In his private villa in Manila, in the Philippines, Joaquin Pantaleon logged out of the day’s last Zoom meeting with employees of his esports company. Although it had been a long day, with countless hours of virtual conferences running past dinnertime, the generous sunlight close to the Equator shared its last burning rays before moving on to bestow its warmth elsewhere.
Despite being fatigued, the 29-year-old eagerly logged into the gamer group chat app Discord. In the gaming world, Pantaleon goes by “Namibia”. As he came online, his friends’ voices echoed in his headset.
They were having a heated discussion about surging cryptocurrency prices. Some in the group boasted excitedly of their gains, while others regretfully revealed losses on their investments.
Immediately, Pantaleon’s presence on the app triggered the computer screens of everyone in his friend group to load their favourite online game, the popular Dota 2.
The voices in Pantaleon’s headphones fell silent as the players waited for their game to start. Within seconds of the conversation dying down, his focus had shifted to helping his teammates win the match.
Played by Pantaleon and his friends recreationally, Dota 2 is also one of the games played professionally in the genre of gaming competition known as esports — a global market expected to surpass US$1 billion in worth by the end of 2021, according to gaming data company Newzoo.
Peaking at 11 million unique players a month earlier this year, Dota 2 is a complex game that requires chemistry and coordination among teammates. For the millennial generation, however, it has also become an important gateway for socialising and interacting with friends across the world.
In their in-game conversations in Discord, Pantaelon and his friends discuss their work and financial deals – just as business executives have traditionally done over a round of golf. Indeed, for millennials, this virtual environment is what some call the networking equivalent of their own golf course.
Pantaleon even got the idea of setting up his own company within a video game. Inspiration came during a friendly conversation among teammates following a lost Dota 2 match. His AMR Entertainment now hosts esports competitions around Southeast Asia. “The idea was born out of playing video games,” he explains.
“It’s often said in business that if you play a game of golf with a person, you’ll learn more about them than you will in a whole year of business meetings,” says Professor Jeffrey Brand, a digital media expert at Bond University’s Faculty of Society and Design.
“We could probably flip that a bit, or modernise it and say, actually, if you play a couple of games of Dota 2 with a business partner or a customer, you’ll learn more about them than you will in a year of meetings.”
Golf has experienced something of a renaissance during the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly quarter of a million Australians playing or trying out the physically distanced sport, according to Golf Australia.
More dramatic, though, has been the rise in spending on gaming-related products and services, especially during lockdown. Reflecting a global rise, the Australian gaming industry’s revenue jumped by six per cent in 2020, according to PwC, to US$3.4 billion.
Just like rounds of golf, video games have helped millennials to start businesses and build their networks.
“It’s very similar to traditional sports where, together with the person you’re playing with, you’re obviously going to chat and have conversations,” says English professional Dota caster — or commentator — Jared “Nomad” Bajina.
As it happens, Pantaleon is also an avid golfer – but he says some conversations are better saved for online platforms where he is more likely to be mixing with his peers. In Australia, the average age of golf players is about 56, while the average age of professional Dota players is 23.
“When you’re with people who play golf, you aren’t necessarily with people who are your own age, so there is a line you can’t cross,” Pantaleon says.
“It’s different in Dota because it’s usually closer to my generation, and there’s a better understanding of ideas and [of] markets for products that target the newer generations.”
The pandemic has seen people across the world take shelter in their own homes – and, in many cases, seek escapism in the digital world, and in online games.
At least 60 per cent of the world’s population is now online, according to We Are Social, a social media data and services company.
As Prof Brand says: “One of the great reasons why we play games is to go on adventures that we can’t go on in real life… If we’re in the middle of a pandemic that doesn’t allow us the freedom to move, we can engage in a kind of virtual tourism, a kind of virtual travel.
“And the best thing is, the worst virus we can get is on our computer, not in our bodies.”
Jack “MoFarah” Williams is another English professional Dota 2 caster who has had to be extra careful during the pandemic, as he takes immunosuppressants. His parents have shielded with him.
