It was just one year ago that Yeh Man Ho, who is better known in the booming world of esports by the alias “Hotdog29”, left his job in construction to become a full-time professional video gamer. He has already raked in US$60,000 in prize money on top of lucrative sponsorship deals and his beginner’s base salary as a team member of Talon Esports, a Hong Kong-based organisation that scouts and trains some of the most promising players throughout Hong Kong, Taiwan, Thailand and South Korea.
Hotdog29’s game of choice is Street Fighter V. In November 2019, he came in first in the Capcom Pro Tour North American Regional Finals in Las Vegas, the premier league for the iconic game, which brings together its biggest fans and the world’s best players. Not bad for his first year. “Street Fighter, to me, isn’t a game. I don’t play it for fun,” he says. “It’s my career. I treat it very seriously and I train very hard.”
At the Talon Esports headquarters in the Sai Ying Pun neighbourhood of Hong Kong, Hotdog29 appears as a tall, not-exactly-athletic young man with a moustache and a T-shirt printed with an illustration of a flaming skull eating a hot dog (hot dog was his childhood nickname if you must know). These days, instead of putting on his hard hat and fluorescent vest in the mornings, he follows a strict daily schedule of training and preparing for his next tournament. Much of his routine involves playing against other high-level players and their characters—Hotdog29’s is M Bison, a recurring villain with dictatorial ambitions in the series—to experience and understand every character in the game, their strengths, their weaknesses and the best way to beat them. He also spends hours doing mental exercises with apps like Lumosity, which features a collection of games designed to improve memory, attention, problem-solving and processing abilities.
In the evenings, he streams his games live via Twitch, the online platform where his legion of fans are ready and eager to watch him knock out his opponents. Some of them take notes, hoping to join him someday as one of the pros.
Mankind’s affinity for all the gore and glory of sports is one that dates back at least as far as the Ancient Olympic Games of 776 BC, evolving over the centuries and marked by periods of intense violence (the gladiators of the Roman Empire), chivalrous codes (jousting in the Middle Ages) and competitive brand building (professional sports leagues of the modern era). And yet nothing quite compares to the seriousness and intensity with which participants take the contemporary phenomenon of esports. Even the notion of whether or not esports can be classified as a ‘sport’ and its players as ‘athletes’ has been a touchy subject over the last decade, although there’s no denying that many parallels exist, including competitive sponsorship packages, massive fan bases and sometimes cruel disparities in the treatment of male and female players. But one critical distinction has become increasingly apparent in recent years, as Asia has asserted its outsized importance to the global success of esports.
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