From Angry Birds and Bejeweled to CityVille and Words With Friends, the rise of casual and social gaming has brought video games to popular mass culture. The low friction point and minimal cost required to play these types of games has resulted in not only an increased number of people who play games but also a wider demographic. According to a 2011 report released by the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 37 years old, 29 percent of players are over 50, and women represent 42 percent of gamers. However, in the world of hard-core gaming, the traditional stereotype still abounds: a male in his late teens or early twenties, single, socially awkward and living out of his parents’ basement. But this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Many hard-core gamers successfully hold down full-time or multiple jobs while also balancing social and family obligations. In fact, they are often masters of time management! Further, although a large proportion of women gamers play casual and social games, a growing number play console and pc games and consider themselves to be serious or hard-core gamers. Far from being individuals with no lives who lock themselves away from the world, these girl gamers are social, ambitious, professional and successful. In fact their commitment and passion for competitive gaming is something mainstream society should value, support and encourage.
Defense of the Ancients (DotA) is a mod for the real-time strategy game Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, from the Word of Warcraft franchise developed by Blizzard Entertainment. Played online in teams of five, where one team versus another, the format appeals to players who seek a definitive outcome over a shorter time period than that offered by most MMORPGs. The game is strategic relying on tactical selection of heroes and items rather than resource management and base building as seen in traditional real-time strategy games.
Team Asterisk* is a Singapore-based all girl competitive gaming team specialising in DotA and is in fact, the world’s first all-girl DotA team. The two founders met by chance in 2004. Tammy Tang, aka furryfish*, had been playing games competitively for several years when she was introduced to Dawn Yang, aka pinksheep*, by a mutual friend. After playing a competitive show match organized by the WCG (World Cyber Games), the pair decided to set up a girl’s team. However, both founders admit that recruiting girl gamers at that time was a very difficult task. As Tang recalls, “One of the girls I found on a mailing list. I was like, there’s a girl’s name!” After several months of networking and utilising word of mouth, team Asterisk* was born, the name demonstrating how different players can work together to produce a stellar performance.
In 2008 team Asterisk* joined Pandora’s Mighty Soldiers (PMS), a US-based clan affiliated with over 800 teams worldwide across all gaming platforms. As PMS’ own website states, it is the “First all-girls clan in the world catering a safe and fun environment for gamer girls in both competitive and casual gaming”. The collaboration allows Asterisk* to benefit not only from the clan’s well established reputation in international gaming circles but also management and sponsorship opportunities. The team currently consists of five players, one trainee and two inactive/honourary members who no longer play competitively due to work commitments. The team’s LAN homebase in Singapore is the Colosseum@Iluma.
Tang, leader of team Asterisk* and Esports Team Manager at Razer, recalls how she started playing video games as a child. “My dad has always been tech savy. He was free with letting me play with the computer… I started with Pacman, Alley Cat and Pinball. When I went to my cousin’s house I’d be playing with their Nintendo console… I started serious PC gaming when World Of Warcraft 2 came out.” Yang remembers her first video game experiences fondly. “My first game was Bobby Is Going Home on Atari. When I was a kid I used to watch my cousins play Prince of Persia, Heroes of Might and Magic and things like that. I was very interested. I’ve always been quite imaginative and liked reading books, so I think gaming is another outlet for me where I can explore worlds.” But what started as a hobby for both gamers has evolved into a serious competitive activity that requires a significant time and cost commitment while allowing them to travel the world and represent their country overseas.
The world of international competitive gaming
Competitive gaming is a serious business. Events such as Major League Gaming, Global Starcraft II League, World Cyber Games, Dreamhack and World Games Championship, provide cash prize pools often consisting of millions of dollars. In 2011, DotA2: The International had a first prize of USD1million and prize pool of USD1.6million.
