Many are called but few are chosen in rapidly emerging field
Lau Wai-kin, one of many young people in Hong Kong with savvy technological skills, decided to pursue a career as an e-sports superstar a few years back. But it wasn't a quest for fame that drove him.
"I play computer games simply because I can make a living from e-sports," said Lau, who is known in the cyberworld as Toyz.
After winning several tournaments in the game League of Legends, he was invited to join e-sports team Taipei Assassins from Taiwan. His team won the Season 2 Championship in 2012, and Lau became Hong Kong's first homegrown e-sports world champion.
Lau was known as the "beast of the mid lane" (a position on the team). He earned the nickname for what many considered to be his brutal style of destroying online opponents.
Now 26, Lau has reset the bar for Hong Kong e-sports players. From age 17 to 21, his winnings totaled HK$3 million ($382,000).
His parents borrowed money from relatives to send his elder brother abroad for university studies. Lau, being no scholar, had no such opportunity.
As a whiz kid in gaming, and with minimal aptitude in scholastic studies, Lau left school at 16 and spent most of his time playing computer games. He worked in sales and as a porter before his transition to e-sports at age 19.
He concedes he is too impulsive, as is often the case with young people who have had phenomenal early success. "Since I always outperformed others in games, I thought I would also be better than others in the real world. As a result, I was very self-centered while communicating with them, never considering their feelings," Lau said.
He retired from the Taiwan team after a painful wrist injury, a common occurrence among e-sports players.
He joined e-sports company Hong Kong Attitude, formerly named Hong Kong Esports. However, his own attitude brought criticism that he was uncooperative, and he was banned from taking part in competitions and from livestreaming by HKA.
A series of personal troubles almost ruined Lau financially. He ran out of cash when he tried to form his own team, Raise Gaming, in 2016, but this probably wasn't all his fault. His principal investor's capital was frozen before a contract issue arose with HKA, his former employer.
He lost all his e-sports earnings, but persevered to lead new side G-Rex as a team director. The team is owned by the newly established company Emperor Esports Stars.
"I really like the feeling of winning competitions. That's why I have dedicated myself to this field. One of the greatest pleasures of e-sports is winning against others to make myself feel stronger," Lau said.
Abandoning the style of the brash kid who raised his arms and chanted at the camera when his team won the world championship in 2012, he is more reserved these days, and said he is devoting his efforts to raising another world championship team from Hong Kong.
E-sports stardom is the dream of many young people who find a "sense of belonging" while playing games.
E-sports is an abbreviation for electronic sports, a global market that reached $700 million in 2017 and is expected to total $1.5 billion next year, according to the analysis company Newzoo, which has its headquarters in the Netherlands.
The global viewership for the League of Legends World Championship Grand Final last year, which took place in South Korea, reached 99.6 million, according to Statista, an online statistics portal.
Hong Kong's first e-sports festival was staged by the city's Tourism Board in 2017. The special administrative region's government has realized the investment value in e-sports, earmarking HK$100 million for the industry in the 2018-19 budget. Half of this amount will be used to build an e-sports competition venue at Cyberport, a technology incubator.
The government plans to subsidize competitions to the tune of up to HK$500,000 and will make Cyberport available for such activities free of charge.
The Hong Kong Legislative Council is considering an amendment to the Amusement Games Centre Ordinance that exempts game centers from police action over licensing.
Compared with Lau's achievement becoming a world champion in League of Legends in 2012, when most people in Hong Kong had no idea what e-sports were, LoTsz-kin's championship triumph in the computer card game Hearthstone at the Asian Games in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, last year drew widespread acclaim.
There are more than 300,000 e-sports players in Hong Kong－93 percent of them male, and 55 percent ages 18 to 21, according to research by City University of Hong Kong. The research also found there were only 50 e-sports professionals working and training in the city. Salaries of professional players range from HK$5,000 a month to HK$25,000.
The most popular e-sports games globally include Dota 2 (Defense of the Ancients), Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Fortnite and League of Legends. Players in the Dota 2 international tournament last year in Vancouver, Canada, competed for prize money totaling $25 million.
A 23-year-old e-sports player in Hong Kong, who uses the name BlackWai, said many observers equate computer gamers with losers, but he countered this by saying that the competitors train professionally.
