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Gaming’s Unlikely Ally: An Interview with Senator Bam Aquino

08:00 AM March 02, 2015
Salawag

BANNED — Gamers took to social media to protest the banning of the game of DotA from a village in Cavite.

As a young industry in a relatively conservative country, eSports has yet to hit mainstream appeal in the Philippines. Indeed, in recent years, perception of the industry has often been marred with stories of violence erupting from disagreements linked to popular video games.

In March 2014, media channels reported that a 17-year-old male beat up his 68-year-old grandmother to death in Quezon City, smashing two crystal vases on the woman’s head.

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The cause was linked to the latter’s consistent nagging against the young man’s predilection to playing Defense of the Ancients (DotA), a popular custom game mode for Warcraft III  and itself a highly acclaimed video game title.

Last January, social media was set aflame after a barangay in Cavite decided to ban DotA from every internet cafe in its jurisdiction after two teens died in a stabbing incident over alleged disagreements over the game.

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Because of its portrayal in media, many eSports and gaming enthusiasts take to social media to loudly lament the Philippine society’s misconceptions of video games and the people who enjoy them.

Amid the mainstream criticism and misconceptions, however, Filipino gamers have found an unlikely ally in the halls of the Senate.

Although his work as an activist, social entrepreneur and youth organizer is more celebrated and well-known, Senator Paolo Benigno “Bam” Aquino has also been a vocal supporter of the video game cottage industry.

In between his work in the upper house of the legislature, the 37-year-old politician and social entrepreneur has steadily made his rounds talking to and coordinating with video game developer communities around the country.

I first met the senator at a function in Lapu-Lapu City in the summer of 2014. At the sidelines of a conference for social entrepreneurs, Mr. Aquino clearly laid out his desire to develop the video game design and animation talent in the country into a fully fleshed out market that can attract big budget game publishing studios into the country.

More recently, I was fortunate enough to have a short interview with the self-confessed gamer-senator. I asked senator Bam about video games and eSports as industries (and possible government support for both), internet infrastructure and more.


Brightroar: Last summer, you said that you would like to support the video game industry in the Philippines, taking advantage of our local talent in video game design and animation.

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Since then, the video game and eSports industry grew exponentially in 2014, earning global net revenues amounting to $71 billion. Can you expound on your plans to support the video game industry in the country? What steps have we taken so far?

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A SHOW OF SUPPORT — Senator Bam Aquino gave the keynote address for the e-Sports and Gaming Summit last year. The summit brought together video game developers and eSports enthusiasts from around the country.

Bam: When leaders of the Game Developers Association of the Philippines (GDAP) approached our Office last year with their proposed roadmap for the industry, we immediately saw its huge potential for employment and enterprise development.

Today’s local game development industry is where the business process outsourcing industry was ten to fifteen years ago and it too can provide high-value jobs for our sought-after artists and developers.

Many of them are already making waves in other parts of the world and GDAP’s roadmap is a clear path to making sure that that talent stays and is nurtured here within our country.

We endorsed them then to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) and the Board of Investments (BOI). We were then all able to agree that government should support, for the first time ever, a GameDev Philippines Booth during international game development expos.

Since then, GDAP has been meeting with leading industry players from abroad who are now looking at the Philippines as a potential site for their studios.

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SLOWEST IN THE REGION — Fed up with slow internet speeds, a senate-led inquiry was launched in 2014 to look into Peer Sharing issues among internet providers in the country.

BrightroarIs the Philippine infrastructure ready to support such a high-tech industry? A major discussion point among the young professionals both

involved in the creation of video games and professional eSports is the ailing Internet infrastructure in the country.

Are we any closer to achieving faster Internet speeds to facilitate these industries?

Bam: A robust Internet infrastructure is crucial to sustaining these tech industries and we still have a long way to go. Our series of #PHInternet hearings have yielded some specific gains.

First, major stakeholders have agreed to the signing of a memorandum of agreement as regards IP Peering. DOST is facilitating this effort towards domestic peering with its Philippine Open Internet Exchange (PHOpenIX). This breakthrough should eventually improve speed.

Second, we were able to clarify improved guidelines for advertising. Instead of just declaring maximum speeds, advertisers are now required to declare average speeds per area on their website with NTC monitoring their compliance. This will help consumers make better decisions when choosing service providers.

Third, NTC will be exploring to set up one-stop shops in partnership with other government agencies so that industry players who are building the necessary infrastructure will not go through unnecessary red tape.

These are just some of the initial solutions and we will continuously facilitate the dialogue among stakeholders so that we get closer to achieving fast Internet speeds.

 

Often, the imbalance in reportage towards the industry eclipses the real gains and true issues present in eSports. Because so much of popular discourse is focused on video games and violence, people have missed the fact that the video game industry handily outstripped the music industry in net revenues in 2014 after earning $71 billion.

