Singapore needs eSports game plan
Industry is forecast to be worth $2.7 billion by next year
The mass appeal of a sport can often be gauged by the politicians associating themselves with it. Political leaders, especially today, often use the great leveller of competitive sports to connect with people.
By this measure, eSports - the sport of competitive video gaming - is right up there with football, tennis and basketball.
Last December, the White House invited some eSports champions to take part in a tournament that was broadcast live to viewers across the globe.
The political interest in eSports is a direct result of its rapid growth in recent years.
eSports is now a global phenomenon, with its growth unmatched by any other sport. The industry has been growing at 42 per cent per year and is forecast to be worth US$1.9 billion (S$2.7 billion) by next year.
The level of engagement among eSports fans, by minutes spent watching, trounces many traditional sports.
And they are not a small group of fans - about 300 million tune in to watch tournaments of games such as League Of Legends and World Of Warcraft.
What makes the sector even more attractive for politicians, event organisers, sponsors and broadcasters is that the majority of its fans are millennials, a highly sought-after demographic.
Its growing popularity opens up major commercial opportunities for events organisers, brands, broadcasters and, of course, the players themselves.
In 2014, some 40,000 eSports fans crammed into the Seoul World Cup Stadium to watch an eSports tournament. Football matches held there have an average attendance of 20,000.
Fan engagement also drives up the value of media rights, which are often the most valuable property for any sport - just ask the English Premier League.
eSports looks set to be no different, and online streaming platforms are already among the big winners. Twitch, one of the most popular streaming platforms, was bought over by Amazon for US$1 billion in 2014.
Singapore's Garena, which is also popular, is reportedly preparing for a US$1 billion initial public offering in the US.
Where the fans go, the sponsors will follow, particularly when they are a well-defined millennial demographic made up of a majority (but by no means exclusively) of young and affluent males.
Major global brands, such as Samsung, Red Bull and Gillette, have inked sponsorship deals with eSports teams and players in recent years.
The broadcast and sponsorship investments have, in turn, inflated tournament prize pools at the top tier of the sport - players themselves are starting to make serious money.
According to esportsearnings.com, the top 25 players in the world all made more than US$1 million each this year.
Singapore has a unique opportunity to position itself as a global leader in eSports.
Firstly, it can leverage its growing pool of technical talent to build the games that drive eSports.
The launch of Pixel Studios by the Infocomm Media Development Authority last November is a clear statement of intent in this regard - Singapore is building a video games ecosystem for developers, publishers and broadcasters.
Secondly, Singapore can become a global eSports dispute resolution hub.
The massive revenue opportunity in the sport, coupled with the regulatory challenges outlined above, creates the perfect storm of potential disputes.
The Court of Arbitration for Sports is the official home of eSports dispute resolution but that is still largely untested.
Since Asia has the lion's share of the eSports audience, there is a clear opportunity for a dispute resolution hub in the region.
Having already established itself as a credible global arbitration hub, Singapore can take the lead on this front and become the eSports dispute resolution hub.
Given the reputation of its legal and justice system, and the efficiency and speed with which it operates, Singapore would surely go down well as a choice with all stakeholders.
Finally, there is an opportunity to invest in developing world-class players and leagues.
Singapore's Daryl Koh Pei Xiang, who uses "iceiceice" as his online moniker, is 23rd on the international earnings list, making nearly US$1.1 million, mostly from Dota 2.
While national competitions are still few and far between, it may only be a matter of time before the World Cup or Olympics of eSports emerges on the scene.
With a well-connected and tech-savvy population, Singapore could develop a global league, and perhaps even build one of the world's leading international eSports teams.
At this point, as eSports moves from the domain of the early adopters into the mainstream, all of these opportunities are still up for grabs.
The writer is a partner at Olswang Asia LLP. This is an abridged version of the article that appeared in The Business Times yesterday.