Hyperplay 2018: Interview with Riot Games’ Chris Tran

Hyperplay 2018 02/08/18 01

Singapore kicked off a one-of-a-kind festival that synergized esports and music last weekend. The festival in question? Hyperplay 2018.

Held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium, the two-day music and gaming event was powered by Riot Games and MTV Asia. It’s an official celebration of ASEAN Singapore 2018 and a part of the YouthX initiative, with coming in from the Singapore Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) and the Nation Youth Council (NYC) of Singapore.

Having MTV Asia on-board saw music acts flying in from overseas, with a concert headlined by award-winning Nick Jonas, South Korean vocalist and rapper CL, and many more. The highlight for us, however, was the Hyperplay tournament in which top-tier League of Legends teams from all over Southeast Asia came to compete.

There, we managed to catch up with Riot Games’ Chris Tran, Southeast Asia Country Manager, for an all-encompassing chat about his career, esports, and putting this unique festival together.

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— Could you tell us about yourself and how you came to be Riot Game’s SEA Country Manager?

Chris: How do I want to start? I think whenever people ask me that question they are really saying, “Are you a gamer?” Because when people look at me they actually don’t think of me as a gamer; they think of me as anything but a gamer. I am Vietnamese American, born in America a long time ago – in 1975. I grew up in a world without the internet, and so gaming was a very different place back then. But I found that gaming was the vehicle and common frame of reference to meet other people.

I remember when I was interviewing for Riot, they were like, “What was your first game?” I said Karateka. The guy interviewing just said, “Karateka?” I’m like yup and he just put his computer down, he’s like “Yup, you’re a gamer.”

Karateka is a 1983 game and all throughout my childhood, as a young awkward kid growing up in America who didn’t speak English that well, it was a game I could prove myself and find my identity, have fun and learn. The first game that I think I actually took seriously was actually a card game, Magic: The Gathering. I chose my university based on who I met playing Doom in 1992 (I’m super old). I remember getting top 16 in a Quake tournament at Gencon.

I am deep into games but my career never took me there. I was a consultant for a while and I was in advertising for a while. I think consulting and advertising are both interesting industries because you serve other companies by trying to solve difficult and complex business problems that they have. Either communications or business process efficiency and everything in-between. Then a friend of mine asked me if I knew anyone who was qualified to be a country manager for Riot Games. I said, “If you value our friendship, don’t send this job description to anybody else.” And that’s how I applied. After a very long interview process I was lucky enough to get an offer and jumped in headfirst, and for the most part not regretted it.

— What has it been like working at Riot Games?

People often ask me what a typical day is. I want to say that a typical day is not typical, because every problem and every opportunity is different. The work is quite lumpy and it’s an industry where there are a lot of strong personalities. Just trying to align people and get them pointed in the same direction, understanding that we all want the same thing, is complicated. The work is very rewarding because I get to serve people like me and help protect, nurture and create a world which appreciates people like me, because I grew up in a world where people didn’t appreciate gaming.

The world’s worst chess player is seen smarter than the world’s best video game player, which I think is a little unfair because video game is really 21st-century chess. It is still mind games and there are a lot of strategies involved. It is just because my parents’ generation and the generation before them are very comfortable with chess, very comfortable with poker and what not. Add technology to it, and it becomes something that they don’t understand particularly well.

The popular media just doesn’t go out of their way to help educate people. They just go for the lowest common denominator, kind of make people a bit scared, and not really try to bridge cultures. Let people know that almost every single gamer is someone who is driving for mastery, personal expression, to contribute and be a good team player.

riot games logo black

— What would you say is the difference between the esports scene in the US and SEA?

I think in the US, the road to becoming a pro is much harder than here. Here, the opportunity is still five guys and a dream because the pinnacle of that mountain is not too high. The challenge here is that once you reach that pinnacle, there is not a lot of room to grow. It is easier to get to the top but the top isn’t very meaningful. My job is to build the industry so that it can be meaningful and life-changing as it is for people who reach the top of NA LCS [League of Legends Championship Series], EU LCS, China or Korea. It is a long road but there is a huge amount of opportunity here.

