MANILA - Philippine eSports players are now officially athletes.
The Philippines now considers eSports as legitimate sports, like basketball and boxing, after the Gaming and Amusements Board (GAB), which is under the Office of the President, allowed professional eSports players to secure athletic licenses starting last August.
Atty. Ermar Benitez, GAB's chief legal counsel, told ABS-CBN News that the board started giving recognition to eSports professional gamers as early as July 2017.
It was a much-awaited move from the government that helped Filipino teams like TnC Pro Team and Execration, which play Defense of the Ancients 2 (DotA 2) in the local and international gaming scene, secure US visas so they could compete hitch-free in The International 7 (TI 7). This world championship tournament for DotA 2 had one of the biggest prizes for any gaming competition.
It's been a giant leap from 2016 when both teams were barred from leaving the country on their way to The International 6 (TI 6) competition in Seattle, Washington because they needed P1 visas to enter the United States.
P1 visas are given to entertainers and athletes so they can participate in an event in the US. This prompted the teams to ask the office of Sen. Bam Aquino, an ardent supporter of eSports, for help.
If not for the joint effort, eSports fans would not have witnessed one of the biggest upsets ever in DotA 2 history, when TNC knocked out the powerhouse European team, OG, in The International 6.
eSports is not widely accepted as a sport in the Philippines, which GAB recognizes.
"Out of the millions of enthusiasts, only a handful make it to the big leagues. On a per capita basis, there are less eSports players that make it big than other athletes in other sports. So, for most people, this should remain to be a form of entertainment more than a calling," Benitez said.
Gamers who want to apply for a license need vouching from professional gaming teams. They also need to pay a small fee for the license, and GAB will also look into their track records.
Applicants will also have to undergo a mandatory, on-the-spot drug test.
Since it is a new development for eSports, GAB clarified that the licenses are not limited to DotA 2 and League of Legends (LoL) players. In fact, Heroes of the Storm (HotS) Filipino players, who will compete at the Heroes of the Storm Global Championship, recently received their athletic licenses. Their team is just one of the first to qualify from Southeast Asia.
No clear-cut plan yet for eSports
Recognizing the growing gaming community in the Philippines, Benitez said "there is a need for government guidance to be in place...to balance all these competing rights and interests."
But more than the recognition, GAB, as the agency mandated to regulate and supervise professional sports in the country, will also investigate allegations of wrongdoing and game-fixing in eSports.
"In traditional sports, there can be game-fixing, illegal gambling, or even illegal tournaments where organizers escape regulation and also deprive the government of revenue. This can be present in eSports as well," Benitez added, explaining that this new territory means the agency has a lot of catching up to do to upgrade their competencies in the field of online gaming.
Live-streaming video platform Twitch Philippines' country manager Julius Mariano, one of the proponents of professional eSports licenses, told ABS-CBN News that even eSports is not spared from match-fixing.
He cited an incident in 2014 when Philippine teams MSI and Mineski allegedly rigged their games in exchange for money. Some of their players came forward to confess to the rigging and the players were slapped with suspensions.
The agency has yet to come up with a clear-cut plan on monitoring online games, but Benitez said that GAB will add more people with relevant expertise to enhance their capabilities.
For now, the agency acknowledges the support they get from stakeholders and associations for ease in doing business.
"We value their inputs not only on background checks but also, and more importantly, on the systems that we will be putting for supervising and regulating the sport."
Long road to recognition
eSports has long been in existence in the Philippines, but 2016 was a notable year for Philippine eSports after two major DotA 2 events, the ESL One Manila and the Manila Major, were successfully held in the country's capital city.
GAB has acknowledged this explosion of interest in this Southeast Asian country, where slow internet connection is still a problem and can make seamless online gaming difficult to happen.
The GAB's initiative, led by chairman Abraham Mitra and Commissioners Eduard Trinidad and Mar Masaguid, paved the way for the close-knit gaming community to gain recognition.
Benitez added: "The immediate benefit at this point is recognition, not just by the Philippine government but by other governments and the public as well. When players compete abroad, they can proudly say that they are recognized as such by their country."
Sen. Aquino also expressed his gratitude to the GAB.
"Filipino e-gamers have tremendous talent and potential to conquer the global gaming arena," he said in a statement.
"We hope to continue developing the eSports industry in the Philippines and supporting our professional gamers as they represent the Philippines."