Electronic Sports in Cuba, From Unimaginable to a Reality
Alch3mlsT_Cu was the username I chose. Back in 2006, you didn’t see many Cubans in the U.S. West servers of Battle.net. We would connect a 128k modem in a not-so-legal way to a basic high school phone that linked us to hundreds of StarCraft players around the world. This little stunt might have cost us more than a visit to the principal’s office, but it was worth it.
We experienced freedom through the line of that analog telephone, and with each game we won, we felt like we were representing Cuba like the athletes in the Olympics, the difference being that the title or virtual medal was dedicated to our team and that 128k modem, and to no one else.
In 2006, talking about playing online in Cuba was unimaginable, including playing offline. The number of computers for every thousand inhabitants did not exceed 50, and their sale was illegal. The same happened, perhaps to a greater extent, with the number of videogame consoles. Regardless, the first communities of players, or gamers, were already forming.
Currently, the communities are more organized. There are communities of players that hold different videogame tournaments and events throughout the island. Thanks to the arrival of internet services in public areas and Cuban homes, some even allow for international participation.
To go into more detail about how the gamer movement is doing in Cuba, I talked to Javier Vidal Fernández, president of the Electronic Sports Group in Cuba (ADEC), the first community of its kind with institutional recognition and participation in international events.
The First Videogame Communities in Cuba
Since when have you been aware of the existence of gamer communities in Cuba?
Javier Vidal Fernández: The first gamer communities in Cuba arrived with videogame consoles, when the NES, SNES, Nintendo64, Playstation 1, etc., entered the country. Games like Street Fighter, Killer Instinct, Mortal Kombat, and others in the fighting genre were among the first games with a competitive approach to become popular, alongside first-person shooter games and sports simulators.
As time passed and the number of people who owned a console or computer increased, some of the most popular games of the time arrived in Cuba, where real-time strategy (RTS) games had rapid acceptance. Among them, StarCraft I by Blizzard Entertainment stood out. This game led to the first gamer community and turned into what is today known as the Cuban Electronic Sports Group (ADEC).
StarCraft provided great tools for interconnecting users since it made it possible to communicate with gamers from home through a modem and landline phone, thus allowing for the first tournaments we have reference to.
The Founding of ADEC and Its Main Activities
When was ADEC founded and what are its main activities on the island?
JVF: ADEC was founded on November 25, 2007, a few months after the call for the first HSL (Havana StarCraft League). From the beginning, it had a series of objectives including: increasing the culture of electronic sports and videogames in Cuba; obtaining institutional and/or governmental recognition that would guarantee carrying out high quality tournaments since face-to-face events demand many logistical resources; promoting electronic sports as another area where Cuba could compete internationally and obtain satisfactory achievements; creating competitive ecosystems for the most popular electronic sports in Cuba; and creating spaces where the community could interact with itself and stay informed about tournaments, among other things.
In addition to the work we do to keep each community active and competitive, the ADEC team works hard to understand the entire phenomenon of e-sports on a global scale in order to provide advice to all of our competitors and to keep up with the evolution of the international community.
How many members does ADEC currently have?
JVF: We do not have an exact figure or a registry of members because the figures we handle are those of players registered in tournaments, but one of our objectives for 2021 is to organize a census to be able to have more precise statistics.
To give you an example, the Cuba Dota 2 League, which is the biggest league we have ever had, has more than 100 teams in it, with each team containing 5 participants. The FIFA tournaments we organize easily fill the 128 participants capacity; due to logistical issues we cannot offer more space. On the other hand, the first Clash Royale tournament that we held online had 100 players and today there are around 16 teams competing only in Clash Royale.
With this data we can at least say with certainty that thousands of players play videogames competitively, beyond playing them as a hobby, and we can assume they are practicing an electronic sport.
Is there a system of national e-sports tournaments?
JVF: There have been various leagues since the founding of ADEC. Some have been discontinued, some remain on hiatus, and others have evolved.
For a considerable time, we used the infrastructure of Snet, a citizen network that existed in Havana until mid-2019. This was the second largest ecosystem of players after StarCraft 1 and the encounters held through modems lost popularity.
Recently, with the support of the Central Palace of Computation, we were able to carry out events that must be held in person. As is evident, COVID affected certain leagues such that Dota 2 and FIFA are on hiatus, which is why we have also shifted to creating online communities and leagues with games that can be played through mobile data. This is the third community ecosystem within ADEC, started at the end of 2018 with the launch of 3G and ETECSA’s mobile data internet service. We consider it extremely important to continue promoting these communities since online gaming is what opens us to the world of electronic sports in the international arena.
Cuba on the International Electronic Sports Circuit
Is Cuba represented in international tournaments?
