In just two years, e-sports in Vietnam have gone from a much-loved pastime to a lucrative career. Dana Filek-Gibson steps into the realm of professional gaming. Photo by Vinh Dao.

On the thinly-carpeted concrete floor of Phu Tho Stadium’s indoor hall, a crowd has gathered to watch the game. Spectators, most of them teenagers, hang out in packs, sitting cross-legged in the blue glow of a massive television screen. Even with the host of distractions nearby – part of Saigon’s inaugural Comic Con convention – all eyes are on the far end of the hall, where Vietnam’s first-ever female League of Legends tournament is well underway.

For the uninitiated, it’s hard to follow: much of the on-screen action is a flurry of miniature characters and explosions, numbers and symbols floating up from a particular fight, illuminated by the game’s dark green field of play. As the commentator’s voice rises, the crowd erupts into cheers and applause, ringing off the high ceiling and around the stadium’s echoing walls.

Welcome to the world of e-sports. Now a global phenomenon, the lucrative industry of competitive gaming has been steadily gaining steam around the world since the 1990s, spawning professional e-sports teams on several continents and millions of fans worldwide. Fueled by big-budget sponsorships, competitive gaming is a career akin to professional sports, complete with teams and coaches, analysts, commentators and a plethora of online forums dedicated to the industry.

While e-sports leagues focus on a variety of different games, one of the most famous is League of Legends, a hugely popular multi-player online battle arena created by American company Riot Games. In Vietnam alone, League of Legends sees over 3.5 million active users a month; on a global scale, that number exceeds 67 million.

Much like the rest of the e-sports world, League of Legends’ rise has been meteoric. In 2010, the winning team at the World Cyber Games Grand Finals netted USD $7,000. At last year’s League of Legends World Championship, the victors, Samsung White, took home USD $1 million.

Vietnam’s teams may not yet be in the top tier of e-sports worldwide, but its future certainly shows promise. In the last two years alone, competitive gaming has taken off not only in Saigon and Hanoi but other urban areas around the country. Though it’s long been a hobby of young men, today there are 16 professional teams in the country, six of which compete in the Southeast Asian Garena Premier League (GPL) along with League of Legends teams from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines.

For In Cheol Lee, head coach of the Saigon Jokers and Saigon Fantastic Five, two GPL teams, the secret behind e-sports’ fast-rising star in Vietnam is its widespread fan base. Lee, who moved to Saigon last year, spent several years in his native South Korea as both a coach and game commentator before arriving in Vietnam.

“[E-sports in] Korea are all focusing in Seoul,” Lee explains with the help of a translator. “But in Vietnam, Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh have many teams based in local cities that have fan bases in local cities. If Hanoi travels, [the fans] travel.”

This is good news for the country’s e-sports development, however having fans so far apart can also pose challenges. For Saigon Jokers and Saigon Fantastic Five, matches generally take place online rather than in person, opening the door for internet connectivity issues and logistical troubles. The teams’ District 4 gaming house is equipped with multiple servers to help assuage such problems, but there are still occasional complications.

Because the rest of their competitors are scattered across the region, GPL teams only meet face-to-face during the final rounds of competition. This may not give pro players many opportunities to appear in public, but at gaming events Mai Nhat Tan, team captain of Saigon Jokers, often gets asked to pose for fan photos. The 29-year-old started playing nearly four years ago and has been with Vietnam’s e-sports industry since the beginning. Tall and slight, Tan, who plays under the pseudonym Nixwater, struggled to convince his parents that professional gaming could be a legitimate career.

“In the beginning, they protested,” Tan recalls. “But I tried to convince them to let me join the e-sports league and after about a year they agreed.”

According to Lee, this is a common misconception even in South Korea, where professional gamers are considered elite athletes, earning generous salaries and celebrity status.

“Actually, a lot of countries have a similar problem,” he says. “Parents don’t want their son or daughter to play games [but] many younger boys want to be a pro gamer.”

For Lee, who scouted many of the players he now trains, convincing a gamer’s family that e-sports are a worthwhile path can be tough. He likens his experience to scouting professional baseball players: often, families require his vote of confidence before they are willing to accept that their son has the potential to become successful.

“If they have a skill or gift,” Lee explains, “I say to their parents, ‘We have many [e-sports] all over the world.’ [But] if I don’t have confidence, I can’t say to their parents, ‘Please I want to scout him.’”

Though it took his family some time to accept the idea, Tan knew from the start that gaming was a viable option. “The most important thing for me was to have a job that I loved and to follow my passion.”

And passion is certainly a necessary part of the job. On a typical day, Tan and his teammates wake up around 10am, using the morning to relax, exercise or play for their own enjoyment. Afternoons, however, are dedicated to training: team practice begins at 2pm, breaking for dinner around 6pm. Players compete in one or two scrimmages before convening to analyse game footage and discuss strategy. By 9pm, Lee and his fellow coach, Heo Young Lee, take their leave but the gamers will stay up to train until the wee hours , going to bed around 2am.

At CyberCore Thanh Thai, a high-quality gaming centre in District 10, roughly 100 amateur players, most of them teenage boys, sit in the cool, air-conditioned darkness at any given time. CyberCore Gaming, the company which owns the facility, boasts 150 locations in Saigon alone and 245 across southern Vietnam. Customers play for a minimum of four to five hours, but some will stick around all day. In fact, Phuc Tran, owner of CyberCore, is trying to keep his gaming centres open 24 hours, however he has had trouble convincing local authorities that e-sports are a worthwhile form of entertainment.

“They are just like regular sports,” Tran explains in Vietnamese. “But in Vietnam the appearance is not the same. E-sports are viewed as harmful for people; it’s easy for people to give up school to play games. I want the authorities to recognise [e-sports] to help us develop e-sports in Vietnam.”

Still, despite such setbacks, business is booming: last month, CyberCore opened a second gaming floor at its Thanh Thai location. The company also sponsors a handful of e-sports teams, including some of Vietnam’s first women’s teams, and regularly plays host to amateur gaming competitions. At some of its larger local events, as many as 300 spectators will attend.

With such a strong gaming community in the country’s urban areas, e-sports may have a long way to go but Coach Lee is confident, not only in the professional arena but in e-sports as a cultural phenomenon.

“Gaming is similar to another mind sport, baduk,” he explains. “In Korea, baduk is a really famous game for seniors. I hope in the future [that people] like the game and they grow up and when they are seniors, they want to watch e-sports.”