Honolulu Plugs Into eSports
But Internet isolation, lack of competition, team dynamics create problems
By Brandon Rivera
Sports but without a ball or field
A video explaining League of Legends
A woman’s stern voice bellows “Victory,” and the five players on the winning team leave the arena discussing their latest game.
“We made a lot of mistakes," the team’s captain, Chao Tien, said. "We shouldn’t have won that.”
“You’re right," added, team analyst and coach, John Bui. "We got lucky, so what could we have done to wrap that game up sooner?"
If all of that sounds like a pretty typical post-game chat, it is, only in this sports league, all of the action takes place on computers, and the players don't need to be particularly athletic. This is eSports, and it is challenging what we consider to be the essence of a sport or a sports league.
For some rich entrepreneurs, the path into this professional landscape, of, say League of Legends, is easy. They buy their way in. The NBA’s Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, for example, simply purchased two of the ten slots in the North American League Championship Series’ standings.
For everyone else, like local business owners, such as Quincy Solano of Honolulu, the process is more complicated and costly on a personal level.
League of Legends is a mobile online battle arena released in 2009 by Riot Games. It has been the most popular video game in the world for nearly a decade, according to Statista, an online market research firm. The game's extremely high-skill ceiling and emphasis on teamwork is perfectly suited for competitive play. Riot and League of Legends spearheaded the rise in popularity of professional electronic sports, or eSports.
Professional gaming meanwhile has become an increasingly competitive market that continues to grow in viewership each year.
In 2017, for example, the League of Legends world championship peaked at 100 million concurrent viewers, which was more than five times the viewership of the NBA finals. It also had a prize pool of almost $5 million.
LoL demonstrated that there is notoriety and money in eSports. The game’s greatest player, Korean superstar Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, for example, reportedly makes about $4.6 million a year, according to Korean eSports personality Hong “YellOw” Jin-ho.
While Sang-hyeok’s salary is a mere sliver of what other professional athletes are paid, such as Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James ($77.2 million a year in salary and endorsements), gamers and businesses that have set their eyes upon the industry believe it is only the beginning of this industry and its growth.
In 2017, revenue generated by eSports reached a new peak of $696 million, according to Newzoo’s 2017 Global eSports Market Report.
“Everyone likes money. Now mix making millions of dollars with playing video games, I like the sound of that." - Quincy Solano
Honolulu businessman Solano’s experience with eSports began with his formal education. Technology was always his main interest, and that passion translated into a bachelor’s degree in information and computer science from the University of Hawaii.
While completing his master’s degree, Solano took a job at Technology News Bytes, a local tech company. As a new hire, he was responsible for planning public events, such as the Technology Internet Expo.
During his tenure with Tech News Bytes, Solano met and befriended his eventual business partners John Kim and Jordan Takemoto.
“We would play StarCraft and League of Legends together all night and then talk about games whenever we could during work the next day," Solano said. "It was good fun.”
Working for Tech News Bytes and having little to no control over what the company’s focuses were didn't satisfy Solano. He had bigger goals in mind, he said. So in 2013, he started his own technology entertainment company with Kim and Takemoto, called Red Dot Productions.
“We started off with local music events, like Aloha Concert, but once that went well, eventually I was able to get gigs like Gamer Expo and Kawaii Kon, which were more my style,” said Solano.
He used these opportunities to orchestrate some of the state’s first local area network (or LAN) video game tournaments at the events. It began with two computers, sluggish Internet connection and no prize for the winners.
“After a few conventions, we started to get the hang of it," Takemoto said. "We got a couple of sponsors for equipment, and it started to grow."
As more players entered their tournaments, Solano noticed a trend. One group of players, calling themselves Team WMYF, continued to breeze through the competition.
“These guys, they called themselves Team WMYF at the time, they never dropped a game in each best-of-three series, and when they did, it was usually to get more practice games in." - Quincy Solano.
Solano is tireless in his approach to planning, and by January 2015, he had made plenty of connections within the eSports community. League of Legend’s fourth competitive season had just come to an end, and its popularity was beginning to snowball.
He saw potential in Team WMYF but couldn’t tell if they were as talented as they seemed or if the competition wasn’t. Solano also knew it was the right time to get in to the professional LoL scene.
