By: Jolene Latimer, Editor
When Saul “MenaRD” Segundo first held a controller no one expected it would eventually take him from one of Santo Domingo’s worst neighborhoods to national Dominican Republic fame, following international success as a fighting game player.
He was just a child then, trying to connect with and impress his older brother, who dabbled in esports. Like most younger brothers, he just wanted to beat his older sibling.
But it quickly became apparent that with MenaRD it was different. It was clear he would do more than just dabble in esports — he was destined to be a champion. At age 9 he was already competitively gaming — with impressive results. He established himself as a foremost streetfighting talent. As the earnings rolled in, his life transformed. He rose out of poverty, bringing his family with him.
Now, he’s passionate about paying it forward — helping to change the lives of other Caribbean youth through esports.
“If you’re born here and not 6-foot-something, you can’t be a basketball player,” he said. “If you are not very young and training your body already, you’re not a baseball player.”
While sports are commonly seen as a vehicle for social mobility, the competition is so great that only a select few can truly parlay athletic pursuits into a path out of poverty.
“All kinds of dreams get shattered right away,” he said. “You don’t even have a chance, it’s just the way you were born, you can’t make it.”
That feeling of hopelessness could have easily overtaken MenaRD himself. Growing up, MenaRD’s mom was a cafeteria worker and his dad was a police officer. Providing good customer service in a rough neighborhood was hard enough on his mom, but it was his dad who really worried him.
“When you see a lot of murders, you see thieves, you’re always scared,” he said. “I was scared about if my dad was going to come home because he’s a cop. Cops are not liked in the ghetto because people are doing a lot of bad things and cops are supposed to stop that. Even the cops themselves were corrupt and they didn’t really like my dad. It was not good at all.”
His parents both pushed him to aim higher, hoping he’d stay out of trouble and secure a better life for himself.
“At first, when I was a teenager I didn’t really think like that,” he said. “I was just thinking that my dad was bothering me, I just wanted to live my life. But, after I started really working and earning money for myself and seeing life, I started traveling. As soon as I got the visa, that’s when it clicked.”
That’s why MenaRD is passionate about the opportunity esports offers youth. He believes esports has the power to transform many lives and communities, not just his.
“In esports, everyone has a chance. You don’t need anything more than an amazing mind and to train yourself.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by leading esports experts in Domincan Republic. “They don’t have that many avenues,” said Yaqui Núñez del Risco Mejía, president of the Caribbean Esports Federation Alliance (CEFA). “If they aren’t good enough with their bodies to play baseball, they’re in a cage.”
Not only do children who pursue sports as a way out of poverty need to be athletically gifted, they also have to cope with immense psychological pressure at a young age — something not a lot of children can or want to do.
“When you come from the bottom of the pyramid and decide to play a sport, all eyes are on you,” said Núñez. “There’s pressure, there’s expectations. We've bred something like the greatest amount of professional baseball players in the world. When you decide to pick up a bat or a football or whatever, all eyes are on you and all the expectations. If, physically, you don’t have what it takes or show it from an early age, they stigmatize you and it haunts you.”
Esports offers an avenue for youth to develop their talents at their own pace.
“Since it was off the radar for so long, that means people were left to their own devices— figuratively and literally. That gives a wide open array of possibilities and the patience to see things through and to do things on your own time and with your own means,” said Núñez.
While traditional sports might have rigid systems to help find and develop talent, esports athletes in the Caribbean have largely been on their own. But this hasn’t stopped youth from rising through the ranks to international acclaim.
“No one believed that out of playing video games something respectable can happen, like a career,” said Núñez. “Then, we started seeing how organically, with zero help — these kids came from the hood. They weren’t even in private schools, they were in public schools— but they were curious, they had talents and now they are world class.”
MenaRD is an example of this in action and now he wants to support his community by creating more opportunities for Dominican Republic youth to follow in his path.
“We need to construct a strong platform for them to get access to the tools that they need — video game consoles, computers,” said MenaRD. “They need access to the video games themselves.” He also believes a crucial element to international success is getting a visa to other countries where they can compete and work. Even though MenaRD has chosen to remain in the Dominican Republic, he said the opportunity to travel for tournaments and sponsors was a game-changer for his career.
Growing the esports community in the Dominican Republic will also involve standardized, high-value events. Also, helping young gamers learn English so they can secure their own sponsorships with English brands plays a major role.
“In my personal experience it was a ‘make it or break it’ kind of thing,” said MenaRD about learning English. “I had to sell myself and then tell them why they should sign a player from the Dominican Republic and not all the amazing players in the United States or Japan.”
Recognizing this need, the FDDE, the Domincan Esports Federation, is giving away 10 English as a second language scholarships to local players.
It’s just one example of the many ways the Dominican Republic gaming community is coming together to help young people succeed and find fulfilling careers that offer a pathway out of poverty.
“Things are really changing in the country for the better,” said MenaRD. If you want to be a gamer in the Dominican Republic right now, it’s looking really good. You have a lot of opportunities and things you can do to make it in esports.”