Rough at SEA: An Interview With Tiffani “Oling” Lim
It’s been a stormy month to say the least for fans in Southeast Asia (SEA) of Valve’s popular Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) eSports title, Dota 2.
Following a 4th place finish at this year’s The International (TI) 4 — Dota 2’s most prestigious event which boasted an $11 million total prize pool, the highest prize purse in all of eSports — popular professional player Chai “Mushi” Yee Fung of Malaysia left Chinese powerhouse Team DK. In the post-TI 4 era, many speculated that whatever Mushi would do — whether he would find a new team, join an existing gaming squad or retire from professional play — his decision would ultimately tip the balance of power in the region. In his wake, Mushi would go on to find Team Malaysia in October, the SEA region would see the mass resignation from Singapore’s Team Titan, multiple old-school players would resurface, and various roster shake-ups and speculations would fill the discussion boards and social media posts about the scene.
But at the same time, on Oct. 12 of this year, screenshots of conversations between Jonathan Radores, a former Dota 2 professional player from the Philippines, and Michael Vallejos, a local owner of a Facebook Dota 2 professional match betting group, revealed that the two have conspired to illegally rig the outcomes of matches between two SEA Dota 2 teams: the Philippine’s own Mineski Dota 2 and MSI-EvoGT Dota 2 squads.
As more and more evidence and testimonies piled up, the management of both teams decided to conduct their own investigations to the allegations. In the end, players from both teams confessed to illegally rigging the outcomes of their matches in the recently concluded StarLadder Season X. Later, an independently-led investigation of match-fixing among other SEA region teams led to the entire Arrow Gaming roster being dropped from their team.
In short, it has been a rough few weeks at sea for the SEA Dota 2 scene. In such a short time span, the region has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs, with difficult questions about the future of the Dota 2 professional eSports industry juxtaposed beside exciting matches and a dominating show of strength from a new powerhouse team in the region.
Today, we are lucky to have with us a figure who has found herself in the middle of all the action in this rough-and-tumble time for SEA Dota: team Titan’s former manager and eSports lover and lifelong gamer, Tiffani “Oling” Lim. We talk about the most recent team shake-ups, the Titan organization, #322 issues and of course, the future of professional eSports in SEA.
With Philippine teams Mineski and MSI confessing that they were in cahoots with match-fixers, TI4’s SEA region representative Arrow Gaming firing their entire squad over their involvement in illegal gambling on matches, team Titan disbanding, old guard players surfacing and Team Malaysia’s dominant show of force, the SEA Dota 2 scene seems to be the most unstable in the world.
With that, we asked Oling on her insights on the state of SEA Dota 2 right now; where do teams stand and what can we expect for the future of the region?
eSports Inquirer (EI): One of the earliest shake-ups for SEA was the decision of four players from Titan to leave the organization and join Mushi to form Team Malaysia, the spiritual successor to Orange eSports. Can you share with us some of the decisions that led to this? Why did the team leave Titan as a sponsor and team owner?
Oling: The Titan squad didn’t perform that well during TI4 (they were eliminated in 9th place by Newbee), so there were already plans for a roster shuffle right after the event. NWP (Ng Wei Poong, also known as YamateH) informed the rest of his decision to take a break from the team. When DK disbanded and Mushi returned to SEA, he stood-in for NWP during the post-TI period. I’d say it was the natural and logical choice for the other four to join up with Mushi eventually.
Regarding our decision to part with the Titan organization right after our contract ended, all I can say for now is that it hasn’t been the best experience. There were quite a lot of internal problems in the organization causing displeasure between the team owner and ourselves. See how NWP decided to name his team? It’s NWP’s revenge alright — just not on Mushi and company.
EI: What can we expect from Team Natit, NWP’s new team?
Oling: Natit Gaming consists of some of the most promising young talents in the Malaysian scene and so far they’ve been achieving landslide victories in local tournaments. Some of the players have stood-in for Titan and other professional teams before too. With NWP leading them, I definitely wouldn’t doubt their potential in getting to TI5. As of now, the team is still quite new and relatively unknown so let’s wait for a few more months and in due time, I believe their results will speak for themselves.