"There are daily routines and goals for our training. We have to get a certain amount of points and destroy a set number of enemies in play. If we fail to reach the targets, we might be criticized by our coach. We treat e-sports seriously. Only when we train systematically can we hope for good results in competition," BlackWai said.
E-sports, which involves playing computer games each day, might not be as easy as some may imagine. BlackWai came under severe pressure after reaching his goal of becoming a professional player competing in the game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, also known as PUBG.
He said: "We took part in competitions, but we were not satisfied with the results. There were times when we almost cried after dedicating ourselves to practicing for a long time. Sometimes we forecast that we would win, but failed in the end. The greatest pressure came from the fear of letting teammates down and failing ourselves."
After sitting at a computer and concentrating on computer games from 2 pm to 10 pm every day in a gaming studio in Hong Kong, Black-Wai gained just over 9 kilograms in his first year of training. Teams from the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan were usually paired up for practice sessions each day.
Despite putting in tremendous efforts, the team lost in the PUBG regional competition in December. BlackWai described this as a turning point in his life, as he had missed the chance of becoming a star. If the team had won, it would have represented Hong Kong in the world championship.
Like Toyz, BlackWai was not interested in furthering his education, and worked as an aircraft maintenance mechanic for five years after high school.
He devoted most of his leisure time to gaming and won some e-sports prizes before being invited to become a professional player in February last year. He said he felt lucky when his parents supported him in pursuing his dream.
E-sports players start at age 16 and usually retire when they turn 25, as their hand-eye coordination fades and their reflexes become slower.
E-sports teams are always hiring and firing. Once a player fails to excel in competition or does not cooperate with his teammates, his services are dispensed with.
For example, take the G-Rex League of Legends team, which was launched in September 2016. It currently has seven members, and nine players have been sacked in the past two years. Also, the Hong Kong Attitude team, which was established in March 2013, has six players on its roster, while 26 have terminated their contracts or been fired in the past six years.
Players are only one component of the industry. A large proportion comprises management boards, sponsorship companies, producers of events, e-sports livestreaming platforms, marketing companies and game analysts.
A player who is fired can join a new team, if he is lucky. Players who have retired can land jobs related to e-sports, while some even turn to YouTube, cashing in on the fame and the fan bases they have acquired.
Eric Yeung Chuen-sing, president of the Esports Association Hong Kong, said: "I know some retired players who are earning a lot more on YouTube than when they were athletes. They receive sponsorships from advertisers and attend events."
The association is cooperating with schools to organize an e-sports introductory course to promote the industry and attract talent. Yeung suggested young people consider e-sports as a legitimate option.
He believes that with the increasing numbers of high-level tournaments and professional players, more people will invest in the industry, and Hong Kong should be positioned as a regional gaming hub for Asia instead of an incubator for professional players.
"We have the best venue for organizing this kind of international tournament. Hong Kong is a very good place for tourists, and we have a very good internet infrastructure. If more and more big events are organized in the city, the industry will have a better ecosystem," Yeung said.
Various e-sports-related companies have sprung up, including those running training venues and involved in marketing. Most do not make a profit, according to Yeung.
As an e-sports idol in Hong Kong, Toyz, the city's first homegrown world champion in the field, said there are many obstacles awaiting potential players. He suggested teenagers should focus on their studies, as there are only limited vacancies for professionals.
"Kids dreaming of becoming professional e-sport players are having a rush of blood to the head. I think it's a bit unrealistic. They should focus on what they have been doing－whether it's their studies or their careers. Being responsible for their lives is the most important thing of all," he said.
Of the e-sports players Toyz grew up with, some have gone to the Chinese mainland or Taiwan to further their careers as coaches or livestreamers.
Most retired players have switched to other jobs, but Toyz is one of the few original ones to maintain a high profile in Hong Kong e-sports. Since he retired as an athlete, no other player in the city has come close to breaking his earnings record.
Toyz would like to train a new world champion from Hong Kong and make more money from You-Tube and livestreaming on Twitch, a global video platform and community for gamers.
He has always focused on the money he can earn from e-sports, and as he was once the most skillful player in town, why shouldn't he?