In a sunny island state where the idea of playing games for a living is seen as a fool's dream, five players of Valve's Dota 2 game are making it work.
Team Faceless is a Singaporean e-sports team that competes in Dota 2, Valve's multiplayer online battle arena game. The team was formed just a month ago, but has already cruised to victory in the Southeast Asia qualifiers for the upcoming Boston Major competition, taking place from December 3 to December 10.
Faceless joins 15 other teams to compete in the $3 million event, where the winning team can take home up to $1.1 million. Finishing last nets $30,000. But for Faceless, finishing last is not an option.
Unlike more established e-sports organizations, Faceless doesn't have a sponsor. Instead, the team relies on its captain, veteran player Daryl "iceiceice" Koh, to pay for meals and rent on its townhouse. At least, until the team makes the money back in tournament earnings.
Koh moved to China for three years to play for big-name teams such as Vici Gaming and Ehome. He's so far made over a million dollars in e-sports. That's not even counting undisclosed sums from streaming deals with Huomao, China's equivalent of Twitch. While Koh could retire comfortably, he isn't doing so.
Besides Koh, the Team Faceless squad features four other veterans: German Dominik "Black^" Reitmeier, Singaporeans Wong "NutZ" Jeng Yih and Toh "xy-" Wai Hong and Thailand's Anucha "Jabz" Jirawong.
"I'm the only one in the team with big winnings, the rest are poor compared to me, especially Jabz, so we really want to win for Jabz," jokes Koh.
While it's not the most played game in the world (it had 13 million unique players in June, versus the 100 million League of Legends has), there's big money in Dota 2. Its annual championship, The International, offers the biggest prize pool in all of e-sports. In 2016, for example, the tournament had a final purse of $20.7 million, thanks in large part to crowdfunding. The base prize pool, before the community got involved, was $1.6 million. China's Wings Gaming took home $9.1 million in earnings. The prize catapulted each team member to the top of the earnings chart from being relative unknowns on the scene.
Home is where the team is
For Jirawong, 18, moving from Thailand to Singapore to play on a new team was quite the gamble. English isn't his first language, though he speaks it well enough to communicate with the team. He's also the youngest among his teammates, but shoulders quite a bit of responsibility. He's the drafter and mid-player, a position that has the highest impact in the crucial early parts of the game.
Drafting happens before a match in pro Dota 2 games, where each team's drafter picks and bans heroes (from a massive list of 112) to form a strategic blueprint for the actual battle. A wrong pick can lead to disaster if it gets countered, while the right picks can win the game for the team.
"Jabz watches a lot of replays from other regions and public games and he'll try to copy the strategies in his own training," said Koh. "While we give ideas during the draft, he decides."
If there's one thing that Jirawong misses though, it's Thai food, which in Singapore just isn't fiery enough.
"Not spicy," he said, in what was the most extensive answer the somewhat shy gamer offered up to CNET.
Unlike Jirawong, the boisterous Reitmeier feels right at home. He's plied his gaming talents all around the world, from China to Korea, the US, Malaysia and now Singapore. He prefers the weather in Singapore and has only been back home for six months since he started his Dota 2 career in 2009.
"I don't really care where I go to compete, I just go where there's the best chance for me to improve and achieve something," he said. "There's no specific reason why I picked Singapore this time."
Living in the team house
While it's possible for an e-sports team to only meet online to practice, having everyone living together in the same house makes it a lot easier to stay disciplined and to bond. For Wong, the current digs are a lot better than when he was playing with South Korean e-sports team MVP.
"There, you often had up to 16 people in the house, with 6 people sharing one room," he said. In comparison, Team Faceless is making do with a four-storey building with a swimming pool right at the doorstep. Their gear, including gaming PCs and comfortable chairs, comes from local sponsors Aftershock and .
The team maintains a rigorous training schedule of practicing (known as "scrimming") against other teams four times a day, starting at 2 p.m. until the last matches, which begin at 9 p.m.
For Faceless, this means playing against other local Southeast Asian teams, as well as with teams in China if the VPN holds up. Practicing against Chinese teams can be a hassle due to high ping, or a lag in the commands sent by a player to the server. Both bad routing and the Chinese firewall are not good for international gaming.
After practice, players then look at replays individually and together to call out specific plays and errors that happen during a game. The process can be quite tedious and draining.
Besides daily practice, some pro players may also have a contract to stream their games on platforms such as Twitch or Azubu, though payouts aren't as lucrative compared with streaming in China.
Depending on the player, an annual contract with the requirement to stream 90 hours monthly can pay as much as $500,000, a sum that's potentially more than what most gamers can earn from tournaments. But while the payout is good, some feel it's ruining the scene in China.
"Streaming is destroying their careers, because they prioritise streaming over training, " said Koh, who spent three years in China. "It pays so much better, like ten times better.
"You can win The International every year, but streaming is going to pay two times more if you're a top streamer. Amounts above $500,000 are pretty common in China. Twitch, however, pays a lot less, but it's based on how long you stream."
For Faceless, which is currently on a 16-game winning streak, the prospect of losing isn't one they are afraid of. It's just a matter of when.
"We keep talking together about how we shouldn't feel pressured to keep the winning streak going, because when you play best of threes, it's perfectly fine to lose a game," said Reitmeier.
"Losing is very normal, and it's a process of learning, so I don't think you can be mad at yourself for losing," he added. "If you don't lose, take it as a bonus, I guess. Everyone loses in a competition, even the best teams."
As the team preps for the Boston Major in December, it will use a $100,000 tournament happening this month in LA, called The Summit, to get a feel of its competition. The tournament will feature some of the best teams in the world that will also play at the Boston Major.
"I don't think there should be high expectations of us going to The Summit 6 or the Majors, because we just formed the team a month or two ago and it's going to be surprising if we do well. Top three at the Majors will be good for us, top six and eight are acceptable as well," said Koh.
"Maybe we'll pull off a Wings Gaming and get first, or we'll just lose in the first round. There are no expectations, we just want to play well."