Myanmar’s pro-gamers who taking on the world

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Myanmar’s new generation of gamers remember none of this. Ice, Ruby DD, Maybe, Kid, and Ace comprise the Burmese Ghouls, one of the country’s top professional gaming clans. These five millennials are quickly establishing themselves among Southeast Asia’s online elite. And it was clear, early into our interview that they cared little for my efforts to drag them back to the 1990s.

It’s near on 10am on a sunny Yangon morning and the Ghouls have just rolled out of bed in the shared, two-room apartment west of Shwedagon. We’re in their bright orange painted lounge, waiting for Ace to finish his morning ablutions. The curtains are drawn. Trophies and medals hang from the wall. The place has a Silicon Valley incubator vibe.

Formed in 2018, the Ghouls are new to competitive gaming, but have already made a name for themselves, winning several local competitions and coming forth at the $250,000 M1-World Championship in Malaysia, last year.

Their success is impressive, even more so given Myanmar’s late arrival to the digital age.trophies-line-the-walls-of-the-ghouls-apartment-photo_htet-aung-hlaing.jpgTrophies line the walls of the Ghouls’ apartment. Photo – Htet Aung HlaingTrophies line the walls of the Ghouls’ apartment. Photo – Htet Aung Hlaing

No more than ten years ago, there were more cell phones in North Korea than in Myanmar. A SIM card for your phone cost a couple of thousand dollars, and internet availability was subject to blackouts, routing issues, and heavy rains.

When decades of isolationist military rule gave way to a nominal democracy in 2010, the US and the EU eased economic sanctions on Myanmar and foreign investment trickled in. In just a couple of years the economy was humming.

The 2013 end of the government’s monopoly on phone services saw Norway’s Telenor ASA and Qatar’s Ooredoo pouring billions into Myanmar to connect the country from top to bottom.

Between 2010 and 2016, internet penetration went from 130,000 users – 0.3% of the population – to 13 million people online.

As of 2019, 39% of Myanmar residents – 21 million people – are logging on. A SIM card now costs you $1.50 and you can pick up a cell phone for around $19.

And it’s on the back of the country’s technological awakening that Myanmar millennials are plugging into global Esports – electronic, competitive, online gaming.

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Mobile Legends was the first E-sports game to be included in the 2019 SEA Games. Photo – Markus Bell
Mobile Legends was the first E-sports game to be included in the 2019 SEA Games. Photo – Markus Bell

For the uninitiated, the game of choice in Southeast Asia is Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB), a strategy game developed by Shanghai Moonton Technology. Introduced to Myanmar in 2013, there are now 3 million users in this country alone.

Remember Red Alert 2? Similar stuff, with five players on each team facing off to destroy the enemy’s tower on a map with three battlelanes. Each player controls a hero and each hero has special abilities, spells and gear, depending on your champion’s specialty—attacking, defending, melee or healing.

The big change is that MLBB is played on mobile phones. In a part of the world where owning a computer is out of reach for many people, high-quality, handheld games are opening new, lucrative markets that were previously limited to middle class spending power.

Drugs, booze, criminal malfeasance and computer games. The list of parental dislikes isn’t long, but it’s compelling.

And so it’s been for the Burmese Ghouls. Parents have protested, imploring their sons to focus on school instead of their phones. In each case, anxiety gave way to a reluctant tolerance, as the team brought home trophies and banker’s cheques from competitions in Myanmar and overseas. Throw in sponsorship from telecommunications giant, Huawei, and the team’s families are now backing them to make it big.

But in the words of the Notorious B.I.G., “Mo’ money,” seems to bring with it, “mo’ problems.”

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Building your team requires heros with a range of special powers.  Photo – Htet Aung Hlaing
Building your team requires heros with a range of special powers.  Photo – Htet Aung Hlaing

“I’m not interested in being famous. I just want a normal life,” Kid, whose real name is Hein Min Thu, complains. To avoid clamouring fans, Kid wears a mask when he leaves the apartment.

Like it or not, the Ghouls are big news in Yangon – feared by rivals, their games streamed by admirers, stalked by groupies.

While in training, the team goes into lockdown. For a month before a big tournament they practice 8 hours a day, camped out in the citrus-themed apartment, running game up and down the map.

No girlfriends and no socialising, the Ghouls hunker down on a diet of rice and water for long sessions in front of their phones.

It’s a bizarre sight: five young men on a couch playing with their phones. But these days we’re all online, all the time.

The difference is that the Burmese Ghouls and others like them are taking what they love and making a career from it. And they’re doing it in a time when online gaming is exploding: the Southeast Asian Games hosted E-sports for the first time last year, while prize pots for big-ticket tournaments now easily run into six figures (USD, not Kyat).

Global digital brands have also realised the potential of the untapped Myanmar market, sponsoring up-and-comers like the Ghouls and funding tournaments. Telecoms provider Mytel recently joined forces with Mobile Legends developer, Shanghai Moonton Technology, to host a slew of competitions throughout the country.

With new opportunities for financial success in Myanmar’s fast-paced online world, perhaps parents will soon consider a little extra screen time before bed?