A click in time: A digitizing Kazakhstan looks to win in cybersport

By Dilshat Zhussupova

To improve its standard of living, Kazakhstan is digitizing its economy and government, implementing a Digital Silk Road and… developing cybersport?

“For our information technology industry, cybersport is the key to a digital future,” said Qazaq Cybersport Federation (QCF) President and Kazakhtelecom Board Chair Kuanyshbek Yessekeyev at the 2018 World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) qualifiers in Almaty. “Just as large Boeing and Airbus aircraft were modeled from cardboard and plywood aircraft, today’s players, fanatically clicking on their mouses and keyboards, will become tomorrow’s leaders in the global digital economy.”

(Photo above right: Photo credit Qazaq Cybersport Federation)

In multiplayer video game competitions, victory is the outcome of analysis, strategy, teamwork and adaptability. There are approximately 1.5 million cybersport players and fans in Kazakhstan, but only a few play on a professional level. Many move overseas to pursue a cybersport career, with Kazakh professional player Rustem “mou” Telepov moving to Russia and Dauren “AdreN” Kystaubayev to Ukraine.

Cybersport team Gambit CS.GO. Photo credit inbusiness.kz.

The nonprofit organization QCF is forging better opportunities and conditions for cybersport in the country. It will launch a platform for hosting regional tournament finals on a local network so that “anyone in Kazakhstan is able to take part under appropriate professional conditions at home and thus gain valuable experience and the opportunity to prove themselves,” QCF Vice President Yevgeny Bogatyrev told QCF.kz on making cybersport more accessible.

“Kazakhtelecom’s project under the Digital Kazakhstan state program will connect all of the country’s settled areas to fiber-optic internet,” he added. “Once there is a high-quality internet connection in all regions, more people will be able to play.”

QCF has also formed a professional national team, sent its team to the 2018 Asian Games, gained an Asian Electronic Sports Federation membership, signed memoranda with Alisports and ESForce, advocated for faster internet speed connections in the country and hosted the 2018 WESG qualifiers, the 2018 Altel Cyber Games Championship and the StarCraft 2 Central Asia Open.

“Approximately 3,000 people attended the WESG event and approximately 40,000 people observed online,” said Bogatyrev. “It was the best championship in Kazakhstan thus far and a training opportunity for QCF to gain experience, gather specialists and set priorities.”

The International Olympic Committee is considering incorporating cybersport into future Olympic events. Kazakhstan recognized cybersport as an official sport in June 2018, a major step in national cybersport development, and is establishing regulations, because cybersport “is a completely new sport for the country.”

“The most developed [cybersport] disciplines in the country have historically been ‘Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’ [‘CS:GO’] and ‘Dota 2,’ a trend that took shape over the past 15 years,” said Bogatyrev. “These are classic disciplines in our country and will be given primary attention.”

Still, the dynamic nature of cybersport demands flexibility. The newer “Fortnite” and PlayerUnknown’s “Battlegrounds” are quickly catching up to the popularity of classics such as “Hearthstone” and “StarCraft 2.”

QCF Vice President Yevgeny Bogatyrev. Photo credit Qazaq Cybersport Federation.

“There is a very high probability that ‘League of Legends’ will be featured at the Olympic Games, so we will be preparing our national team accordingly,” Bogatyrev explained.

QCF will launch a national cybersport league in several disciplines, and schoolchildren and university students will likely compete in separate leagues. Whether playing for pleasure or prestige, there are substantial monetary incentives for talented youth.

Cybersport school Rank Academy. Photo credit Rank Academy Instagram

“The largest prize pool at a major tournament was approximately 15 million tenge [US$39,182.91],” Rustem Kushtayev, chief executive officer of cybersport school Rank Academy and cybersport tournament organiser AG Esports, told EdgeKZ. “These are pennies compared to prize pools of millions of dollars overseas, but this will likely change over time. Two years ago, prize pools at computer club tournaments were 100,000 [US$262.22] to 200,000 [US$522.44] tenge, so prize pools of 500,000 tenge [US$1,306.10] were a pretty big deal. Nowadays, prize pools in the millions are perceived as the norm.”

Nevertheless, many parents of aspiring cybersport players struggle to see cybersport as a legitimate vocation that pays the bills because “there are very few examples of professional cybersport players visible to parents, promoted by the media and supported by the state,” he noted. They are often unaware that former professional players can pursue promising careers as coaches, such as Rustam “5TRYK#R” Alimkulov, who coaches forZe players and Dastan “dastan” Akbayev, who coaches AVANGAR players, or as policy shapers like Bogatyrev.

“Professional players are mature when interacting with their teammates and captain, mentally strong when under pressure and physically fit despite having to sit in the same position for hours when training,” said Kushtayev on what distinguishes professional players from amateurs.

These skills, demanded in careers beyond cybersport, are honed at Rank Academy’s “CS:GO” and “Dota 2” courses, where players gain access to experienced trainers and powerful computers and devices to level up in a structured environment.

Rustem Kushtayev, (left), chief executive officer of cybersport school Rank Academy

“In Almaty, there is Se7en eSports, a multi-gaming organization that is among the top in Kazakhstan and aims to break through internationally, and Salem Social Media with its ‘Dota 2’ team, Cyberdogs,” said Kushtayev on the country’s up-and-coming organizations that many players hope to join. “Some teams in major organizations train in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia because there is a high ping in Kazakhstan, which refers to the average total time that a gaming device sends data to a game server and back to the device and is important for smoother gameplay.”

The country will ultimately have to reshape policies and mindsets to realize its digital potential.

“We are between the large cybersport markets of Europe, Russia and China,” said Bogatyrev. “In this region, we must become a link between these markets and, perhaps, a platform for tournaments between these countries in the future.”

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