Esports in a time of crisis: Venezuela’s esports industry

Located in South America, Venezuela was once one of the richest nations in the world thanks to their vast oil reserves. Venezuela was once known for its beauty pageant queens and baseball players. Nowadays, the country is probably best known globally for the economic and social crisis that it’s currently struggling through.

Citizens are facing a shortage of food and medicines, and a hyperinflation that transforms their salaries into nothing. On average, a Venezuelan office worker earns the equivalent of $25 (£19.13) a month. The situation is forcing citizens to flee the country in huge waves. Colombia and Brazil opened their frontiers and installed refugee camps. Countries across the continent are modifying their migration policies to either welcome or turn down Venezuelans.

For those that stayed behind, life goes on, but with some limitations. The entertainment options are scarce, theatre companies are closing, movies are too expensive, and international artists stopped visiting a long time ago. In the middle of the chaos, however, one industry is growing at a slow but steady pace: esports.

Long lines to acquire tickets for Caracas Comic Con, one of the remaining events of its kind in the country. Picture courtesy of Caracas Comic Con.

A DIFFERENT REALITY

In Venezuela, extracurricular activities are rare in the public education system. The schools that can fund the programs only have one or two sports teams and cultural activities such as theatre or choir. According to an officer at the Ministry of Education that requested to remain anonymous, less than 5% of the public schools (middle schools and high schools) in Venezuela offer some kind of extracurricular activity. Sports competitions between schools are nonexistent, and the ministry is not planning on creating any new program for the upcoming school year.

Public sports programmes are scarce and can only accept a limited number of kids. Private sports programmes are too expensive and considered a luxury that families with more than one children cannot afford. Without options, Venezuela’s youth has turned its attention to video games for the past 18 years.

Video games are not limited to one group or demographic and are not considered a “nerdy” activity. Arcades and internet cafes are common in areas with one or more high schools. These establishments open hours before the first bell rings and close once all the students are gone. Inside the cafes, students wearing their uniforms are organised into teams and compete against each other. The most popular titles are Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and League of Legends.

The competitions continue in the poor neighbourhoods of the city, the internet cafes are the place to be once school is done for the day. Many have closed through the years, but those that remain open still receive the same amount of enthusiastic players.

José Delgado, owner of an internet cafe located in Caracas, said: “This place keeps most of these kids off the streets. It is a rough neighbourhood but no one messes with us. The business is not going well given the economic situation but we must stay open for them.”

The financial situation is not the only struggle that internet cafes and video games enthusiasts must overcome. Venezuela has the worst internet speed on the continent—1.6Mbps— and blackouts are a common occurrence. Internet and electricity are to the gamer what ball is for the football player; an essential tool.

One of the establishments featured in the story. A week after the interview, the place is closed due to an internet failure in the entire neighbourhood. According to the owner, it is unlikely the place will open for the rest of the year.

THE OTHER PRO PLAYERS

The esports industry in Venezuela is not as established nor as large as the Brazilian nor the Mexican scenes. Unfortunately, just a handful of teams are organised and compete on a regular basis. Capibara E-sports stands out as one of the best organisations in the country with two League of Legends rosters. Capibara’s players are committed to the game and the team.

Leonel “Lionel” Salas, Founder and Head Coach at Capibara E-sports said: “Players want to be part of a serious organisation. Our roster is committed, passion motivates them, not money but the passion for the game.”

Wasim “Cefiro” Khaled is Capibara’s team captain and mid-laner. The 21-year-old is a charismatic young man that started playing when he was 15.

Cefiro said: “I used to play with my classmates back when I was in high school, one of them introduced me to the game. In the beginning, I thought it was a card game so I wasn’t that excited. Once I started playing, I couldn’t stop. Back there, the game was in English so I couldn’t understand much.”

One of his friends started a competitive team and his career in esports began. As a rookie player, Cefiro competed at the Circuito de Leyendas (Circuit of Legends), a semi-professional League of Legends tournament in Latin America. The team that consisted of low ranked players made it to the top 16, defeating well-funded professional teams in the process.

The organisation was disbanded early this year but Cefiro and company found a new home in Capibara. The team now has a ten man roster divided into the Alpha and Beta teams.

Venezuelan teams compete in international events every time they can afford it; the results are positive considering the situation.

Young players at an event in Caracas. On average, the age of the regular visitors at the gaming section of the events is 14 years-old. Picture courtesy of Caracas Comic Con

 A MATTER OF SURVIVAL

Of course, not every player is as enthusiastic as Cifero and his squad. Some of the best players in the country do not compete or take part in any kind of event. These players stay at home and play on their own, for long hours at a time.

This group of players made a business out of their abilities; they sell highly ranked CS:GO and League of Legends accounts.

One player that requested to remain unidentified spoke to Esports Insider about his situation.

He said: “I started playing League of Legends when I was in high school, I was better than my friends and I was addicted to the game. I reached Masters with one account and then with another. A friend said he wanted to buy one of those accounts, he was stuck in silver. At the moment I was starting college and didn’t have a job so it made sense.”

The player discovered that a lot of people were willing to purchase boosted accounts for a good price so he kept selling them.

He added: “So far this year I sold three accounts, I could sell more but I’m trying not to burn myself out. I live comfortably, I play and I can continue to study, life is good.”

As for the criticism he receives from other players that know him, he said: “I’m not bothered about what some may say. The ones that know what I do are kind of jealous, they wish they could do the same. It’s easy money.”

 THOSE THAT WALKED AWAY

Venezuela has amateurs hoping to become professionals but also a fair share of players shining on the international stage. In 2018, for the very first time, a Venezuelan player is competing in the League of Legends World Championship.

José “Relic” Pombo Ribeiro is the top-laner for Infinity eSports. Relic was born in Portugal but raised in Venezuela, he went back to Portugal and then moved to Mexico when he joined Infinity eSports. Relic is an outstanding player in the Latin America North League, a real game changer for his team. He started his career when he left Venezuela.

Diego “Quas” Ruiz was an active League of Legends player in the NA LCS from 2013 to 2017. Arturo “sukitRon” Gil is a CS:GO player with Wizards Esports Club a Spanish team. Back in March, sukitRon and his team won the EPS XI organised by ESL Spain. Alberto “Crumbzz” Rengifo is a former League of Legends player and coach, and current analyst at the Overwatch League. All of these names have something in common, they launched their careers outside of Venezuela.

THE FIGHT NEVER ENDS

When asked about his hopes for the esports scene in the country, Cefiro said: “I really hope the organisations work together to improve the scene. We need serious team owners willing to put on the hours. We have a really talented player, we just need some support.”

The fight doesn’t end for the Venezuelan players; they must balance their personal lives and face a country in the midst of economic turmoil. In the meantime though, esports at a local level continues to grow as a small beacon of hope for those that remain behind and that still believe wholeheartedly in a better future for Venezuela. 

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