EI: Recently, news that Benedict “hyhy” Lim Han Yong, Nicholas “xFreedom” Kelvin Ileto and Joel Chan “Chibix33” Jian Yong are making their way back into competitive Dota 2 sprouted as they reportedly joined the Singapore OK qualifiers. How is the Dota 2 scene in Singapore? It seems that Singapore has gone silent on the competitive front in the past few years. Can we expect Hyhy and company to be in competitive shape soon?
Oling: I’ve met so many Singaporean players who have a great deal of talent in the game, but I’d say the scene there is more or less affected by the fact that male nationals have to fulfill their National Service (NS) for 2 years at the age of 18. Meracle has NS now so his training schedule is highly limited. Hyhy and iceiceice too have had to take a 2-year break from the scene because of their NS obligations.
In the recent first leg of qualifiers for the Ok Dota 2 Cup, Hyhy together with xFreedom didn’t manage to defeat First Departure, so we might have to wait till the next leg of qualifiers or so to see if their team will perform up to standard. If they do, with the players’ experience, there is no doubt that they will become yet another force to be reckoned with for current top teams in the SEA scene.
On Match-fixing and #322PH
EI: Switching over to the match-fixing scandal that rocked Arrow Gaming and the entire region in the last few weeks, how did you come by your information with regards to their players and ex-manager’s involvement?
Oling: I began looking into the incident after I chatted with a close friend and found out that the manager together with the girlfriends were planning to falsify evidence to cover up the match-fixing. Initially, I was only making my findings known to a few people, but later on as the incident started getting out of hand (what with everyone going to journalists with different versions of the story), I decided to publish my findings on Reddit so the community can know better and hopefully to end the fiasco which was getting ugly.
EI: From your perspective as a former manager, is match-fixing a rampant problem in SEA? What causes players, teams and even managers to get involved in match-fixing?
Oling: I would say that match-fixing is almost inevitable in any sport and honestly I’m not completely surprised that those Arrow, MSI and Mineski players were involved. However, I won’t go so far as to say that it’s “rampant” in SEA at the moment. As long as it’s dealt with properly and severely by individual tournament organizers, it should deter the rest from doing it. After all, you’re putting your entire career on the line and most SEA pro players don’t even have an alternative career path to start with.
Some speculate that it’s because of the mastermind’s persuasion coupled with the fact that salaries are generally lower for pro players in SEA that they engage in this activity, but I believe that a mature and sensible player would never consider match-fixing as a viable way of obtaining money; if you have low pay, you should strive for success, get more tournament winnings and reach a position where you can negotiate for better pay. Streaming, casting or workshop items can serve as extra sources of income too for pro players.
EI: Michael Vallejos, one of the so-called masterminds behind the match-fixing scandals in the Philippines, allegedly claimed that he has connections with teams outside of the Philippines as far as his illegal activities go. Although Arrow Gaming confirmed that their players were not part of Vallejos’ activities, did your investigations into Arrow imply that he has somehow involved himself with foreign teams as well?
Oling: So far, all I’ve gotten about Vallejos in the Arrow incident is that he was betting on the opposing team at the same time the players’ girlfriends and friends did, but in this case he learned that the Arrow players were about to throw the game via another girl from the Philippines who came into contact with Xiangzaii before the match, so he placed a considerably large bet on that game.
Then again that piece of information came from Xiangzaii & Lance’s girlfriend and if I were still investigating the case, I’d look into this further and check with more sources before making a conclusion. Alas, I’m afraid I’ve already spent way too much time on this case that doesn’t actually concern me directly. I can definitely vouch for a couple of teams whose players or owners I know personally that they would never be “placed under Vallejos’ control”, but for other teams, if you ask me honestly, I can’t be quite as sure.
The Future of SEA Dota 2
EI: Analysts, as well as fans and spectators of the game, have lamented the drop in skill level in the SEA region as compared to the rest of the world in recent years, saying that only a handful of talent have really “wowed” the global stage. What’s your take on this? Do you think that SEA region’s professional players and teams have stagnated compared to say China or Europe or even North America?
Oling: SEA has always been plagued by the same problem over the years: lack of sponsors, lack of support for the scene, fewer tournaments, fewer strong teams to scrim with. So indeed, SEA isn’t the most lucrative place for pro players to thrive in so we might have fewer full-time players, yet the best talents in SEA are definitely on par with top players from other regions.
