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Hanging up the keyboard: dreams of e-sports career crushed by National Service

By Charles Teo

Online 5v5 Multiplayer Online Battle Arena game League of Legends has been at the forefront of the e-sports phenomenon. The objective is to take down the opponent’s nexus, located at each corner of the playing field as players slug it out in between.

A test of dexterity, intellect and cognitive flexibility, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban describes the game as ‘playing five-dimensional chess against the world’. While a multimillion-dollar prize pool of the world championship is part of the magic that draws a player base of  67 million unique users every month (a number published in 2014 and that has since increased), qualification for that shot at glory is a multi-tiered process.

Much like playing in the world cup, a player must first prove that he's the best in his country, then region, before getting his chance at the big prize itself.

Known by his online alias of ‘Mexi’, Martin Lew is one of the more prolific players in the Singaporean scene. Dedicating his time to what might be perceived by many as simply a hobby, he considers himself an e-athlete, part of the worldwide e-sports phenomenon.

A look into Mexi’s daily life shows a commitment similar to that of a sportsperson or musician; he dedicates between six to eight hours of practice daily on top of his daily life. On top of his regular practice schedule, an additional two to three hours of practice with his teammates is also required every day. Having played the game for four years, he has consistently remained one of the top players in the region. It would be fair to say that Mexi eat, sleeps, and breathes League of Legends.

The goal of anyone seeking to build a career in e-sports is to gain a spot on a full-time team and get the support and validation of being a professional gamer. This support would include a training environment with coaching staff and full-time analysts to help him build his play, allowing him a great advantage over amateur players. Benefits such as a salary, housing, and regional contacts to practice with the best in the region are additional draws.

mexiHowever, Mexi is faced with a predicament not too unfamiliar to most other Singaporean males - National Service.

Mexi was offered the chance to join a highly-ranked overseas team in Vietnam as a full-time gamer, but was unable to accept with his enlistment into the military looming. His conscription obligations would not allow him to make the full expedition overseas to play in the region’s premier circuit, the Garena Premier League.

It has since been difficult for Mexi as he faced defeat after defeat on local soil, unable to gather a team with the same amount of commitment and drive as himself. He still tries his best to practice, but has been unable to spare the hours needed to keep his skills sharp. He came close to representing Singapore on the regional scene multiple times, but fell short.

The lifespan of pro-gamers are extremely short; most last an average of five years. Mexi knows that he is no exception and feels the pressure to reach his goals soon. He failed to qualify for the Garena Premier League in the latest season, and feels that he might have to hang up his mouse and keyboard for good.

“It’s the last year that I’m giving to myself. I’ve just been disappointed too many times," Mexi told The Online Citizen. Trawling through ask.fm, where he often answers questions from anonymous users, the despair in his replies are apparent as he knows that, despite his dedication, he might walk away from e-sports empty-handed.

Mexi is far from the only one struggling to reconcile his dreams of being a pro-gamer with the commitment Singapore demands of its male citizens. David Chua – known online as Pandapaws – is a League of Legends gamer who has made it into the Garena Premier League, representing Singapore. But while his posting in National Service is one that allows him time to keep up with training, the demands of an erratic schedule has taken its toll.

Chua would often rush from his work in the military to join his team at the Garena Stadium, a LAN shop in Bugis that is an e-sports hub. Despite the hectic rush – which occasionally resulted in huge delays for his team – Chua and his mates were able to put up a decent showing in the tournament.

Bad luck struck during the final match that was the determine the team’s advancement to the next stage of the tournament. The game was on at 5 pm, and Chua was unable to get leave from his posting. He got stuck in a traffic jam while trying to race to the competition venue, and his team were forced to forfeit the match and eliminated from the tournament.

“I remember laughing bitterly to myself as the clock ticked towards the deadline. We called him and when we heard his location and the condition of the traffic, we knew we were screwed. While it felt really bitter to go out that way then, now the helplessness of the situation makes us look back on it and simply laugh,” Jensen, Chua’s coach, said.

Organisations such as Garena and the Singapore Cybersports and Online Gaming Association (SCOGA) have often stepped in to help players find deferment for their gaming pursuits. Players often use their overseas leave for such purposes, but during major exercises and operation, getting such leave approved can be a challenge. This is where the organisations step in to lend credence to their cause.

However, this still often is a case-by-case basis with there being no promise of temporary relief from duty. The team is required wait until the last minute before being able to confirm if the member in question will be able to play. In the same season that Chua and his team were eliminated, Benjamin Lim – known as Rapier – was, with help from Garena, allowed overseas leave to participate in the semifinals held in Vietnam.

Despite this help being available, the toll that National Service takes on players locally is a much more insidious one, reducing training hours, making coordination with teammates difficult and effectively preventing Singaporean males from moving overseas to pursue their careers in e-sports until they have completed their national service. By that point, it could be too late.


In June 2015, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said, "Every year, MINDEF (Ministry of Defence) gets many requests to say, ‘Can I be deferred or disrupted’? We do it transparently to say it cannot be for personal needs. If it’s for personal needs, then you have many, many personal needs," said Dr Ng. "And if we allow some to be deferred or disrupted for personal needs, then it becomes unfair for the others. Because everyone will say, ‘I would like to finish my education first become I come back (to serve NS)".

"MINDEF will support requests for deferment which we can explain to the rest of the public, and that the public feels it is fair. And for those with long-term deferments, we will publish those names that we deferred, as we have promised," he said. "It is still a national mandate."

But Dr Ng noted that even for those offered deferment, some still chose to continue balancing their NS liabilities with training. He added that many of them ended up winning medals at the SEA Games in 2015.

"I suppose it is a matter of saying, ‘Look, I can do this training and if you give me some flexibility, I can train during NS’, which was exactly what they did. So they were given that option," said Dr Ng.