JVF: Yes, definitely. In fact, 2020 saw a tremendous increase in participation for Cubans on the international scene. Blizzard’s HearthStone was one of the first games where we had significant results. Since April 2019, the HearthStone community has been highly active in semi-professional tournaments both in Latin America and on a global scale, and there have been quite a few satisfactory results.
To give you some examples, OverLord was the champion of Season 1 of the Online Sports Championship (OSC), a league-format tournament that lasted a year with more than 250 competitors. CubanProSS also had significant results in Blizzard’s official competition system, finishing second in an important qualifying tournament that would have opened the door to a face-to-face event with a $150,000 prize pool. I (ToXavieR) was also just shy of advancing to the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) for the region of Mexico and Central America, and this year I was Top 16 in an important LATAM tournament organized by Blizzard, something that Rex, another Cuban player, also achieved.
In AutoChess, we were pleasantly surprised that DarkHero managed to reach Top 6 in a particularly important tournament organized by the Electronic Sports League (ESL) for the Latin America region, which guaranteed them a $900 USD prize. Our Synergy team represented Cuba by participating in a tournament for nations as well.
The Cuban Clash Royale team had an excellent performance in the World Royale League (WRL) where, against all odds, they reached a top position in the group category. They finally fell in the round of 32 against Poland, the defending champion.
It is necessary to clarify that all the leagues previously mentioned are leagues where semi-professional and professional players participate, and although we have not yet reached a benchmark status, we are beginning to see the progress of what can be if we continue to train and participate.
Challenges and Obstacles for Electronic Sports Players in Cuba Today
What do you consider to be the main challenges and problems for Cuban gamers?
JVF: There are several factors that present problems for the development of electronic sports in Cuba. To date, there are no designated spaces, or spaces that provide us with all the logistics we need to carry out large scale face-to-face events. Electronic sports create spaces for both competitors and spectators, which means there is a lot left to collaborate on with Joven Club because they have the technological resources we need, in addition to other entities that can provide us with the entertainment infrastructure.
In 2020, ADEC obtained the protection of the Cuban Computer Union (UIC), something that was very well received. Unfortunately, we have not been able to start many projects because of COVID-19. We also became members of the Global E-Sports Federation (GEF) and the Caribbean E-Sports Federation Alliance (CEFA). INDER could also be a fundamental pillar in helping us since these two international organizations that I mentioned are working towards the inclusion of electronic sports in the programing of the Olympic Games.
With regards to playing online and competing in international tournaments, there are two factors that affect us. First, Cuba’s connectivity lacks quality and is not economically profitable for most games. There are games that have a low consumption rate of mobile data, and with practically 2GB of data you can play all month. However, there are other games, such as Dota 2 or several shooter-genre games, where a single game can consume more than 100mb. This forces us to choose which communities are viable to sponsor and develop.
The other factor that affects us a lot is the U.S. economic embargo. Because of it, several of the main videogame companies such as Blizzard, EPIC Games, and Riot Games do not allow us to compete in their official competitive systems. Some don’t even allow us to buy or play their games due to sanctions and fines. This is obviously a huge obstacle when trying to compete professionally because it only leaves us with the possibility of competing in third-party tournaments that will never have the scale of official circuits.
In addition, sanctions make it difficult, and in external cases, prevent electronic sports practitioners in Cuba from being able to access tournament prizes, even when we manage to win them since payment gateways such as Paypal, Skrill, and others are banned for us. In these cases, we must resort to other forms of payment that are not always favorable with the organizers of these events.
Is there interest in creating a national team that represents Cuba in international competitions?
JVF: Of course. In fact, we have representation from our national team in several electronic sports, and we are fully prepared to continue adding new teams as communities of other disciplines develop. We are also waiting for convocation announcements from the CEFA as well as the GEF, where we can compete representing our country. We are constantly looking for leagues to join, whether official or third-party. We hope to double our efforts in 2021 so as not to slow down everything we were able to achieve in 2020 despite the conditions we had to face.
The Changing World of Technology in a Country Stopped in Time
The comments of my interviewee show the great potential within Cuba to develop communities of electronic sports players, as well as the professionalization of those who are currently active.
New technologies associated with the development and use of videogames are increasingly present on the Island, but at the same time they are the main Achilles heel for these communities. The devices and graphics cards needed to run the latest titles and those with higher technological requirements are imported by Cubans who travel abroad, then resold at higher prices that are often double their purchase price. This restricts many young people who do not have the financial resources to acquire them, most of them students who still depend on their parents’ support.
Nonetheless, gamers continue to put in effort and train to fulfill their goals of participating and winning prizes in international tournaments and leagues representing their country, just like those Olympians who dedicate their medals to their countrymen.
Kmilo Noa is a writer, and technology and social management enthusiast. He resides in Holguín, Cuba. Find him on twitter @noakmilo_
Illustration by Wimar Verdecia Fuentes. Find him on twitter @FuentesWimarBACK TO NUEVOS ESPACIOS