The break of dawn comes and goes for many, but Paul J. Foster never misses the first hint of sunlight. It is 5am and he is already on a yoga mat preparing for the day with a touch of spirituality and silence.
Channelling his inner zen has been crucial in riding the intense highs and lows of his first full year as the Global Esports Federation’s (GEF) Chief Executive Officer. After all, you need to stay focused to realize the vision of building a safe space for people to belong.
“The past year has been inspiring and humbling. We saw a lot of raw humanity – we’ve seen sad days and happy, optimistic days,” shared Paul. “There was an almost desperate ambition to do something remarkable, and it was wonderful to harness that to bring everything together.”
With spectators, competitors and some semblance of normalcy returning to esports arenas, the GEF’s #worldconnected mission is taking shape. Having successfully hosted its first international event in Singapore late last year, the organization is ramping up efforts to convene the global community united by esports in 2022 and beyond.
Of magnets and lighthouses
Esports has the potential to become one of the biggest phenomena in the world, said Paul, who has been intimately involved in sports at the highest levels for more than 20 years. But more than just popularity, what attracted him to the power of esports is its ability to attract the masses and level the playing field.
The GEF’s role in this growing area is simple: being both a magnet and a lighthouse. The team, he said, is there to “convene people and show them a pathway”.
“It’s about whether people are open to learning about esports, which I believe is the future of entertainment,” he noted.
When asked how the GEF planned to change the minds of those unconvinced by esports, the 52-year-old added: “We don’t. We welcome them. Our job isn’t necessarily to convert the entire world, but to shine a light on esports and put it on a stage in beautiful formats that we can all feel proud of.”
Today, the organization has enabled a community unafraid to ask for assistance, whether it is in terms of resources, commercial guidance, or strategic advice. People are reaching out to each other in meaningful ways.
“We’re now hearing more and more of our community talking about WE,” said Paul. “As the point of reference in esports, we provide a place for our global community to connect.”
It is part of a wider goal to bring credibility, legitimacy and prestige to esports in an interdependent ecosystem.
But never in Paul’s wildest dreams did he imagine surpassing his expectations in his freshman year leading the GEF. He pointed to last December’s Singapore 2021 Global Esports Games – the GEF’s first global event – as the crowning glory.
While it has not been easy, being in a place where he and his team can be themselves helps them face the challenges.
“If you think about gaming as a mesh of codes, you see that it unlocks the physical code for a welcoming environment that allows people to show up exactly as they are and be comfortable to sit down (or stand up) and work things out,” he noted.
Dealing with pressure
This shared space was especially important during the physical divide caused by the pandemic. Despite the enforced distance, the GEF witnessed how esports’ global connectivity effectively bridged borders with online interaction.
Yet as a convening body, there were times of “immense pressure”, according to Paul.
“These come when you have the wishes and unrealized ambitions of the community on your shoulders,” he said, adding that it is part of incorporating similar learnings and benefits of traditional sports into esports.
One such instance was the highly anticipated Global Esports Games last year. Paul recalled how the team had slogged for the entire 2021 to organize an offline tournament that included hundreds of athletes from around the world.
He had many sleepless nights, worried that the event would be cancelled due to the ever-evolving COVID-19 situation. As it turned out, the GEG was a massive success, drawing in over 4.4 million live views over two days, and over 500 million accumulated views since then.
“I couldn’t really talk to anyone about (my real concerns) as that would have allowed doubt to creep in,” he said. “There would have been an undulating foundation of doubt that would unearth everything we had created.”
The trick is to prepare, prepare and prepare even more. Everyone in the GEF lives by this mantra. It is not just about planning for contingencies and getting processes down to a T – it is also about eating, exercising, and sleeping well to be at our collective best.
This need to be in top form also explains why Paul, a qualified yoga teacher, has a set morning routine and also takes walks along the beach to fuel himself before work.
“We want to do so many things, but the clock is ticking and the pace is supercharged,” he said. “So I’m really conscious about being happy and in good shape to do more for our community.”
Success begets success
And when results show, they act as a springboard to achieve greater success. Take the Games, for example, where record viewership and exceptional esports performances gave the GEF a sense of how future events should be staged.
It has already confirmed the featured titles for the Commonwealth Esports Championships in Birmingham, England in August and the Istanbul 2022 Global Esports Games in December.
“What we have now is an incredible portfolio of events, and we’re going to double the Global Esports Tour series in 2022 to six cities, while our Global Esports Games for our first six years are locked in,” said Paul.
To cultivate an ecosystem of talent capable of delivering at peak prestige, the GEF has launched Global Innovation and Research Centers (IRCs) in key markets including Singapore, China, the United States, the Middle East, and Europe, and is embarking on its second cohort of the Global Esports Future Leaders Program.
Three types of development are in store: human, physical and systemic. By giving the opportunity to young people from different cultures, the GEF aims to nurture future esports leaders. Having geographically diverse spaces like IRCs also provide hotbeds for thought leaders to gather and build connections.
“The pandemic has physically uprooted people and accelerated the notion of decentralization,” said Paul. “There is more freedom and equity to thrive today. So here’s what I say to young people: ‘You’re the CEO of your life, so run it like a CEO and don’t be afraid to ask for help.”
This foundation paves the way for what’s in store for the organization. As he stated, the destination need not be set in stone. With the community’s support and steady progress in the right direction, “we’ll be more than okay”.