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Game Changer: Cambodia set its sights on the multi-million-dollar eSports industry

Tom Starkey

Despite the Kingdom seeing eSports popularity skyrocket year-on-year, the competitive scene remains nascent. However, a combination of shifting public opinions, mounting business interest, and flourishing home-grown talent is promising to take Cambodia’s eSports industry to the next level.

According to business data analysis site Statista, in 2021, the global eSports market was valued at just over $1.08 billion, double the valuation from 2020.

“The eSports industry’s global market revenue is forecast to grow to around $1.62 billion by 2024. Asia and North America currently represent the largest eSports markets in terms of revenue,” with China alone accounting for almost one-fifth of the market.

While getting data on gaming popularity in Cambodia is difficult, if you walk past any car park security guard, idle shopkeeper, or apprentice mechanic, you’ll likely overhear the sounds of Mobile League: Bang Bang (MLBB) or Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds (PUGB) ringing out from phones. The difference is that people are not just playing, they are watching.

Statista said that in 2021 the worldwide eSports audience size reached 474 million people.

“In years to come, more and more viewers are expected to tune in to watch their favorite games being played. By 2024, there are expected to be more than 577 million viewers of eSports across the world.”

Whilst competition has always been an element of the gaming industry, it is only recently that the professional form of competitive play in eSports has grown in popularity. Now, games such as League of Legends, Dota 2, Counter-Strike, Valorant, and Overwatch, are involved in multi-million dollar competitive leagues which draw huge crowds, birthing a whole new industry.

While on a much smaller scale, businesses are beginning to recognize gaming’s huge popularity – and more importantly potential – within the Kingdom.

Level Up

WML+, one of the largest technology and content agencies in the Kingdom of Cambodia, said heavy internet penetration and rapid eSports industry growth is the reason behind major league sponsorship interest.

“The esports industry is going through a rapid growth not only in Cambodia. Even with a population size of around 16 million people, some 20 percent of the population are gamers.”

“In recent years, we’ve also seen brands and companies venturing into esports as part of their marketing strategy.”

“For example, Sting Energy Drink, Mountain Dew, Smart Axiata, and Cellcard have been some of the pioneers that have contributed to the growth of the esports industry through their involvement in esports.

WML+ added that the potential growth of this sector is exponential with more and more companies putting their investment into esports, such as KFC and Sathapana Bank.”

According to Cambodian Esports League (CEL), In Cambodia, competitive eSport is split between Mobile and PC.

eSports industry
Cambodia eSports

“MLBB is the leading Esport in Cambodia right now, with Valorant becoming dominant for PC, followed up by other games such as Dota 2, League of Legends and Apex Legends. The demographic of PC gamers is mostly male, ranging from 16-30 years old. For mobile, there is more age and gender diversity because it is easier to access.”

However, CEL said that while eSports is undergoing massive growth in Cambodia, the lack of consistent funding still represents a barrier to the competitive scene.

“Lack of resources and consistent funding is the main reason holding back our players and tournament organizers. Currently, the prize pools are low, and players cannot rely on winning. Therefore, it is difficult for Cambodian Esports to be able to catch up with the success seen around the world.”

“To progress, it is essential for teams and organizations to be able to sustain a living to provide the necessary resources to improve and compete with teams around the world.”

CEL added that sponsorship plays a big part in reaching that goal.

“Our role is to create the best tournament experience possible, to boost viewership which will, in turn, give opportunities for players and teams to compete and improve their skill level, raising the bar in the scene. That is possible through sponsorship.”

“By providing players, organizations and tournament organizers with resources and tools they need, we will see the growth that is needed to propel our scene to a sustainable level.”

Bright future for eSports industry

Valorant presents a very current example, with the Kingdom’s largest tournament – organized by the CEL – taking place over March and April. With a prize pool of $1,500 and some 64 amateur and pro teams taking part in the invitational, the future looks promising for multiple eSports in the country.

“Currently, our main objective is to focus on providing a platform for teams and organizations to compete domestically and then internationally. If progress continues at this rate, in the near future teams/organizations will be able to achieve the means to support themselves and go really big.”

