Popular pull: A 2017 gaming event in Poland drew 173,000 fans, while 60-million watched a League of Legends tournament in June, mostly via streaming. Picture: Getty Images/PressFocus/MB Media/Norbert Barczyk
Popular pull: A 2017 gaming event in Poland drew 173,000 fans, while 60-million watched a League of Legends tournament in June, mostly via streaming. Picture: Getty Images/PressFocus/MB Media/Norbert Barczyk

Julia Robson gave up her studies in March last year to become a professional gamer and "eSports" personality — and she’s by no means the only South African making a living that way.

Robson, who was studying to become an oral hygienist when Taiwanese gaming company MSI offered her a job, is one of many electronic sports professionals in SA. 

Teams like Goliath Gaming now offer salaries to players who compete at the highest level. Others, such as Energy Esports, pay their players with sponsorships and prize money from tournaments.

"You can rely solely on esports in SA, but it takes years of hard work, community interaction, dedication to the industry and countless hours perfecting your niche," says Robson, 22, who has also become a social media marketer. Getting to the top requires a lot of practice — she says gamers train for 50 to 80 hours a week ahead of tournaments.

And the stakes are high. Last year, the prize pool for the international Dota 2 tournament — an online battle-arena video game — was a staggering $24.7m (R356m). That’s double the biggest purse in golf in 2017, the US Open.

Gaming tournaments are also pulling big crowds — 173,000 fans attended an event in Poland last year, while 60-million people watched a League of Legends tournament in June, mostly via online streaming services.

The League of Legends game, played by more than 100m people, is owned by Riot Games, which in turn is owned by Naspers’s prize jewel — Tencent.

In the three months ended June, Tencent’s online gaming revenues rose 6% to 25.2-billion renminbi. The increase was attributed to better sales from smartphone games such as Honour of Kings and QQ Speed Mobile. Tencent also has a large stake in Epic Games, the company behind the popular Fortnite game.

But a recent regulatory crackdown on gaming in China has dented Tencent’s stock and, in the process, has weighed heavily on the JSE — given that the Shenzhen-based company effectively accounts for nearly a fifth of SA’s main bourse.

However, amid Tencent’s dip (temporary in most analysts’ eyes) other companies are raising the JSE’s exposure to the burgeoning gaming market.

Telecom companies, for instance, see gaming as an important part of their new digital services offerings.

MTN now offers games in most of its 23 markets across the Middle East and Africa, and an increasing number of its subscribers are using these services as smartphone penetration rises and more people have access to affordable data.

"We currently don’t develop our own games but we do actively engage with local game developers to help stimulate the market," an MTN spokesperson says. The operator offers some games for free; others require a subscription.

Local money manager Vestact is bullish on companies that generate revenues from gaming. Besides MTN and Naspers, it recommends that clients invest in Nvidia, which makes computer chips for eSports, as well as Amazon, which owns streaming platform Twitch.

Vestact portfolio manager Byron Lotter wrote in a note recently that another positive about the online gaming surge is that it is inclusive.

"Women can compete against men, young people and old people can compete and because many of these games are free, the wealth divide is also broken … when it comes to physical sports these types of divides are huge," he says.

Gaming equipment providers are also wading into the SA market. South Korea’s LG Electronics, which provides gaming monitors, has had "steady" growth since it entered the local eSports market about three years ago, says account manager Maxine Fisher.

"But with our added focus on driving eSports with the help of influencers, and sponsoring teams such as Energy Esports, gamers are taking notice and sales are picking up even faster," Fisher says.

To raise awareness, LG has been working with Robson, "our social influencer", and this year it started sponsoring Orlando Pirates.

For now, prize pools in SA remain small compared with major global tournaments. VS Gaming, which has acquired the rights to host a Fifa eWorld Cup qualifier after signing an agreement with EA Sports, said it would pay out R1.5m to top-ranked players this year.

"In SA, eSports is at a critical point," says Robson. "We need players to not only play at an international standard, but also create an online personality for brands to invest and make profits."

Some SA teams and individuals are already making their mark in bigger markets. For example, Bravado Gaming, a local team that competes in first-person shooter game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, recently moved to the US to compete on the North American circuit. And Dota 2 player Travis Waters recently moved to Southeast Asia to compete there.

It’s even possible that these pioneers will find their way to the Olympics one day. In July, the International Olympic Committee held an eSports forum to consider whether to include online gaming. While the committee’s president has since expressed his hesitance, it seems inevitable that eSports will find their way into the Olympics in the not too distant future.

The sport is no longer considered niche. Signalling broader acceptance, ESPN Magazine in September featured a professional gamer on its front cover for the first time.