— Building on that, what is it do you think we do better than other countries?

We give out more opportunities to the amateurs with ambition. There is not a lot you can do in North America and so on. You have to be scouted and be part of a premier team in some way, shape or form. Whereas in Southeast Asia, we are working on things like the SEA tour which gives more opportunities for people to compete, win and maybe start exploring a professional career.

We are better than the West in experimenting with what makes sense for a region. If you look at NA or EU, those ecosystems are more evolved and more mature, and therefore their appetite to try new things to solve fundamental problems with the ecosystems is less. There is a reason why they are the way they are, which means there are certain things they can’t try. Here our appetite for risk is a little bit higher and my job is to make sure whatever risk we take is certainly worth it in the long run.

— Do the different languages and cultures make it difficult to bring eSports into SEA?

Yes and no. I mean, sure, if you look at it mechanically. Every new language is a new level of complexity. But then if you look at how we publish eSports– National identity and rivalries help a lot, just look at the World Cup. How many people really care about Croatia before the World Cup? Not many. Right now, some people do and maybe in a couple of months, not so many. The whole Croatia thing only appears during the World Cup because of national identity. That’s what makes the world cup beautiful.

In this region, we have these regional rivalries between Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia and others. This helps us get higher highs but sometimes also lower lows when our national or regional representatives disappoint us. That’s human nature but having that ability is better than not having one.

— What can League of Legends fans expect at Hyperplay?

League of Legends fans can expect a couple of things. I think what we are trying to do is bring gaming out into the light and let people know that gamers are just like everyone else. That is why we have both gaming and music, and we have some great international artists there. At the same time, we are also bringing in some international talents from North America. Both from our casting side and our professional streaming side to really bridge these communities.

So League of Legends players can expect some exciting matches between different countries, which will hopefully highlight regional pride. I’m hoping some of those countries will surprise us because we’ve never seen a Cambodian team or a Laotian team or Brunei or Burmese team. They are not the favorite teams, but I would love to see them surprise people. We will also see talents from North America come to visit, who have never been to this region before, which will be super inspiring. And we will have some great music acts that will hopefully resonate with our players.

— What’s next for the winners of Hyperplay?

Hyperplay is a tournament in its own right. I hope that the winners of Hyperplay will be inspired to become professionals or explore other tournaments, but Hyperplay as an event itself does not ladder into anything else. As with any high point when you are young, I hope that in five to ten years they will have families and say they represented their countries with pride. They were able to meet people from other countries that enjoyed the same thing they did. They got to go to Singapore and the Singaporean gaming community made them feel welcome, and it inspired them to do more with their gaming passion.

Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur Hunters takes the tropy. (Photo: Hyperplay 2018)

— How can we better support the winners or the teams at Hyperplay? What can we do more?

Honestly, I think as an organizer of the event, besides watching and being part of the audience, I want people to think about how they can talk to other people around them. About how gaming is part of their lifestyle. It is not so much about supporting a team, it is about supporting the community. Getting other people who are not gamers interested, like: “Hey, there is this cool concert that is going online for League of Legends but there is a lot of stuff I think you’ll like too. Why don’t you watch it with me?”

That kind of cross-culture outreach is super important because we want gamers to be seen as everyone else. It is not so much of League of Legends people just supporting more League of Legends people, which is super important, but you asked what can we do more. It is about bridging worlds.

— Going back a bit, why did Riot Games decide to get involved in Hyperplay? Was it your initiative or were you approached?

It was a perfect storm of a couple of things. Singapore is the head of ASEAN right now and we know that they have the SHINE festival happening every year. We thought to ourselves, along with the Singapore government and MTV, “Hey, imagine a world where esports was a part of SHINE in a more fundamental way.” Because esports have been part of SHINE before but without our help.

