E-sports craze in Philippines as fans welcome Mobile Legends M5 World Championship

The Filipinos’ love for Mobile Legends: Bang Bang is evident in Manila, where anyone from Grab drivers to smartly dressed businessmen can be spotted engrossed on their mobile phones playing the multiplayer online battle arena game.

Melvyn Teoh

Melvyn Teoh

The Straits Times


Fans packing the Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Manila for the Grand final of the Mobile Legends M5 World Championship. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

December 18, 2023

SINGAPORE – Since arriving in Manila on Dec 13 after a 640km journey from her home town of Dumaguete in southern Philippines, Dustinne Cornelia has spent most of her time at the Rizal Memorial Coliseum to catch her favourite Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) professional team, Blacklist International, in action.

Such is her fervent support for the team that she spent most of her year-end bonus on the solo trip, which took her seven hours by bus and plane.

She is not the only passionate fan in town, with over 4,000 supporters packing the stadium on the final day of the M5 World Championship, which was won by AP. Bren after the Filipino side defeated Indonesia’s Onic Esports 4-3 on Dec 17 to claim their second M-series trophy.

It is no surprise as MLBB is one of the top mobile game titles in the Philippines, with over 100 million registered users and 25 million active users.

Cornelia, 28, who works as a customer service officer in a call centre, sheepishly admitted that she has already spent 15,000 pesos (S$360) on flights, accommodation and merchandise, and plans to splurge some more.

She said: “Last year when they announced that the M5 will be here in the Philippines, I already told myself that I’ll come here, even though I’m alone.

“I think it’s a big impact to the economy here. For many years, the Philippines has been the top performing country in Mobile Legends, so I think it’s a good idea that it’s held here.”

According to Dutch research firm Newzoo, South-east Asia has the fastest-growing e-sports market in the world, rising from US$39.2 million (S$52 million) in 2021 to US$72.5 million in 2024.

Among the nations, Philippines is the leading e-sports market in the region by revenue at US$22.2 million in 2023, according to data platform Statista. Thailand (US$19.7 million) and Indonesia (US$9.7 million) are in second and third spot respectively, while Singapore is fourth at US$8 million.

The Filipinos’ love for MLBB is evident in Manila, where anyone from Grab drivers to smartly dressed businessmen can be spotted engrossed on their mobile phones playing the multiplayer online battle arena game.

The game also has a relatively large following in Singapore, where the M2 and M3 world championships were both held in 2021.

The event’s move to the Philippines in 2023 has paid off, with the Rizal Memorial Coliseum welcoming thousands of fans over three days of competition. Decked in jerseys and armed with clappers, the sold-out crowd on Dec 17 transformed the arena into an MLBB carnival of colour and cheer as they turned out for their favourite teams.

Several cosplayers dressed as the game’s heroes were also spotted, as fans clamoured to take photos with them.

Officials and fans whom The Straits Times spoke to attributed the popularity and growth of the game to the Covid-19 pandemic, when people were stuck at home.

Cornelia said: “It happened during Covid here and we cannot go out. The only fun we get is through MLBB and it took us a long time to recover. We have practised for two to three years and we are the best.”

Agreeing, finance manager Seth Mirano said that the title’s popularity has been further boosted by the arrival of professional players, noting that “all the pro players became really well known and everyone’s supporting them”.

Mark Chew, chief executive of Team Flash, the Singapore team who competed in M5, said: “Mobile penetration is very strong in Indonesia and the Philippines because with Mobile Legends you can play with almost any phone.

“So when Mobile Legends got into both countries, it hit a very big wave, the game itself in the Philippines is way more popular compared to Singapore. But if you go to the Philippines and Indonesia, everybody’s playing along the streets… even in the shopping malls.”

Two-time M-series host Singapore is still lagging behind in terms of participation and spectator numbers when compared to countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, noted observers.

The tournament is not expected to return to the Republic soon – M4 was in Indonesia in 2022 and M6 will be held in Malaysia in 2024.

Daniel Chew, Singapore head of e-sports at MLBB publisher Moonton Games, said: “When Singapore hosted the M-Series it was around Covid time and it wasn’t as big. I also agree that the fans and the atmosphere here is a lot more energetic and to an extent sometimes a bit aggressive.

“If you look at places like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, they have a very strong sports culture in the first place.

“The e-sports scene in Singapore is growing. Yes, we do face resistance compared to some other regions. But we are constantly on the lookout for different stakeholders, whether it’s brands, from the Government, or even federations, things like that to further support us.”

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