“Esports is a growing market and Cambodia must be able to compete at an international level, not only to bring pride to our country but to make it possible for stable incomes in gaming and make it to be an approachable career. The same as any other athlete.”

Reload

Although competition is a major element in eSports, fans say that it is also important that the scene grows as a whole, by increasing gaming content for more exposure.

Gaming enthusiast Noryvong Nikko Sisowath said for the scene to not just survive but thrive, more exciting personalities and storylines are needed.

“I think funny, cool, and viral content will push the viewership further on top of just raw competition. Currently, there are only a few content creators in the scene doing it, such as Sea Neang Gaming, Mengly Gaming and Mano Gaming.”

“If the content is good enough and goes viral, people begin to cross into different audiences and as a result, gain more viewers, increasing interest in the scene on the whole. I’ve seen people starting to get to know about gaming personalities when there’s a sensational piece of content from them who wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Sisowath said that there are a lot of possibilities with content to merge different platforms, which could really help gaming reach a wider audience.

“The same way musicians make vlogs and cross-over content, it’s about crossing audiences and introducing them to something they never knew they’d like. Pretty much cross-pollination. You don’t always have to be a highlight 10 kill streak player to garner attention, sometimes you just need an interesting mind and a memorable soul,” he added.

Shooting for the stars

Indeed, businesses are also recognizing the growth potential in eSports content as a valuable part of the wider scene and boosting viewership.

Next Level Entertainment (NLE), a part of the WML+ group, was launched to focus on eSports-related content creation as a result, with services ranging from production to talent management.

“We started NLE when we realized there was a gap in this sector; where there are limited localized resources and information available for esports.”

SEA eSports.

“NLE is a one-stop platform for all esports-related content consisting of a Facebook page and website with daily updates. As the name suggests, our goal is to elevate the esports scene in Cambodia and bring it to the next level.”

WML+ said that the reason behind the launch was in recognition of the huge potential they see here in Cambodia, evidenced by the growth in professional leagues and home-grown talent.

“With more professional leagues being organized, the Cambodian players are gaining more experience and exposure to compete on the international stage. We believe with the right strategies, both players and sponsors will be able to benefit a lot through these partnerships.”

“In Cambodia, the esports sector is also experiencing tremendous growth but from our observation, there is still a lack of localized sources of news and platforms – specifically for eSports – and that is the gap that Next Level Entertainment aims to close.”

Changing settings

However, there still remains a wider gap between the general public and the corporates in terms of acceptance and understanding within the scene, according to the WML+.

“While the general public is very well aware and accepting of the rise of the esports industry, corporate companies are mostly still more conservative.”

“NLE will be working closely with various parties such as game owners, players, and corporate partners to develop and execute more eSports activations in Cambodia. This includes esports contents creation and production, organizing eSports related events, developing strategies and executing eSports related plans for clients as well as supporting players.”

They said that they aim to breach the gap and further grow the industry with the support of more corporate brands and companies.

Long shot

Despite the interest and progress, gamers and viewers within the scene are still facing obstacles.

Esports team DGQ, who will compete in the annual MPL (Mobile Legends Professional League) this year, is one such team eyeing championships as their ticket to sponsorship and being self-sustained.

Manager, Chanrithyrak Hul –gaming title Brave – said it’s fair for players to take home the majority of winnings, but it makes it difficult for organizations.

“Players share around 90 percent of the winnings. As the team manager, I take about 10 percent. This is used to take care of the travel, food and general needs of the players. It’s just enough to cover expenses.

He said the dream is to have a consistent sponsorship, which will allow him to cover full-time salaries for both the players and management.”

“There are lots of sponsors who want to reach the same audience that we have. They haven’t seen the potential yet. We need more exposure to let them know.”

Statista says that the largest share of eSports market revenue came from sponsorships and advertising in 2021.

“Altogether, the global eSports market revenue from sponsorships and advertising totaled 641 million U.S. dollars in 2021,” Statista stated, with the next highest source of revenue, in contrast, being media rights at just over $192 million.”

Whether it’s strategy, RPG, or otherwise, the Cambodian scene is ready to play for big money. It seems only a matter of time before you see them loading in.

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