Last February, gaming market research firm Newzoo released a 68-page report projecting that the eSports industry will reach $465 million in revenue by 2017 — nearly tripling 2014’s industry revenue of $194 million.

Yet, with projections on both industries glowing for the foreseeable future, “the problem of eSports” still falls squarely on violence instead of the unstable nature of the growing professional job market a multi-million dollar economy inevitably brings.

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ESPORTS PROFESSIONALS — At the Dota 2 Asian Championships, Korea-based Filipino team Rave made history as the highest paid professional video game team from the Philippines.

 

Brightroar: Shifting into eSports, fans and gamers took special note when you tweeted in support of Rave-Dota — a Korea-based, Filipino Dota 2 team representing the country in the Dota Asian Championships in Shanghai, China. Are you aware of the Philippines’ role in these competitions? Are you a fan of any eSports or teams?

Bam: Natuwa nga ako with the reaction to my tweets. One even got 800+ retweets! It was probably our most successful tweet, ever!

We are very proud of Team Rave and their performance in the Dota Asian Championships in Shanghai. They were the dark horse of the competition and I think it surprised the global Dota community that they beat out Russia’s Team Hell Raiser and China’s Team Invictus to place 6th in the world.

I’m a gamer and I play RPGs. I used to frequent Internet shops along Katipunan after classes in Ateneo but I am aware of how these games have evolved into eSports and, in some countries, there are some serious athletes that train and play tournaments for a living.

Brightroar: A part of Rave-Dota’s appeal to fans is that they are the classic “underdog”; they are currently operating under no sponsor or financial backer, relying only on their performance in tournaments to pay the bills.

The team of five flew to Incheon, Korea to train hard and compete amongst the best teams in Dota 2. Do you think the Philippine government can support the endeavors of teams such as this?

Bam: They really were underdogs. They have had difficulty in securing sponsors and one of their members even shared his experience of eating only one meal a day while he was in Korea!

But their sacrifices have paid off, even winning a significant cash prize! Hopefully, this experience can pave the way for better support for eSports and e-athletes.

For this particular instance, we had to endorse some of the players so they be provided the necessary visas. As more people become aware of eSports and its benefits to athletes, we can rally more support for these teams.

Brightroar: It is well-known even in mainstream circles that eSports is big business in Korea. Multinational companies such as Samsung and SK Telecom field whole teams, with games played in football stadiums and broadcasted on national TV. Can the Philippines ever reach that level of support for eSports?

Bam: With the right amount of support from the private and public sector, it can happen. It won’t happen overnight, but in 5 to 10 years, eSports tournaments could become highly attended events and covered on mainstream TV.

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But more than the lack of institutional and governmental support, gaming as a profession’s greatest hurdle is still societal.

After all, it is difficult for lawmakers to support an unexplored field of interest when society-at-large still views it as a juvenile endeavor at best and an addictive, life-threatening distraction at its very worst. 

Brightroar: In other developed countries such as Korea, China and certain parts of Europe, video games and eSports are seen differently. Often, they are accepted as viable career opportunities not just for players, but for many other professions. Why do you think it is received differently in our country?

Bam: When those of us who grew up playing video games and eSports get older and take more leadership positions, positive reception towards these games will also increase.

As more scientific studies will show that these games have clear benefits to players, then more Filipinos will recognize that eSports too are as legitimate as other sports.

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ESPORTS DESTINATIONS — In countries such as Poland and South Korea, acceptance of eSports has transformed the industry into a legitimate economic force. Crowds gather in the thousands as eSports events are held in Katowice and Seoul.

Brightroar: A particularly hot button issue among the video games industry was the banning of the game of DotA from a barangay in Salawag, Cavite.

According to the officials, the ban was done as DotA was the cause of hooliganism, truancy and gambling among the youth in their area. May we get your opinion on this topic? Are video games, and in particular eSports titles like Dota, League of Legends and the like, harmful to the youth?

Bam: As in all things, moderation is key. Video games have been shown to provide clear benefits to the mental development of those who play them.

Some of these games also teach crucial life skills such as teamwork and patience. I do not believe there is a direct link between playing Dota and hooliganism. There are better ways to address the issue and banning the game outright is not one of them.


While it may be easy to get swept up into the negative press that gaming has garnered in the country, individuals like Senator Aquino are more optimistic about the future of the industry.

As he is a firm believer in the Filipino’s ability to excel in any field, it’s easy to be infected by the senator’s palpable hope for the country to succeed in both arenas.

With the same trend spreading in Southeast Asia and Malaysia recently announcing the creation of a government body to oversee eSports and video games, the senator believes that the heyday of gaming in the Philippines seems nigh.

“That is welcome news for eSports in the region! We have yet to tap the potential of eSports as an industry and a sport,” Bam said. “But as the global eSports community grows and as Filipinos start becoming more and more interested, we hope that it’s only a matter of time before the Philippines follows the likes of Malaysia, and even Korea.”

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