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Big money in little Singapore: Can a $220,000 tournament drive e-sport growth in Southeast Asia?

The Nanyang DOTA 2 Championships in Singapore almost fell at the first hurdle, but finished with a resounding roar.

A view of the tournament's arena before the action began.

Aloysius Low/CNET

The biggest e-sport event ever held in Southeast Asia felt like the Titanic on its journey toward the iceberg.

Technical issues and match delays had Twitch viewers and Reddit users baying for blood, while poor ticket sales suggested local fans were just not sold on the idea of turning up in person. Was the Nanyang DOTA 2 Championships, with its prize pool of $220,000, about to scuttle the dreams of fans hoping this was just the beginning for e-sports in the region?

E-sport is already worth billions across the globe and Asia is known as a heartland for competitive gaming fans, but it is South Korea and China where e-sports fly high. In Southeast Asia, things are still growing from a small but passionate base. A failure for the tournament would reset the efforts of local gaming organizers, who have been pushing the region as one worthy of competing with the rest of the world.

With big prize money and fan favourite teams from across the world in attendance, what was going wrong?

"There's a lot of cultural difference between how the Asian broadcast production crews are organized, compared to how a western studio would do it," said David "LD" Gorman, whose US-based studio, Beyond The Summit, was hired as "casters," live commentators and gameplay analysts.

"Also, the expectations of a western audience are different from the Chinese or Asian audience," Gorman said. "I think if we'd had more of an opportunity to communicate with the production staff beforehand, a lot of the issues could have been foreseen and handled better."

Other broadcasters were a little more lenient.

"It's pretty obvious you're going to have production issues on the first day, especially for a new tournament," said Andrew Yatsenko, producer for the Russian broadcast team.

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David "LD" Gorman runs a US-based studio that provides commentary for DOTA 2 games.

Aloysius Low/CNET

But all was not lost. The crew of China-based KeyTV worked all night after day one to solve technical issues, and Singaporean crew stepped in as volunteer translators to bridge some critical language barriers. Meanwhile, ticket giveaways managed to attract over 4,000 fans for the event's grand final on Sunday.

Battling for attention

Valve's Defense of the Ancients 2 is a five-versus-five team strategy game, known as a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA), where your team aims to destroy the enemy base. Players can choose from over 100 heroes, each with unique abilities, which can make it daunting for beginners but full of variety for spectators.

While the game isn't as popular as its key competitor, Riot's League of Legends (LoL), DOTA 2 has consistently broken records for its crowd-funded prizes. The recent International 5 tournament, held in Seattle, raised a $18.4 million prize pool, nearly nine times the $2.1 million pool of the 2015 LoL World Championship.

In 2014, 40,000 fans in South Korea filled the Seoul World Cup Stadium -- usually the home of the country's national soccer team -- to catch the grand finals of the LoL World Championship. For DOTA 2, a total of 4.6 million viewers watched US team Evil Genius take home the first prize of $6.6 million.

While e-sports have picked up quite a lot of traction in China and Europe, Southeast Asia has been slightly slower on the uptake. It's surprising, given that the region, in particular Singapore, has among the best broadband speeds in the world.

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Fans get passionate, bursting into loud cheers as key plays are made.

Aloysius Low/CNET

Korea even has TV stations dedicated to e-sports, but this isn't the case in most of Southeast Asia. Playing computer games still get dismissive shrugs from parents, who want their kids to focus on studying. But things are slowly changing. While the Nanyang Championships may have the largest prize pool so far, earlier this year, the Major All Stars, held in Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur, offered a $100,000 prize pool with big-named DOTA 2 teams as well.

Malaysia's Astro TV channel has also started broadcasting e-sport tournaments, while the Malaysian government is setting up an e-sports association with the intention of developing Malaysia's professional gaming industry. And while e-sports is still in its relative infancy in the region, having more big name tournaments will help the scene grow as businesses start to recognise the booming potential of e-sports.

The Nanyang Championship wasn't helped by taking place largely during office hours, as well as charging for all tickets, including "BVIP" tier tickets at a whopping $610. Some fans were prepared to shell out though.

"When you buy a BVIP ticket, and you get to meet the players, you get the most of your money's worth," said Sean James Stickney, who works at Paypal. Stickney, a Malaysian, took nine days off work to travel to Singapore for the tournament.

"The stage, the VIP lounge and the player rooms are pretty amazing. At first I was a bit sceptical on whether I should get the ticket, but looking at it, it's definitely worth the cash."

A grand finale

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The grand finals had 4,000 attendees, who queued up patiently to enter the arena.

Aloysius Low/CNET

While weekday attendance was dismal, 4,000 fans arrived for the grand finals held on Sunday, many thanks to free tickets from sponsors.

They were treated to a dazzling display as two world-leading teams, Europe's Team Secret and China's Vici Gaming, faced off. The room quickly had the sound of any sports crowd as fans cheered every key play of the final battle.

Fan favourite Team Secret was fresh off a victory over International 2015 champs Evil Genius at a tournament in the US, while Vici Gaming enjoyed enthusiastic support with Singapore's own Daryl "Iceiceice" Koh on the team.

The grand finals were a best of five series, with China's Vici Gaming taking the first game before Secret climbed back to take the next two and send the finals into what could be the deciding match of the tournament.

That was not to be, as local son Iceiceice carried his team to victory on his signature hero, Timbersaw, even as Secret played with their own signature hero, Meepo. Meepo is notorious for demanding serious multi-tasking capabilities as the player controls four identical units at once in a game that usually requires focus on one unit per player. But Iceiceice's play with one of his best heroes proved to be the deciding factor, taking the series into the last match even as the clock approached midnight.

Game five, however, showed Secret's strength in drafting, the game's character selection phase where teams aim to outthink each other on which characters will best complement themselves and counteract the opposition. The European team dominated the Chinese team, claiming yet another notch in its belt -- and $110,000 -- on the road to DOTA 2's next big event, the Frankfurt Majors, which has a prize pool of $2 million.

Team Secret's captain, Clement "Puppey" Ivanov.

Aloysius Low/CNET

"I think it was the toughest series yet, Evil Genius was the toughest, but both teams are quite equal," said Team Secret's captain Clement "Puppey" Ivanov on his team's victory.

For fans like Song Yuehong, who only attended the grand finals after the offer of free tickets, the tournament was one of contrasts.

"I think the queuing [to get in] was quite ridiculous and ticket pricing too high. However, the games and atmosphere was good. It's also good to have teams at the top of their game here in Singapore," said Song. "If this is organised again, I'll go if tickets weren't so expensive. My perceived value of a standard ticket is around S$25 ($18)."

While KeyTV did not respond to requests for comment, a hardware contractor at the event told CNET that it was likely the Nanyang Championships would return in 2016.