNA episode, Zhen Xiong said that he makes S$10,000 to S$15,000 a month off his YouTube videos, which is a few thousand more than what he earns through streaming. His channel Official ZX has around 1.3 million subscribers and a majority of his fans are mobile gamers from Indonesia.
While streaming may seem relatively easy, it takes time to build up enough of a following in order to earn a decent living. YouTubers must also constantly create content to keep their audience engaged and rank well on the YouTube algorithm so that their videos reach more people.
There is also a lesser known method of making money through gaming, which is account boosting. Essentially, a booster plays the game on your behalf, allowing your account to climb up the ranks.
Boosters can make about US$500 to US$1000 per month on average, for approximately 10 hours of gameplay each day. While this might not seem like much, many boosters are from less developed countries like Thailand, where the average university graduate earns around US$300 to US$400 per month.
It’s not easy to become a booster—the skill level required is very high; players must be among the best of the best. In any case, boosting is largely frowned upon. It can be seen as a form of cheating and has even been made illegal in South Korea.
Is a gaming career sustainable in the long term?
Let’s first have a look at the careers of esports players. Spending so much time playing games on a daily basis can take a physical toll on their body and lead to mental exhaustion. Since the stakes in competitions are very high, it adds even more stress to perform.
Physical injuries are common, such as wrist injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome, and lower back pain. It can even impact their social life since the pressure from gaming deters players from spending time with friends or pursuing romantic relationships.
As mentioned earlier, games may suddenly change and a player’s esports career in that game can go up in smoke. Players need to be flexible enough to adapt to new games to ensure they continue to earn an income.
Just like traditional athletes, it’s common for esports players to retire in their late 20s or early 30s. At a certain age, their ability to react and think quickly will degrade to a point where they can no longer be competitive.
Some of the top players may be able to earn enough money to support themselves in retirement. Top South Korean League of Legends player Faker is believed to be paid at least US$2.6 million a year.
However, Faker is the exception. In South Korea, 45% of players make less than S$50,000 per year—that’s only 2% of Faker’s income. In the Philippines, Garena announced in 2017 that it would start paying its pro players a salary of 15,000 Philippine Pesos (around S$419) per month.
When it comes to supporting themselves financially, retired gamers may struggle with getting a job, especially since many leave education early on to pursue their professional esports careers. Faker is a high-school dropout, as is the American esports player Jay Won.
Some post-retirement career options for esports players who wish to remain in the gaming industry include coaching or broadcasting for esports competitions, as well as shifting to streaming or YouTube if they have enough of a following.
Financial stability aside, retired players may experience depression due to a loss of identity once they stop competing. They may also have a host of health problems due to unhealthy routines in their gaming days. China’s most famous esports player, Jian Zihao, retired at 23 due to poor health—he stated that staying up late, a fatty diet, and being under an enormous amount of stress led him to develop type-2 diabetes.
For casual streamers and content creators, it’s a slightly different story. They don’t have to deal with the pressure of winning competitions and can choose their own schedule. It’s possible that they may never “retire” at all; if they make a comfortable living, they can choose to stream and create content whenever they like.
Nonetheless, it can be stressful for creators to constantly come up with new content ideas to ensure that they keep their audiences engaged. Without an active viewership, it’ll be difficult to earn money from ads and sponsorship deals. This can lead to a deterioration in their mental health and burnout at a young age.
How brands can get in on the action
Given the huge audience that esports competitions can attract, they present a prime opportunity for brands to get in front of their target consumers. Global esports viewership is expected to grow from 454 million in 2019 to 646 million in 2023 and the industry is projected to reach a combined revenue of US$2.3 billion by 2022, primarily from sponsorships and advertising.
The esports scene in Southeast Asia is still in its early stages, so most brands have yet to capitalize on this. Ampverse, a Singapore-based company that aims to connect brands with gaming audiences, said that Southeast Asian brands are beginning to see the potential of esports as a marketing tool. However, some education will be necessary before they actually jump in.
Singaporean telco Singtel Group has been an early player, investing in esports championship events to engage the millennial market. Their PVP Esports Championship in 2018 attracted over 13 million views across the region.
In Indonesia, some notable examples of partnerships between brands and esports organizations include Xiaomi and Bigetron Esports, as well as Lazada Indonesia and EVOS Esports.
Apart from esports, there has been strong growth in mobile ad spend, likely owing to the popularity of mobile games in the region. The average revenue per user varies from US$8 in Indonesia to nearly US$80 in Singapore. Opt-in video ads, where players agree to watch an ad in return for an in-game reward, are said to be an effective monetization strategy.
The future of the gaming industry looks bright
It’s still early days for the Southeast Asian gaming industry, but the future seems promising for players and brands who wish to capitalize on the opportunities it presents.
Esports is becoming more mainstream in many Southeast Asian countries. It was considered a medal event at the 2019 SEA Games, and streaming viewership peaked at 3.8 million views. Local brands such as Razer and Singtel were present—the former as an official event partner and the latter as a sponsor of the Singapore national team.
Furthermore, Covid-19 has increased viewership of esports in Southeast Asia by 50%, from about 350 million views per month to over 500 million views per month. The industry was able to quickly transition from live events to online streaming, since the gaming community is already comfortable with a virtual environment.
Having said that, there is still some way to go in ensuring the long-term sustainability of the gaming industry. For example, the esports industry would benefit from providing greater support to professional players in mapping out their careers and dealing with the mental and physical stressors that can come with their job.
There is also a greater conversation to be had about the potential negative impacts of sustained gaming, such as gaming addictions and unhealthy lifestyle habits.
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