SINGAPORE: Sporting a bleached blond hairdo, black windbreaker, jeans and sneakers, the lanky Harold Teo breezed into the room where we were scheduled to meet.
Looking at the 29-year-old, you would be hard-pressed to identify him as one of the Sea (formerly known as Garena) employees integral to the success of Free Fire.
Free Fire is the company’s mobile-first rival to other battle royale-themed games like Fortnite and Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG) that started off as PC games. Launched in the fourth quarter of 2017, the game was identified by analytics company App Annie as the fourth-most downloaded game for both iOS and Android platforms in 2018.
In the company’s most recent earnings report, Free Fire had more than 350 million registered users and more than 40 million peak daily active users.
Harold, whose job title of Producer for Free Fire somewhat downplays his contributions, was part of the team that developed the game in 2017. Today, he is tasked to bring the game to more people and markets, and create new avenues of user engagement.
GAMER AT HEART
“I liked RPG (role-playing games) growing up … I was playing Final Fantasy when I was seven,” the game boy shared during a recent interview with CNA.
His love for the game and being in front of the computer for too long even resulted in beatings from his mother, he recounted laughingly.
“When I was in my early secondary school years, my results were not very good,” Harold said. “My brother had better grades … and my parents were very results oriented.”
The Raffles Institution (RI) alum eventually used his parents’ expectations to his advantage though.
“I figured if I did well, I can play more games,” he theorised, and it worked. “It turned out I had a healthy balance.”
It was also at RI that he found kindred spirits that continue to spark this love for gaming.
“I've a close group of friends - about 10 from RI - that played social games, and we just bonded over Defense of the Ancients (DOTA),” he shared, adding they still regularly game together.
His passion for computer games is one of the main reasons why he turned down job offers from banking institutions to join the then-Garena under its associate management programme in 2015.
Harold had graduated Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a finance and accounting degree and, while he does have interest in the field, the allure of gaming - which he describes as his “passion” - proved stronger.
If that wasn’t enough to show how much he loves to game, the 29-year-old also made an audacious request while under the associate management programme.
“I was very inclined to gaming, so I asked if I can be in this area for the four rotation cycles (that programme participants had to go through),” Harold shared, adding that he is “thankful” to his bosses who found a way for him to experience different areas of the gaming business.
“SURPASSED ALL EXPECTATIONS”
His love for gaming was also attributed to the development of Free Fire, though he was quick to downplay it.
“There’s an office rumour that says I keep playing PUBG, so let’s make a mobile game (like that) for him,” Harold shared. “But I don’t think it’s true, la.”
True or not, what is clear is that Free Fire has caught the imagination of gamers around the globe, going by figures cited by the company and App Annie.
One of the key value proposition of the game, compared with the likes of Fortnite and PUBG, is its small download size and ability to run on almost all handsets whereas its competitors run only on high-end smartphones.
Harold shared there is a motto held dear among the game’s Shanghai-based developers, which, loosely translated, means: “Keep it small, keep it cool.” In other words, the mobile game should not tax the handset’s components so much that it gets overheated.
The download size for Free Fire is 400MB today, whereas the average of other battle royale-themed games are about 1GB, he explained.
It is why Free Fire is a hit among emerging markets in Latin America like Brazil and similarly in Southeast Asia. The company said in its latest earnings report that Free Fire was the top-ranked game in Brazil last year by average monthly active users, downloads and consumer spend, citing research from App Annie.
“We believe this demonstrates our ability to penetrate fast-growing emerging markets globally, which greatly expands our total addressable market base beyond just our core markets,” Sea said.
The game has “already surpassed all expectations”, Harold said, but added that there is still room to grow.
He is already cooking up different ways of growing the hype and awareness of the game, starting with e-sports competitions that draw both competitive gamers as well as those who just like to watch the games through livestreams.
The Free Fire World Cup competition, which will be featured as part of the wider Garena World e-sports event in April, is expected to bring regional teams from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand, as well as Latin America ones from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia, according to the company’s website.
This seems a sound strategy.
A study from research firm Newzoo earlier this February showed that the global e-sports audience will grow to 453.8 million - 201.2 million e-sports enthusiasts and 252.6 million occasional viewers - worldwide this year. Asia-Pacific will account for 57 per cent of the enthusiasts demographic, followed by the European Union at 16 per cent, it added.
“There is still a significant majority (of people in the world) who hasn’t gotten the chance to play a battle royale-themed game before. We want to get as many people to play (Free Fire) as possible,” Harold said.