Solano pulled strings and called in many of the favors he’d racked up, until finally he was on the phone with the owner of gaming behemoth Team Curse, Steve Arhancet.
Solano figured that if he succeeded in bringing Team Curse's (now called Liquid’s) professional League of Legends team to that year’s Gamer Expo and included them in one of his tournaments, it would not only create a larger viewership, but it also could test if Team WMYF was ready for the pros.
Despite his efforts, though, Solano only was able to recruit Team Curse Academy, the equivalent to a professional sports team’s second string.
“A second string of professionals should’ve still crushed an amateur squad who plays in small tournaments on an island in the middle of the ocean,” Solano said.
But that’s not what happened. Team WMYF showed up to Gamer Expo 2015 ready to compete and easily made their way to the finals, where Curse Academy was waiting.
The atmosphere was electric. Fans of the game filled the rows of foldable chairs in the Ala Moana Hotel’s conference room, creating the eSports arena. Chants for each Curse player echoed from wall to wall as if they were the home team.
Team Curse Academy’s roster consisted of Kevin “Hauntzer” Yarnell, Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco, Jang “Keane” Lae-young, David “Cop” Roberson, and Michael “Bunny FuFuu” Kurylo. Yarnell and Lae-young since have become two of the premier professional LoL players today.
“I remember my hands shaking before that game, I was so nervous to play them.” - Chao Tien.
As soon as the first game started, though, the nerves were gone and the fighting began. Team WMYF played its usual game and acted as the aggressor, forcing fights and taking advantage of a lackadaisical start from Team Liquid.
The semi-pros clearly underestimated the local group and dug themselves into a hole that was impossible to recover from. Team WMYF took game one, and the crowd exploded in excitement.
“It was insane. No one expected it," Solano said. "The people who were there were shocked but were just happy to see a good game, I think.”
Unfortunately for WMYF, it was a best-of-three series. Curse Academy ultimately won the next two straight, including a thrilling final game that saw WMYF push the pros to their limits. For Solano, it was a victory nonetheless. He had confirmed the team’s level of skill as bordering on pro level and knew he was correct about its potential.
On Feb. 21, 2015, the members of WMYF – Chao Tien, Yunghoon Jang, Dean Dang, David Chang, and Anthony Tan – then signed contracts with eSports Hawaii and became eligible to compete in tournaments under Solano’s brand, Team Brult.
“It was a special moment, playing video games is what I love to do, but getting an opportunity to possibly get paid to play them at a high level is what every gamer dreams of doing,” said Tien.
Timeline by: Brandon Rivera
Ready for the big time ... or not?
The formation of Team Brult was the easy part. The initial goal was to make it into the 2016 North American Challenger Series Open Qualifier tournament. “At the time, it was the only way to make it into the pro scene," Tien said. "And the only way to make it into the qualifier was to be one of the top three ranked teams on the game’s ranking system ladder. We had ten months to get that good.”
Solano didn’t get much sleep during the first few months, but he was used it. He takes pride in his work ethic. Entire days would often be spent in the bedroom of his apartment, eyes switching between his laptop and cellphone, while leaning back in his cushioned rolling chair.
He has a desk in his room, too, to keep him productive and sitting up straight while he conducts business. However, when the sun is no longer shining through the plastic blinds that cover the sole window into his room, he brings his work over to the king-sized bed, so he can lay down while typing and scrolling.
There are no posters or pictures hanging on the white walls of his apartment, but every now and again, he’ll command his Amazon Alexa device to turn on his 64-inch television, so that he can have something to look at.
While Solano is soliciting potential sponsors or emailing amateur teams his team can practice against, the only sound that can be heard in his room is the low hum of the air conditioner and random creaks from the sliding mirror that acts as a door to his walk-in closet.
His first big obstacle, as the team owner, was to find members of Team Brult a place to play together. So in August 2015, Solano opened Café GG, an Internet café where not only Brult members but also anyone who wanted to play video games for an hourly fee could convene.
“It’s important for a team, any sports team to spend a lot of time together and to practice in the same place."
- Quincy Solano.
Solano pays a high Internet bill for Café GG’s high-speed connection, and he also has stocked each computer that the players were going to use with top-of-the-line parts.
Solano hired a coach that would watch each game and give the team feedback on the way they played. Coach Bui also was responsible for developing team strategy and ensuring that relationships between players were healthy.
