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(L) A gamer at the Liyab gaming house in Manila. (R) Mak Feliciano, a member of the Philippine national team for skateboarding at the Manila Skate Park. 
Sports

These Filipino Gamers and Skateboarders Want Everyone to Know They Are Athletes Too

Esports and skateboarding, two sports with reputations to prove, will have their biggest showing on the Philippine stage at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games. But will the government get in the way of their national teams’ glory?
November 4, 2019, 10:10am

Kids clambered up and down the weathered bowl of the Manila Skate Park as skaters weaved past, barely avoiding collision. Mak Feliciano was warming up, cruising back and forth, and doing casual ollies amidst the chaos.

He is there almost every day, even though the park’s dimensions do not fit his needs as a professional athlete. None of the skate parks in the Philippines do.

“Our goal is to win gold medals [this year], to highlight the need for more skateparks, and more support in the country,” he told VICE.

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Mak Feliciano at the Manila Skate Park, where he trains almost every day.

Feliciano is part of the Philippine national team in the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the region’s biennial multi-sport event slated to run from November 30 to December 11 in the Philippines. This will be the country’s fourth time to host the games, the last being in 2005, when it topped the medal tally for the first time. With 530 scheduled events across 56 sports, this year will be its largest iteration.

About 6 kilometers away from the Manila Skate Park, Caviar “EnDerr” Acampado, arguably the best professional Starcraft II player in the country, spends his days and nights at his team’s gaming house or “bootcamp.” It is a three-storey townhouse where pros who specialize in different games live and breathe gaming. They earn a monthly wage regardless of their tournament results — a concept unimaginable in the Philippines just five years ago.

“I feel like people need to see someone who [has succeeded through gaming],” he said. “That’s when they’ll realize that it’s not about the game, it’s not about playing basketball or playing video games every day. It’s about how you discipline yourself.”

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Members of the Liyab esports organisation's League of Legends team, which will not be taking part in the SEA Games, at the Liyab gaming house.

Both Feliciano and Acampado signify the rise of a new kind of Filipino athlete. As two of nine new events that will be introduced in this year’s SEA Games, the inclusion of both skateboarding and esports is particularly groundbreaking in the Philippines, where both sports are still working to gain mainstream recognition.

The stereotypes of dropout, deviant, and slacker continue to hound skaters and gamers even if their performances on the world stage have proven that they are anything but. While these athletes have already successfully competed domestically and internationally, the SEA Games is the first event that will expose them to a broader national audience. Leaning heavily on home court advantage, the mere inclusion of these sports into the roster is a strong recognition of local athletes’ talents and potential to win the gold.

But as preparations are underway, a number of reports concerning delays and internal conflict within governing bodies are inviting questions on the overall readiness of the Philippines to host such a big international event. This could spell trouble for esports and skateboarding athletes because any hitch could risk their chances of making a good first impression to their fellow Filipinos. In fact, it might already have.

With only about a month until the games officially kick off, both the Philippines’ esports and skating associations have yet to receive their share of the PHP6 billion (US$ 118 million) SEA Games budget that covers hosting the event and allotments for national teams. They have had to scramble to find other resources.

This, on top of the SEA Games organisers’ initial delay to get the ball rolling after Philippine lawmakers dragged the passage of this year’s national budget well into early April. It created a domino effect that has touched everything from various sports associations’ ability to finalise plans for their specific events, to the athletes’ ability to train.

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A gamer at the Liyab Gaming House.

In the case of esports, the delay pushed their timelines so far back that they only held qualifying tournaments for the national team in August. For skateboarding, this has also compromised athletes such as Feliciano who depend on the government’s financial support and has not been able to train in competition conditions.

The Philippine Olympic Committee (POC), the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Organising Committee (PHISGOC), and the Philippine Sports Commission (PSC) form the backbone of this year’s SEA Games, but several reports over the last few months paint a picture of instability. Most notable was the surprise resignation of former POC president Ricky Vargas in June, a mere five months from the opening ceremony.

Perceptions of the working relationship between the three bodies have gotten so negative that they have had to publicly restate their commitment to “win as one” in an agreement signing in August. The Southeast Asian Games Federation reportedly monitored the situation closely, in case the Philippines was found to be an unfit host for the event, according to Fox Sports Asia.

Joebert Yu, the president of the Philippine Southeast Asian Games Esports Union (PSEU) remains optimistic about their timelines, but said that sports federation heads like him were not privy to any of the government’s internal squabbles. For him, it has always been “business as usual.”

He admitted, however, that their situation is not ideal, as the sluggish start could have significant consequences to the gamers’ performances. It took several months for the SEA Games organising committee to approve only about 20 to 25 percent of the esports budget that the PSEU proposed, according to Yu. Their roster was only finalised just a little over two months ago even though, both Yu and Ren Vitug, another representative from the esports union, said they were ready to hit the ground running as early as February.

“One of our biggest disappointments is that we have always known what to do but we [couldn’t move] without the proper documentation,” Vitug told VICE.

"We respect the process, but there are definitely improvements for next time,” he added.

Establishing the national team so late in the game compressed their time frame and could potentially put them at a disadvantage to other countries that finalised their teams early this year, and therefore had more time to train together.

Three out of the six esports events are team games, where chemistry is absolutely crucial: Dota 2, Arena of Valor, and Mobile Legends. The less time there is to learn to trust each other in crucial moments, the less likely it is for team members to perform effectively in high-pressure situations.

