By Hana Chen
Wong Ming Yan started gaming when she was nine.
At the time, she was into Maplestory, a side-scrolling multiplayer online role-playing game that allowed players to battle monsters and develop their character’s skills.
“I kept striving to become the best. And I also enjoyed the game a lot,” the 21-year-old shares, “the more I played, the more I tried to figure out how to become better and better and better!”
It was this competitive streak that led her to pick up competitive gaming at the age of eleven — and 10 years on, it brought her to the 31st Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
There, as part of the Singapore’s Women’s League of Legends: Wild Rift team, Ming Yan, better known by her gaming handle “Vainie”, won a silver medal for Singapore.
Ming Yan and her teammate, Chua “Candleburn” Yun Qin, are the latest guests for Singapore Kindness Movement’s video series The Kindness Squad.
The light-hearted web series, which features SKM General Secretary Dr William Wan and local influencer The Smiling Afro, turns the spotlight on people whose passions take them off the beaten track, exploring how they overcome social stereotypes and assumptions others may have of them.
In this episode, titled “The Wan with The Gamer Girls”, Dr Wan and The Smiling Afro meet Ming Yan and Yun Qin, and discover more about the world of esports, and all the misconceptions and challenges that the duo have faced in their journey.
The best way to describe esports would be as professional video gaming, played competitively for a crowd of spectators.
In many ways, it’s like any other conventional sport — except that the action is virtual. Instead of training physical prowess or strength, esports players train mental skills like attention span, reaction time, and more. And just like any other high-performance athlete, players train many hours a day, especially in the weeks and months leading up to competition.
For Ming Yan and Yun Qin, their SEA Games training began over a year ago, when they first heard that there would be an all-female esports category for the SEA Games at Hanoi.
League of Legends : Wild Rift was the title they were vying for. It is a modified version of multiplayer online battle arena game League of Legends, played on mobile phones instead of a personal computer.
The two had already begun playing Wild Rift, which came out on mobile in 2020, and so it was only natural that they’d choose that game to compete in.
To reach the competitive SEA game level, they had to work their way up from the bottom — by participating in other competitions, and continuously perfecting their techniques.
Like many MOBAs, there are ranked leaderboards — in Ming Yan’s words, “you rise by constantly winning on the ladder.” They had to constantly improve and learn from their mistakes while keeping up their winning streak.
Eventually, their dedication paid off when they were selected as the Singaporean representatives for SEA Games.
“We knew it was for us,” explains Yun Qin.
Training was tough. The team, consisting of five players and two substitutes, would train together at least four times a week, with sessions lasting from 8pm to the wee hours of 2am.
As none of the team members are full-time esports athletes, they had to balance their intense training with real-world commitments, such as work, family, and school.
“After training, we just sleep,” laughs Yun Qin, “then the cycle repeats!”
Then, when the SEA Games started in May, they flew to Hanoi, Vietnam together with the rest of Team Singapore to participate in the competition.
“We were all very excited,” says Ming Yan, “the atmosphere, the stage… it’s not something that everybody gets to experience.”
Adds Yun Qin excitedly: “You feel like a professional.”
The third-seeded team went on to clinch a historic silver medal in their category, upsetting second-seeded Vietnam in the semi-finals but losing to the top seed and eventual gold medalists the Philippines.
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“I think all of us feel very proud of what we have done,” says Ming Yan, “if given the chance again, we will do even better and strive for gold!”
Being a girl in the gaming world
Yet, reaching the SEA Games is itself a victory for the girls.
As both players point out, it is rare for such competitive opportunities to pop up for female esports athletes — especially all-female categories like the Wild Rift event at the SEA Games.
Esports is a billion-dollar market that will continue growing exponentially over the next few years — but it is also a male-dominated industry that is reflective of many of the issues found within the gaming community itself.
Female professional gamers often earn much less than their male counterparts, while also facing verbal abuse and sexism that often leave them feeling threatened. It’s a systematic issue within the gaming community that often forces female players to abandon their passion to avoid the toxicity.
For Yun Qin and Ming Yan, their memories of dealing with sexist comments goes back to when they first started playing games and interacting with other players.
“They always ask you to go back to the kitchen and make them a sandwich (a common sexist insult),” says Yun Qin, with Ming Yan nodding in agreement.
Insulting comments are just a part of the misogyny — sometimes, the sexism is more subtle.
Yun Qin explains that sometimes when playing games, players tend to assume that girls should only play the support roles, and leave their male counterparts to take the lead.
It’s a way of unconsciously undermining female players — as Ming Yan puts it, “you aren’t the shining star.”
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In their experience, even male players who aren’t outwardly sexist are often uncomfortable with the idea of playing with female players — even if the gamer girls are very good at the game.
“Maybe it’s because they think we won’t understand their jokes,” says Ming Yan in exasperation, “it’s the culture surrounding it.”
When she started getting sexist comments, she didn’t know how to rebut them, instead choosing to stay quiet and suffer the abuse. She added that while these comments did not come as a shock since they were so deeply ingrained into gaming culture, they were still very demotivating.
“However, not everyone is like that,” she adds, “just those few rotten apples.”
Nevertheless, as the saying goes, one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel.
Nowadays, both players are used to sexist comments online. Says Ming Yan chirpily: “You can always just mute them!”
More importantly though, things have gotten better, say the girls. There has been positive change within the community, as more players leave behind outdated and sexist stereotypes, and just focus on enjoying the game.
“Nowadays, people don’t really care about gender,” says Yun Qin, “mentality is very important.”
While such changes bring about positive development to gaming as a whole though, there’s always more to be done, especially when it comes to giving female players equal opportunities and space to grow with their male counterparts.
The importance of support
Another issue that affects esports athletes is support, be it from friends and family, or even from the Government.
In Ming Yan’s case, the people around her are generally supportive of what she does as a gamer, even though they didn’t always understand it.
But for Yun Qin, it was the opposite. Her parents were strongly opposed to her gaming at first, and only relented when they saw her passion.
Gaming addiction has long been a parental concern regarding Singaporean youth. With growing recognition of esports as a serious business, attitudes have begun to shift.
Ming Yan and Yun Qin still remember when prizes for esports tournaments were McDonalds vouchers, and gamers came together to compete out of the love for the game.
Nowadays, the stakes are much higher. Singapore is looking to jump on the esports bandwagon and develop the local gaming industry.
This month, in fact, Singapore is hosting another big esports competition — Dota 2’s The International, with its multi-million dollar prize pool.
There is definitive growth for the local esports scene, but it might not be enough.
As Ming Yan and Yun Qin point out, there’s little chance of either of them being able to make gaming a full-time job. For one thing, esports requires a continuous investment, and the only way to guarantee a return on that is to win, and keep winning.
While there have been Singaporean pro-gamer success stories, such as Daryl “iceiceice” Koh, these are exceptions rather than the norm — the best of the best, who often aren’t limited to competing within the local scene.
For the esports industry to thrive in Singapore, it can’t rely on the influx of businesses and tourism — it has to invest in local talent and the Singaporean gaming scene,so that there can be long-term growth.
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And the key to that is to attract gamers and create an online and offline environment that welcomes new players without toxic behaviour.
As Yun Qin points out, the most important thing that can sustain gamers is passion — passion for the game, passion for improvement, and the ability to have fun without losing that passion.
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