Garena’s Justin Lye: Expanding on Free Fire’s foundations

Free Fire image Garena
Image credit: Garena

Esports fandom is global. As such, the popularity of a title differs from region to region.

League of Legends dominates Korea, mobile titles continue to develop within Asian nations and the FPS genre still remains prevalent within Europe and North America. Meanwhile, Brazil and Indonesia are two nations that seem completely different from one another, but both have created a bond for one title in particular — Free Fire.

The mobile FPS title recorded a significant 5.41m peak viewership record last year during the Free Fire World Series 2021 Singapore, most of which comprised of Hindi, Indonesian and Portuguese-language broadcasts. Despite being the most-viewed esports event ever recorded (excluding Chinese figures) on Esports Charts, the title is still considered niche, even amongst neighbouring nations.

However, according to Justin Lye, the Global Esports Manager for Free Fire developer Garena, that’s about the change. “Our goal with esports is to help connect and engage with our global community of players,” Lye told Esports Insider. “Participating or spectating, esports offers another opportunity for players to foster connection through shared experiences in and around the game.”

As part of its efforts to tap into that global community, Lye highlighted the growing potential of mobile esports within the West. Over the last few months, a multitude of esports titles have looked to establish a foothold in the largely untapped Western mobile market. 

ESL Gaming’s Snapdragon Pro Series is one of many initiatives that have been launched to attract and develop this potential audience. Additionally, Free Fire embarked on strengthening its footprint in the US by launching the Free Fire Pro Series North America late last year.

“Mobile gaming continues to grow in acceptance in the [Western] region, and there’s already a strong affinity in the West for action games like Free Fire,” Lye explained.

Despite Free Fire’s focus on global expansion, its most important markets are still solidly Southeast Asia and LATAM. The elephant in the room, however, is the absence of its Indian ecosystem. 

This year’s 2022 Free Fire World Series (FFWS), the mobile title’s latest major international event, did not feature a representative from India following the game’s ban in the country.

Garena free fire cup image
Image credit: Garena

How this will affect Free Fire in the long-term depends on whether the title will re-enter the Indian market, or whether it launches a localised port in the vein of Battlegrounds Mobile India

Nevertheless, the ban was a major blow to the title’s expansion plans. India’s absence was certainly felt viewership-wise, with FFWS 2022 Sentosa recording 1.4m peak viewers — a significant drop from last year’s figures. Garena refused to comment on the India ban.

The loss of the once-valuable Indian market emphasises even further the importance of maintaining, and developing, its currently established scenes. 

When asked about its Southeast Asian and LATAM market, Lye stated: “Strengthening the ecosystem in Southeast Asia and Latin America will always remain top of mind for us even as we expand and grow in other regions.

“Having massive support from players in those communities has helped us establish a firm foundation from which Free Fire esports can grow globally.”

For the majority of esports, successful international events or Majors can be defining factors for a title’s global growth. A recent example can be seen in how VALORANT’s Masters event in Reykjavik showcased the title’s popularity within Japan and Brazil after the region’s representatives went on historic runs. As such, for Garena, ensuring that its events make a statement and enhance the title’s ecosystem could be crucial to developing new fans.

The global pandemic delivered a bad blow to many esports titles, across every genre and platform. In particular, in-person events suffered as players and fans were unable to physically compete and watch in venues.

Nevertheless, Garena was able to shift towards a digital ecosystem, which Lye claimed is one of esports’ major benefits compared to traditional sports. The mobile title was also able to achieve its record-breaking viewership in 2021 amidst the pandemic. Still, the circumstances still led to three major Free Fire events being cancelled between 2020-2021.

Lye said: “Large-scale in-person tournaments are always exciting to be a part of, so as current conditions ease, we look forward to hosting large audiences safely again.” Following the success of Free Fire World Series 2021 Singapore, the title has managed to once again deliver major LAN events.

Given that the mobile landscape is ever-changing, it’ll be interesting to see which mobile titles break into the Western mainstream in the future. Free Fire, PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang and League of Legends: Wild Rift are just some titles looking to make an impression on this market. 

As expected, Garena has had its eyes focused on delivering FFWS 2022 Sentosa. However, with in-person showcases returning to normality, there is certainly a desire by Lye and Free Fire to look at a variety of regions for future FFWS events.

He said: “Brazil has long been a huge and supportive community for Free Fire. We would love to bring another event there someday. 

“As for other regions, we are constantly discussing internally on the best places to bring Free Fire esports events, with a mind toward serving new communities and growing the game globally.”

Tom Daniels
Tom has been part of Esports Insider's team since October 2020 and is currently the platform's Editor. When not playing Football Manager, he enjoys reporting on the mobile esports scene as well as the betting sector.