This forced the PSEU to rethink their strategy. Do they create a team of the very best players in their talent pool and hope that three months is enough for them to gel? Or do they get an existing team and train them to be competition-ready?

Ultimately, based on the talent pool they got during the qualifying tournaments, they decided to employ different strategies for different games.

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A regular skater at Manila Skate Park.

Over at the Skateboarding and Roller Sports Association of the Philippines, athletes and organisers are also feeling the pinch of the delays. Not only are training opportunities compromised, venue construction is also still in progress.

They have already encountered problems with the design of one of the parks. According to Dani Bautista, the Philippine skate team’s head coach, one of the parks was not up to competition standard and was built without the association’s green light. Because of this, they needed to request for the construction of a separate temporary course specific to the discipline of street skating, just four months before the event. These days, across a number of sports, there’s a palpable feeling of rushing against time.

Not having the chance to practice at the exact venue could cost the skate team their wins. One of the biggest advantages of a host country is their ability to acclimate to nearly-exact competition conditions. Association president Monty Mondigoria wanted the team to practice in the competition venue by October at the absolute latest. But, according to Bautista, there are still no updates about its completion.

“They’re all frustrated. They’re all pissed off. It’s a really big problem,” Bautista said when asked how this is affecting the athletes. “They’re just kinda left there.”

The team is also still waiting for funds from the sports commission to send their athletes abroad to train. The Philippines’ lack of proper skateparks means that athletes must train out of the country. Meanwhile, their competitors in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia already have a number of these facilities.

“The thing with the Philippine Sports Commission [is that] they’re kind of slow in releasing the funds,” Mondigoria told VICE. “But it’s there.”

Mondigoria has thus had to tap private funders to help bridge the disbursement delay.

Training to become a professional skater is particularly expensive. Margielyn Didal, the only Filipino skater to win gold at any medal event, tries to travel abroad almost every month to train and attend events. That Didal won gold at last year’s Asian Games even if she comes from a country without this infrastructure is a feat in itself. But this also makes the delays even more frustrating, since skateboarding, with Didal, is one sport where the Philippines could win a gold.

For the SEA Games, Mondigoria initially considered taking the team on training trips to Bali, Hong Kong, or California to improve their skills and confidence.

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Mak Feliciano at the Manila Skate Park.

“This is what I observed [with Feliciano]. He’s a very good skater. He’s a national champion. He could do a lot of crazy things. But during the Asian Games, he choked,” said Mondigoria. “But when he was exposed to different international demos, he became confident. Now, he is just like, wow.”

While waiting for the budget to come for his overseas training, Feliciano trains at Manila Skate Park. Because of the disbursement delay, he has had to sit out a number of training sessions and competitions this year. Even Didal had to forego a competition in China because there was just not enough funds.

Esports and skateboarding are not the only teams experiencing these delays. Gymnastics, squash, and track and field have missed their timelines too. Construction is behind schedule for multiple competition venues and there is trouble procuring equipment, according to recent reports.

Still, government organisers continue to project an air of confidence. The PHISGOC insists that while there are plenty of items left on their to-do list, things remain on schedule.

“Based on the timelines set, PHISGOC is actually on track to accomplish the things needed to be done for a successful hosting,” Emmalyn Bamba, a representative from PHISGOC told VICE in an email back in August. “Some sports are still in the process of procuring their equipment and not a few venues are undergoing refurbishment, but all of these kinks will eventually be ironed out.”

She also said that any conflict between the organising bodies were put to rest.

“Those challenges, if there were any, have strengthened the resolve of the PHISGOC, the Philippine Olympic Committee and the Philippine Sports Commission to work together and win as one,” Bamba said.

Athletes and sports associations can only hope so. The success — or failure — of these events can have a significant impact on the sports’ future in the Philippines moving forward.

Athletes like Feliciano and Didal, who recently placed fifth in the Street League Skateboarding World Tour in Los Angeles, are actively charting the path for a generation of skaters who previously did not have that example to look towards. When both started out, security guards would chase them and their friends away as they skated on the streets. Sometimes, they still do.

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Members of the Liyab esports organisation's Mobile Legends team during a training session.

The same goes for esports. Acampado, the Starcraft II national athlete, was like any other kid who burned hours playing video games inside computer shops. Back then, there were no indications that it would lead to a career. They have all since represented the Philippines internationally, multiple times.

While they may see the SEA Games as merely one of many stepping stones ­— to Olympic glory, for example — the event plays a crucial role in boosting both skateboarding and esports’ reputation in the country. There is a wealth of talent in the Philippines. The potential for success is great, perhaps even more so than in basketball, the most popular sport in the country.

“I want skate to be as popular as basketball, where every town has a court,” Feliciano said. “Hopefully it’ll be like that for skateparks as well.”

This regional stage is not only a rare opportunity to erase persisting perceptions, its triumph — in terms of both the organisation and athletic performance — could also mean a boost of funding and support that can build a foundation for further success down the road.

“You just have to bring the gold medals on national TV and every skate park will just sprout like mushrooms,” said Mondigoria.

He cited Efren “Bata” Reyes, the legendary Filipino billiard champion, who inspired a generation of Filipinos to play pool after his 1999 win at the World Pool Association’s Nine-Ball Championships. The same goes for boxer turned senator Manny Pacquiao, whose victories in the ring have led to more wins in showbiz, business, and politics.

“I told them all their dreams will come true,” Mondigoria said. “All you need to do is just win.”

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With reports from Lex Celera