I wouldn’t say that the skill level of SEA pro players have “stagnated” in any way either — the top players of the region are constantly seeking to improve themselves by inventing new strategies, and all the while keeping the aggressive edge that’s long come to define our region’s gameplay. I wouldn’t judge a region by the number of players that has came to “wow” the global scene either — the “wow” factor is more of an individual thing. You don’t see a Dendi equivalent in the North American scene for instance, neither do you have a BurNIng or Mushi equal in Europe. Each famous player has “wowed” the scene in a different way and it’s usually a combination of factors that doesn’t have that much to do with which region you came from. No matter where you’re from, there’s always a way to improve yourself to be on par with the best, as long as you’re willing to.
EI: With the growth of eSports as an industry around the world, more and more of the conversation has shifted from simply the tournaments and winners of the matches to the possibility of having a more robust economy around the industry. As a former manager of team Titan and an active person in the scene, can you say that gaming is a sustainable career path as it is right now? If not, what needs to change?
Oling: If you’re talking about sustainability in the long term then I’d say yes, especially for active players because this is a rapidly growing industry and the salaries and prize pools are only increasing over time.
However, there’s still a lot to be done before the SEA players’ income can even compare with that of players from other regions. For SEA, there will be a need for more governmental support and funding and mainstream media coverage/sponsorship from non-gaming companies.
For places like Singapore and Malaysia, we also need more people to support local events. It would also be really helpful if more overseas tournaments, as they increase in scale, can remember to include SEA in their qualifiers so our players too have a chance to participate in large overseas LANs (Local Area Network, live tournaments) and thus have a shot at the huge prize pools.
Post-retirement age though is a new issue that has just surfaced as the pioneer batch of pro players in China are newly retired, so we should observe and see if that will be a problem.
EI: You mentioned that for the industry to thrive in our region, there needs to be more governmental support, among other things. Now I’m not particularly versed in Malaysia’s industry right now, but doesn’t the Malaysian government recognize and subsidize some eSports events? Can you describe this set-up?
Oling: So far the Malaysian government has only been involved in the Festival Belia and Digital Campus events, but those are mainly youth festivals featuring Dota 2 tournaments as part of the festivities. The ministry officials behind these two events were different as well, so in a way those are separate initiatives and there’s no continuity in these events, just one-off festivals that happen to have involved Dota 2 because someone proposed it. It’s a good start, but there’s so much more that can be done to get our government to recognize eSports and Dota 2.
As of now there’s no “system” whatsoever for the government to reach out to youths via Dota 2 events specifically, but our Minister for Youth and Sports Khairy Jamaluddin has been really helpful to our Dota 2 players so far (in helping Arrow Gaming obtain visas for TI4, for instance) so I believe this would be a good place to start if we’re looking for support for local Dota 2 events.
EI: Recently, a new crop of eSports veterans in China have spoken out, saying that streaming is a more lucrative venture compared to the salaries that they receive as pro players. Do players in say, Singapore and Malaysia experience this as well? Is there more money to be gained in the industry by streaming and not necessarily through being a pro player with an eSports organization in SEA?
Oling: I don’t think we actually have a SEA, non-pro player who’s currently contracted to a streaming company and is earning a lot from it. As for SEA pro players who stream, you can really count them on one hand: Meracle, WinteR, Mushi, NWP and that’s about it, I think.
Some of them are contracted and are earning quite an amount from it, but the reason why they were contracted in the first place was because they are/were a pro player. And if you think about it, most streaming companies are also investing in contracts with the high-profile players in an attempt to attract more sponsors and investors and that’s the reason why streamers are paid so well. But in order to get those kinds of contracts, you’ll have to be an ex-pro or personality, someone who would attract a huge number of viewers for the platform.
For SEA now, only those select few (Mushi, NWP) are able to have anything near that kind of reach in the community, so it’s still gonna be a long way before other SEA pro players are able to get that kind of contract, too.
Though it may have been a wild ride for the past few months in SEA region, there exists a hopeful tone for its future. In our conversation with Oling, it was clear that the former Titan manager had a vested interest in improving the scene in our part of the world for the long-haul — and it was difficult not to share in her enthusiasm. Her nuanced beliefs painted a picture that while SEA region may seem stormy to outsiders, rife with its own infrastructure problems and misgivings, it nevertheless holds and breeds some very talented people.
And after all, the only way to traverse rough seas is through the back of talented and hardworking people; people like Tiffani leading the charge.
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