We wanted to make it more than just esports. We wanted to make it a truly youth event and that’s where the music came in. The opportunity was that and we could help make SHINE bigger as part of the greater YouthX platform from the Singaporean government. Then we just looked at our partners and figured how we can just keep adding more things that would be cool for the Singaporean youth and that’s how we ended up with Hyperplay. It was an opportunity, there wasn’t a master plan, but we are all very excited about it.

— What advice do you have for aspiring eSports players?

I want to quote Rick Fox, who is an ex-NBA pro player but also an owner of North American LCS Team Echo Fox. “To be a pro, you have to first be a professional.” People think that to be a pro, all you have to be good at is the game. Being good at the game is a ticket so that people will pay attention to you, but there is a lot that goes into being a professional. Being self-aware, being disciplined, being a good communicator, learning how to lead, thinking strategically and so on.

league of legends gameplay screenshot official

One of the world’s leading esport titles, League of Legends. (Image: Riot Games)

There is no one piece of advice I can give and, I will also be honest, there is a reason why I’m working for Riot instead of being a pro. That’s probably talent. Also, I’m old. All I can is build the environment by which talented gamers can find their careers. I think that hard work is always rewarded but I also think  there is not a lot of room at the top pinnacle of professional esports . I think there is a lot of room in esports beyond being players. You can be managers, coaches, streamers, shoutcasters; you can work on the events side and so on.

There may be people who are just not cut out for it but will play in some tournaments in the back, where it will finally disappear from their lives. That’s okay too. I don’t want people to think that if they don’t become professionals that they are failures. There are tons of people who are failed basketball players, football players, American football players. It’s not that they are failures –it is just that the bar for success is very high, and just to have dreamed and tried is a success in itself.

— So do you think that SEA esports will continue to grow and compete on a larger international scale?

I hope so. I think that our growth trajectory is faster than in other countries and regions. However, everybody else has a head start on us and they are continuing to grow too. The question is will we catch up, and I don’t have a good answer to that. My job is to help us catch up but also, Riot as a company wants everybody to continue growing too. Will Southeast Asia catch Korea or China? Unlikely, but will Southeast Asia as a region surprise and be underdogs and dark horses? I hope so, because that’s what makes it fun. I think in SEA there is a joy in being the underdog, in surprising people, and in surprising people we will delight our local and regional fans. If we can be like Croatia that will be awesome.

— What was it like working with MTV Asia and the Singapore agencies in general?

Surprisingly good. There is always terror in working with government agencies but they have been very open to understanding how esports work. They understand that esports is something that is becoming a fact of life for the Singaporean youth, and they also realize that they don’t really understand how that community works. They’ve been very open to listening to our guidance and at the same time, they are very clear about how Singapore works. I’m very American and Riot is a very American company, and so we kind of come in here sometimes and “This is how it is supposed to work.” The government is like, “Let’s think about that in a different way.”

Like I said, we all want the same thing and how we get there is a little different sometimes, but the Singapore government has been impressively good partners in helping us understand what the local market nuances are. I’m super happy to be working with these guys.

Hyperplay 2018 - Opening Ceremony

Singapore Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean at the opening ceremony on 4 Aug. (Photo: Hyperplay 2018)

— I know that this is a bit sensitive but are there plans for a Hyperplay 2 already?

That is sensitive. I can’t answer that.

— So last question, what are you most excited about besides the tournament?

Besides the tournament? I honestly look more forward to seeing all the people having fun. My pleasure is not about the tournament itself, my pleasure is about seeing how the audience reacts. I want to see thousands of people getting excited about the gameplay, about the League of Legends personalities, cosplayers, singers and all of that together. The tournament itself is very meaningful for the players but where I get my joy from is the audience because we are really doing it for the audience to have a great time.

— It’s for the community.

It’s for the community!

 — And we are done! Thank you!

Check out the official Day 2 highlights reel here.

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Wei Song

Wei Song

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