Teams from around the world participate at these tournaments with serious commitments from international organisers and corporate sponsors. Team Asterisk* have competed in China, France, India, Malaysia, and Thailand as well as local events held in Singapore. The team has had a number of achievements over the last seven years including first place at the 2010 Iron Lady Championships (the only all female competition in the world) as well placing in the top 10 of the Compaq AMD Pro-Gaming League and top 20 at the Electronic Sports Thailand Championship, World Games Championship and Avalon Tournament.
So what does it take to enter the world of competitive gaming? Both Asterisk* members admit to putting in around six hours a day. That’s an incredible time commitment, considering current and previous team Asterisk* members have either full time study obligations or employment in advertising, banking, sales, flight cabin crew and Esports. But it’s about more than just sinking a lot of hours into the game. As Tang notes, “You can be a casual gamer who plays as much as I do or more but if you don’t have the right attitude you can’t go competitive”. Yang agrees, “The attitude is quite different. As a competitive gamer we look to improve and we are committed to it. Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s really hard work. But if you regard yourself as competitive then you need to put in the hours and train, regardless of whether you still find it fun or you’re tired. So we take it quite seriously.”
Another factor is the ability to work in a team. “You have to be able to take criticism objectively,” says Yang. “For some casual gamers they don’t really want to be told what to do. But for us, its really important to know what we are doing wrong. That’s a big difference.” The focus of time spent on the game is also very different for competitive gamers. Players must keep up to date with updates for maps, heroes and items, research associated competitive advantages, plan strategies and watch replays from high level gamers as well as playing the game individually and as a team.
Tang has also recently taken on board the commitment of streaming her solo game play. “It’s an industry in itself with websites like Twitch.tv, own3d.tv and livestream.com. When you play your game you broadcast online live. People can see what you’ve done previously but the main attraction is that it’s live… I’ve got a base of people who expect me to be there. So that’s part of the reason why I play daily. It motivates me to play.”
With an average age of 24, Asterisk* team members have dedicated a significant portion of their lives to this passion and with that comes significant sacrifice. Tang says, “I have a full time job and family commitments so I don’t really hang out much”. Yang, a copywriter says, “I try to play as much as I can but it’s hard. I work in advertising and the hours can be very long and tiring.”
Competitive gamers as positive role models
The ongoing commitment and discipline required to participate in competitive gaming, is taxing for many teams let alone an all-girl team. When asked if Asterisk* has ever considered adding male members, Yang responds, “All of us have, on and off, joined our guy friends for minor competitions. But the thing that makes us unique or standout from the rest is that we’re all girls. We constantly push the boundaries for what girls can achieve as gamers.”
Team Asterisk* is looking for a manager but currently manage themselves. Team members handle everything from administration and fan management to the logistics of touring, marketing and self-promotion. Tang laments, “I get a lot of comments like, ‘Wow, you always play games. So fun!’ It gets very annoying. They don’t understand that a lot of the time you have to do things you don’t want to do just so the team can improve. Most of the admin stuff like buying tickets and coordinating with event organisers is done by me. Dawn does the marketing side of things like our blog and Facebook page [while] another girl does our game strategy and planning.”
They are active participants in the gaming scene competing in tournaments and attending gaming-related conventions but they are also committed to building the girl-gamer community. Tang says, “Girl gamers in general don’t know what to do. They enter this community that’s full of guys and most of the time it’s because of a guy friend or boyfriend… So they don’t really know the possibilities, what they can do or what’s out there. So the role we play is more of an inspirational role and move them into the right direction for competitive gaming”. To this end Asterisk* recently assisted Philippines team MSki Girls (affiliated with Mineski) in joining the PMS clan as PMSki.
