“Levelling up” ASEAN-Australia diplomacy through eSports

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

While the power of sports diplomacy can be effectively achieved through virtual means, this vision has yet to be realised in the region. These past 2 years have catalysed our capacity for digital participation with the reality of “work hard, play hard” today looking like back-to-back Zoom meetings interposed by playing the video game, Overwatch, during your lunch break. This is a behavioural shift that, amongst many others normalised by the pandemic, has perhaps been taken for granted. Beyond the screen, competitive gaming is climbing the ranks as a crucial emerging economy. The sector cultivates young innovators – a strategic asset for the region in supporting our post-pandemic recovery – and houses a unique economic network of diverse stakeholders, opening many doors for stronger trade relations. Its virtual nature invites a multitude of collaborative possibilities to build long-term partnerships. So far, these advantageous dynamics have been sidelined in favour of more traditional policy areas. But the rise of gaming culture is undeniable and taking eSports seriously would add another strategic pillar to the region’s inevitably digital future.

Compared to other regional markets, Southeast Asia is experiencing the most growth in eSports. According to a white paper by Tencent and Newzoo, 4 out of 5 Southeast Asians are mobile gamers. By 2024, Southeast Asia’s eSports market is set to hit US$72.5 million. Southeast Asia’s eSports audience is also estimated to reach 42.5 million viewers by the end of 2021. ESports has even been introduced as a medal event in the 2022 Asian Games.

This demand has driven innovation within the region’s eSports industry with local game developers being now among the world’s best. Last year, the most downloaded mobile game globally was Free Fire created by Singapore-based company, Garena. In June, the Free Fire World Series broke eSports viewership records with over 5 million users tuning in. Impressively, the event was broadcast in eighteen languages and gained particular popularity in Brazil after Garena partnered with Netflix to create Money Heist skins that users could purchase in-game. Garena also distributes League of Legends in Southeast Asia, but the developer of League of Legends, Riot Games, has said that it will establish its own Singapore team to self-distribute following mass complaints about Garena’s distribution. Nonetheless, the move of other top game developers into Southeast Asia further highlights the region’s attractive reputation as an eSports powerhouse.

As one of ASEAN’s closest neighbours, Australia is missing out on making the most out of these feats in the eSports industry.  

Just 2 years ago, the Australian Government released an official Sports Diplomacy 2030 strategy outlining key programmes to strengthen Australia’s international relations through sports. Yet, there is no mention of eSports alebit having been proven to be the most resilient sports sector throughout the pandemic. The lack of a coordinated federal policy approach for eSports stifles Australia’s diplomatic potential in this emerging sector.

Positively, steps have been taken to strengthen regional engagement through eSports, but there is no mechanism that connects these programmes under one long-term plan. The Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, an industry body representing game companies from Australia and New Zealand, hosts an annual convention, the Games Connect Asia Pacific (GCAP), to boost regional cooperation. The Australian Government has also introduced a 30 percent refundable tax offset that will be available from July 2022 to stimulate investment in game development. These advances show that Australia is keen to improve its digital games offerings and facilitate multilateral cooperation through eSports. Recognising eSports as a driver for regional diplomacy is the next step to consolidating these efforts.

What exactly does eSports diplomacy look like? First, establishing opportunities for regional financing and co-production strengthens regional trade relations. eSports has four main revenue streams – advertising, sponsorships, content licenses, and game developer investments. Supporting collaboration within these streams through formal bodies, subsidies, grants, and events would expand the regional market both between firms and through public-private partnerships. However, the sector also struggles to legitimise itself and thus needs more institutional foundations to sustain future development. Second, developing a regional eSports industry creates jobs, training, and other professional opportunities for ASEAN and Australian youth. The eSports sector can provide young people with work experience in a variety of creative or technical roles. Funding entrepreneurs in eSports would bolster digital innovation. An elite-level league for students could also be established in the region, in the same way the United States has established eSports as an official collegiate division. The rise of virtual reality tourism is a further possibility that the regional eSports market could leverage, especially if travel remains restricted or limited. Evidently, eSports provides various avenues for strengthening regional diplomacy and policymakers should engage more deeply with this high-growth sector.

As the world plunged into lockdown in early 2020, many turned to gaming for an escape from the home-bound monotony and this phenomenon cemented the universe of play into our post-pandemic future. The virtual arena of eSports has become a familiar place for millions around the globe and it has taken up a notable seat in our region. Moving forward, policy at the national and regional levels should recognise the diplomatic opportunities that eSports presents, especially as the future becomes increasingly digital. Leveraging emerging sectors, particularly those that have high youth engagement such as eSports, is key to sustaining long-term progress and innovation.

With so many players already logged in, levelling up ASEAN-Australian diplomacy through eSports is just a few clicks away.

This op-ed was written by Cindy Mititelu, edited by the AASYP Diplomacy Team, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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