Living together has opened his parents’ eyes to the social benefits that Williams gains from spending so much time online. “They didn’t really understand it the same way because, in that generation, they probably only ever knew talking to people face to face.”
Now, though, witnessing him interacting with his friends has inspired his parents to seek more social contact with friends and family themselves, in their case via phone calls.
One benefit of multi-player games has been stronger working relationships among colleagues, according to Jared Bajina, who recalls playing in a group of casters during a major Dota tournament in June.
“It’s definitely a way to enhance your business relationships [and] a way to increase chemistry, which is so important when you’re on screen,” he says. “And that can, of course, extend to other things as well.”
According to US-based visa processing company RapidVisa, 2.3 per cent of applicants for the US’s K-1 fiancé/fiancée visa met through online gaming. In addition, almost 70 per cent of gamers surveyed by communications platform PubNub admitted to forming either casual friendships or romantic relationships through gaming.
“For me, I still play with some of our employees regularly,” says Pantaleon. In a reference to winners of AMR’s competitions, he adds: “Recently, we were discussing whether we should give the price money [in cryptocurrencies] … because the international settlements make it a bit of an obstacle for us.”
Of course, too much of a good thing can have harmful effects, particularly on children. Bajina acknowledges the dangers of spending too much time playing video games.
“To me, the biggest problem… is that they’re artificially designed to give you that hit of dopamine,” he says.
“It becomes a replacement for real-life social activities, which I don’t think is good. You need a balance of both.”
The damaging consequences of excessive video gaming have been well documented. In Thailand this year, a 17-year-old died of heart failure linked to sleep deprivation during an overnight binge; in South Korea in 2010, a three-month-old babystarved to death while her parents were busy raising a “virtual child” in an online game.
China is a powerhouse in esports competition. Dota 2 casters Bajina and Williams pick the Chinese team PSG.LGD as favourites to win the world Dota 2 championship, the 10th annual The International (TI10), which starts next month.
The global attraction is set to have the largest prize pool in esports history, at over US$40 million, topping the previous record of TI9’s more than US$34 million.
But in China, too, there are worries about the addictiveness of online gaming and its impact on mental and physical well-being. Last month, the Chinese government limited children under 18 to just three hours of gaming a week: an hour a day from Friday to Sunday.
Brand, however, questions the wisdom of such restrictions, and he argues that gaming has many positive sides that are at risk of being overlooked.
“Virtual reality and game-like environments train people in very dangerous jobs — fighting fires, for example,” he says. “Better to do it in a video game than with your hair getting singed.”
Before the pandemic made Zoom cool, Brand was able to use video games in a real-life scenario. He and his students built a rendition of Bond University in Minecraft, a video game where players break and build pretty much anything using blocks.
“What we did also is, we actually held class inside Minecraft when we had a horrific four- or five-day wet period,” Brand says. “This is 2013 … we went into our virtual university and we had class.”
Minecraft is also being used to promote media freedom, with the establishment of a digital library of censored documents. In March 2020, Reporters Without Borders opened its Uncensored Library within Minecraft, with gamers able to access content banned in countries such as Russia, Egypt and Vietnam.
While such real-life applications have had concrete impacts, Pantaleon has Dota 2 to thank for reuniting his group of friends from his teenage years during the pandemic.
“We’ve all grown up and moved away from our homes, and now we’re all over the world,” he says.
“What ended up happening was that when all of us were on lockdown, old friends came back to the game and really allowed us to share ideas about investments and catch up with what’s been going on in everyone’s lives.”
Within that group – the same band of teenagers who skived off of school over a decade ago to play video games – are a doctor, a pilot, businessmen and others, all enjoying the same pastime.
In an increasingly digital-focused society, video games have become a rewarding zone for many in this generation.
“Sometimes we take our physical interactions with people for granted, and most of our friends and colleagues in the real world are usually too busy to share personal or business-related conversations with,” says Pantaleon.
“I think, in a way, that’s what golf is like too. When you share a hobby with someone and you’re doing an activity with someone for an extended amount of time, you end up talking, and those conversations can lead to anything — even starting a company.”