Both Asterisk* members believe competitive gaming has helped to develop and hone skills that are useful in work and life. “I’m a good leader,” says Tang. “I’m really quite stubborn. If there’s a way where I can see things work out, then I will really make it work out. Most people aren’t very sure of what they want. But I am. It teaches you how to manage people.” Yang acknowledges the importance of team dynamics. “You really have to work as a team in gaming otherwise you can’t maximize the potential of what five [players] can do compared to one… Communication is very important. How you talk to people can create a different outcome.“
Support in an internationally competitive environment
In Singapore most competitive teams are either self-funded or receive some type of corporate sponsorship. As an established competitive gaming team, Asterisk* are sponsored by professional gaming hardware manufacturer Razer for peripheral equipment and other sponsors such as Toshiba, JV and Art of Colour on an event basis. When asked whether the team would seek government funding the team responded that they wouldn’t and that other teams needed the money more than they did. However, they always welcome new sponsors.
Singapore’s Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (SCOGA) recently announced a gamer assistance fund worth SGD20,000. Since 2008, the organisation has assisted gamers to participate in overseas tournaments and held more than 50 public gaming events. Although the fund will make a big difference to self-funded teams it’s only a drop in the ocean compared to the support offered to teams in other countries.
“Thailand’s gaming community is very vibrant,” says Tang. “They have lots of competitions. They even have TV channels for gaming.” In 2011 Thai company Neolution, a computer hardware and software distributor, opened Neolution Stadium in Bangkok, boasting 170 high-end computers and a gaming arena, designed to accommodate boot camps, casual gaming and competitive gaming. Buildings such as this are aligned with the growing popularity of “gaming houses” in China, Korea and Taiwan where professional gamers eat and sleep for free while being paid to play games.
Team Asterisk* believes the Singapore government could provide non-financial support by excusing competitive gamers from school or NS (national service) in order to compete in international tournaments. “Most of the gamers here can only play while they’re young. There’s actually a lot of talent out there. But if they could get excused [from school and NS] it would make a big difference.” At the 2011 International DotA 2 Championship held in Germany, Singaporean all-guy team Scythe.SG placed third in the competition and won USD150,00. To date, it’s the largest prize winnings a Singapore-based team has ever won. However, Ukraine team Na’avi won overall and collected USD1 million. It is interesting to note that two Scythe.SG members were unable to attend the tournament due to school commitments.
There is a notable lack of support for competitive gamers in Singapore when compared to their overseas counterparts. Although the Asterisk* Facebook page has over 13,000 fans (Scythe.SG have less than 2,000) the majority of fans are from overseas with strongest support from Thailand and the Philippines. Corporate sponsors who are willing to support the competitive gaming scene are also thin on the ground despite the popularity of social gaming. “There are a lot of people playing games,” says Yang. “Its been increasing in Singapore. If you ask the person on the street most of them play some kind of game. So I don’t think it’s a lack of [public] interest, I think it’s a lack of commitment from sponsors.”
If companies are willing to contribute money towards competitive gaming, it could stimulate enough interest that people will start playing those games seriously. But is competitive gaming about skill or money, or are the two elements entertwined? Tang notes, “In Singapore we don’t really have big sponsors… [or] local home-grown tech companies who are willing to fork out money to sponsor teams…. and make people believe that gaming is something worth going for… For example League of Legends, I wouldn’t say it’s a really competitive game but they’ve managed to contribute enough money to make it seem like it’s a competitive game. So a lot of people have picked it up… They’re boasting a USD 5million prize pool for the next season.” My gut feeling says that if anyone put up a million dollars to play Bejeweled you would suddenly see a lot of people training and taking the game seriously at a competitive level. The question is, would people watch?
Having competed in their first tournament in India last month at the Delhi Youth and Gaming Festival and with other tournaments scheduled for the year ahead, team Asterisk* is looking forward to what 2012 will bring. With the level of discipline, commitment and stability the team has demonstrated since their inception, Singapore should sit up, take notice and support hard-core gamers who have contributed significantly to the local and international competitive gaming scene… and who also just happen to be an all-girl team.
Support PMS Asterisk* and join their Facebook page.
This post was first published on RecognitionPattern.com