The next step in his process was to find other eSports teams to schedule consistent scrimmages against. That task proved to be more difficult than imagined, because of the time difference between Hawaii and the continental United States.
“Most of the teams that we scrimmed against turned out to be collegiate level teams and they were really good competition,” Bui said. “But we held our own.”
Collegiate eSports teams are becoming more common as professional gaming grows in popularity. Oahu’s Hawaii Pacific University, for example, started the state’s first collegiate program and opened the state's first eSports arena last year. HPU is currently offering scholarships to members of its League of Legends team and is in talks with the NCAA to have it recognized as an official collegiate sport, team manager Reed Pasatiempo said.
Once Team Brult had a coach, a base of operations and a set practice schedule, it was just a matter of playing the game they loved. At first, Brult seemed to be headed in the right direction.
“We’re in talks with the NCAA. It’s gonna happen in the very near future, as soon as next semester but probably the semester after that." - HPU's Reed Pasatiempo
A look inside Team Brult
Video by: Brandon Rivera
But the bliss didn’t last very long. “After a couple of months we started having issues with dedication and consistency,” Solano said.
Esports are similar to regular sports in a sense that at the highest level of competition, the smallest of details matter.
In Hawaii, gamers experience network latency, which is a phenomenon in online gaming that creates a lag between when a player does something and when it happens on the screen.
Despite Solano’s costly Internet bill, many of Brult’s members lost the motivation to play against top teams who do not experience the same latency, creating competitive disadvantages.
“It’s a huge deal when you play against the best players,” said Bailey Borengasser, a substitute player for Team Brult. “They can take advantage of the fact that you can’t react as fast as they can, and a lot of the time, there is no counter play.”
On top of the lag, the team’s members weren’t used to the rigorous schedules. One player, for example, said he would rather spend the afternoon with his girlfriend than practice with his team. Another refused to wake up at 4 p.m., when the scrimmages began. On another occasion, a member of Team Brult took a job babysitting for the week during the scheduled games.
One way or another, Brult found itself playing with new substitute players almost every practice block.
“It definitely wasn’t a healthy environment to play in,” said Treyten Nelson, one of the substitute players for Team Brult. “I jumped in and tried to play positions I had little to no experience with and got crushed playing against some of these high-ranked players.”
With three months to go before the NACS qualifier, the team was nowhere near the rank it needed. Solano saw tension building between his players and predicted a falling out before it happened.
“There were accusations being thrown around, name-calling," Solano acknowledged. "They weren’t performing like they had before at the live events. Eventually three of the members quit.”
He knew there was no real chance of Brult making the qualifier at that point, let alone winning it, but Solano also said he couldn’t just quit after everything he had put into the effort.
So Solano tracked down players from the runner-up of the Gamer Expo tournament, successfully filled the gaps, and even formed a secondary team, but, he acknowledged, the team just wasn’t the same.
The remaining members of the original Team Brult saw the new players as their replacements and never felt comfortable. At that point, finding serious teams to practice against was becoming a struggle, and victories were few and far between.
In September 2016, Solano decided to scrap Team Brult’s League of Legends team and focus on other eSports like Hearthstone and Super Smash Bros. Members of Team Brult still participate in small, weekly tournaments held by eSports Hawaii. Café GG remains one of the few Internet cafés in Honolulu.
Competitive League of Legends in Hawaii, though, is not dead just yet. HPU and its team has stepped into the void. The university’s newly built eSports Arena at the Aloha Tower Marketplace serves as a symbol of that.
As the Sharks continue to fight for the recognition of eSports, the University of Hawaii at Manoa is beginning to take an interest, too. During the Spring 2018 semester, for example, UH offered a course in the School of Communications on “eSports and Society,” taught by graduate student Nyle “Sky” Kauweloa.
The course intended to demonstrate an understanding of the emerging role eSports will play as a mainstream activity and new form of entertainment. Kauweloa is adamant in his belief that eSports should have a future in college athletics and should be recognized as official sports.
“I love the deregulatory atmosphere characterizing college eSports at the moment," he said. "One thing that’s manifested is how college eSports infrastructure is being reinterpreted. They exist as spaces for competitive, but they are so much more.”
Written By: Brandon Rivera
Published: May 14, 2018