Rhom Robins was a legendary player before he built his company. Photograph by Medal Elepaño
Culture Spotlight

This former champion has spent his life putting the Philippines on the e-sports map

"E-sports is like Xiao Long Bao," says Rhom Robins, Mineski CEO and legendary Defense of the Ancients player. Dubious metaphors aside, he is creating a world where gamers are legitimate athletes, and breadwinners who bring home six-figure paychecks. 
Jam Pascual | Jul 18 2019

The new Mineski office looks like something straight out of science fiction. Bars of fluorescent light line the hallways. Gaming stations look unnatural, like sleeping beasts, without the sight of e-sports players hunched over keyboards. Still under renovation, the space is a solution to Mineski’s need for a bigger office, and is a clear indicator of their success. It is a concrete way of showing how e-sports as an industry is flourishing.

 

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It is only fitting then that I meet the CEO of Mineski and the venerated Father of Philippine E-Sports, Ronald “Rhom” Robins, in these new headquarters. This is the domain from which he surveys the playing field that influences virtual battlefields, and the players who wage war on those magic plains. And while it is true that certain planets had to align for the e-sports industry to turn into the colossus it is now—technological development, the advent of streaming, a zeitgeist-defining focus on digital entertainment—you could say that Robins was ground zero for a boom that would shake up the local world of gaming for years to come.

After years of putting the Philippines in the e-sports map, he retired to nourish the local industry through Mineski Franchise Corporation.

Who would’ve imagined? “The good thing about it, it’s very real,” Robins answers when I ask him for his thoughts on the current state of e-sports. “Before that, it was just a dream.”

In the late aughts he was one of the greatest DoTA players of his time (he went by the username Mineski.Rhom), captain to his team, taking the trophy home for the PH qualifiers for Asia Cyber Games for DoTA 2008, and placing the Philippines on the e-sports map through other victories. Eventually he retired from the competitive scene to nurture the country’s growing e-sports league, and nourish the industry through the Mineski Franchise Corporation. Even if he wasn’t sitting in the chair, everyone knows that he’s the don.

And the don is hard to argue with. Robins has, from the height of his position, worked tirelessly to advocate the idea of e-sports as an economy-strengthening, country-developing industry, and legitimize its players as actual athletes. With those goals, the number one sector to target is education.

 

School’s in

There are obvious challenges to packaging the profession of e-sports as a legitimate livelihood. The toughest audience is perhaps the curmudgeonly parents who don’t get the point of their kids going to LAN cafes to duke it out with orcs and Lich Kings. Theirs is the kind of stigma one would’ve expected would die in the 90s or aughts, back when the moral panic of video game violence was at its peak, and the basement-dwelling neckbeard stereotype had more cultural currency.

But making e-sports players actual athletes? Suddenly, the nerd/jock dichotomy kind of falls away. The stigma weakens, considering how the top players in the country take home six digits worth of prize money for their fights.

“The most impactful activities that we have actually observed, in regards to fighting the stigma, is actually delivering success," Robins tells me. Those world champions of DoTA and League of Legends? “They’re now basically feeding their families, becoming the breadwinners.”

I ask Robins if e-sports should be considered a varsity sport. “Definitely,” he responds, without missing a beat. “[E-sports are] quite similar to sports. Discipline, respect, honor, the traditional things we learn in sports.” It might be a funny thing, to lift e-sports players to a pantheon that includes the likes of Michael Jackson and Muhammad Ali, but think about it. Both e-sports and traditional sports involve teamwork, discipline, physical ability (twitch movements and quick reflexes are key), a sense of strategy (Mineski also looks after the leagues of Hearthstone, an online strategic card battle game), and the pursuit of glory.

Players flock to the hundreds of Mineski cafes around the country. Robins believes that the country is ripe to have an e-sports boom.

“Hunger defines the character of a person,” Robins offers, remembering his days as an e-sports player in a less modern time, and hunger is probably the virtue that best characterizes Robins as a CEO. Mineski has been making proactive moves, meeting with various academic institutions to discuss the possibility of integrating e-sports into their curricula. [“We’ve had discussions] with student councils. They have the initiative because they understand it,” he says.

It is a little difficult imagining a university that figures e-sports into its education—like, what, an internet cafe next to a cafeteria? But a holistic, interdisciplinary e-sports education can involve a broad network of fields, such as marketing, talent management, technical production, and even design. Robins is telling me all this with the calm tone of a military leader who just finished looking through a pair of binoculars. One can’t help but feel that the instincts and sense of strategy he honed during his years as a DoTA player haven’t waned, but just happened to find a new outlet, in his ongoing reign as a businessman.

 

The playing field

Such infrastructure can seem like a pipe dream now, but history shows that the Philippines is ripe to welcome e-sports as an earth-moving industry. For example, in 2017, the Gaming and Amusements Board, which is apparently under the Office of the President, recently made the move to allow professional e-sports players to secure athletic licenses. There was also Bam Aquino who, during his time as senator, was a fervent advocate of e-sports. Having influential, key figures in your corner certainly helped Robins and Mineski, and even though Aquino isn’t in the senate now, the ground work has already been laid.

“E-sports, in different countries, is like a xiao long bao,” he says. (Unorthodox, we know, but hang in there.) “Some are still frozen, some are being steamed, and some already ready to eat, and some are getting cold.” These different stages of development not only represent how volatile the e-sports industry is, but also open up a discussion on where the Philippines actually is.

Those world champions of DoTA and League of Legends? “They’re now basically feeding their families, becoming the breadwinners,” Robins says.

We’ve been at this since the 2000s. And while Robins is cautious with the way he conducts business, keenly aware of Mineski’s place in what he calls a sunrise industry, we’re way ahead of countries like Myanmar, and keeping pace with economic tigers like Singapore, and even the United States.

“We envision that our company will be strong enough to enable e-sports as a legitimate career, in the whole of southeast Asia,” Robins says, and I believe it. If the Mineski office isn’t enough proof (it’s part office, part cyber cafe, and part studio), look no further than the gamers all over the country, honing their skills for a virtual battlefield our country stands a chance of winning. Our xiao long bao isn’t just steaming and ready to serve. The kitchen is busy, the ingredients are abundant, and orders are piling up as fast as they’re coming out.

And as for Mineski’s competitors? That’s too small a question. Ask instead about the Philippines, the whole of Southeast Asia. “The western part of the world is always ahead,” Robins says. “But for this industry, since we are here, we’re not just going to allow them to steamroll.”

 

For more on Mineski, visit MineskiInfinity.com.

Photographs by Medal Elepaño