Vietnamese Gamers Are Keeping a 20 Year Old Strategy Game Alive

Age of Empires is a franchise dominated by its second installment. The first game is generally considered too dated, III too odd, and Mythology too far removed from the series’ historical context. And the troubled release of 2018’s Age of Empires: Definitive Edition seemed to confirm this hierarchy, with mediocre reviews deeming it mechanically antiquated. While the Definitive Edition struggled to succeed, Age of Empires II continues to receive modern expansion packs, fuel popular streamers and YouTubers, and see regular high-level competitive play, all in preparation for its own hotly-anticipated Definitive Edition. But in Vietnam it’s the original Age of Empires, a game that’s been untouched for 21 years, that remains beloved. 

A 2018 tournament — using the Definitive Edition, sponsored by Microsoft, and featuring a trailer worthy of an action movie — offered a roughly $11,000 USD prize pool to players in a country where the average monthly salary is $150. Top player Chim Se Di Nang (Sunny Sparrow) is credited with $23,467.25 in tournament winnings over eight years of pro play, plus his profits from streams that pull in up to 34,000 concurrent viewers, plus benefits and a roughly $216 monthly salary from his eSports team. Noted for his flexible tactics and quiet demeanor, he’s popular enough that some modelling he did for a friend’s clothing store earned him gaming site headlines. Not bad for a college student born just a year before the base game’s 1997 release.

The Game Has Changed

As explained by Definitive Edition developer Adam Isgreen, Age of Empires is essentially a solved game, with the chariot archer considered the best unit and two of the 16 civilizations — Shang and Assyrian — considered to be the best at pumping them out. The Definitive Edition tried to rebalance, and Vietnamese tournaments have long cut down on the monotony by offering a random civilisation category with a custom ruleset dubbed D3KT, which puts major restraints on rushing to let slower civs get up to speed, but also bans walls and towers to discourage turtling. Its element of chance can create interesting matchups, and has even led to rumors of match-fixing.  

D3KT is popular in casual play, but the all-Shang and all-Assyrian categories are where the most money is. In lieu of tactical ingenuity, these mirror matches revolve around efficient micromanagement and raw mouse speed to get just seconds ahead of an opponent trying to execute an identical strategy. It sounds tedious, but it requires incredible talent to master archaic pathfinding and dated mechanics that lack unit queues, rally points, an idle villager button, and other now-standard features of the genre. And the sheer speed of play is mesmerizing.

The much easier to play Definitive Edition has only been sporadically embraced in Vietnam, with the version dating back to the game’s 1998 Rise of Rome expansion pack sill seeing the vast majority of tournament play. But why does Vietnam have such an intense love for a game considered clunky and old-fashioned in North America? Vietnamese fans and players have occasionally popped up on Reddit and gaming forums to explain the phenomenon to baffled westerners, and I was able to speak to a few.

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A Brief History of Gaming in Vietnam

In the 1990s, personal computers were just starting to spread through Vietnam. With copyright enforcement nonexistent, families that could afford their own computers were openly offered suites of pirated software by salesmen, and Age of Empires was often included in the package. For the many children and teenagers whose families couldn’t afford a PC or a stable internet connection, pirated copies of Age of Empires were omnipresent in cheap gaming cafes.

Because pirated software usually couldn’t connect to legitimate severs, LAN matches — or online play facilitated with third party software — was the order of the day. Reddit user Belisarious describes his experience in LAN cafes as sitting “in small rows on plastic chairs, with the loud sound of traffic and wall fans in the background as you play AoE on CRT screens sat on desks with multiple cigarette burn marks and greasy mice/keyboards.” 

But AoE was also a western hit in its time, so fond memories alone don’t explain its enduring Vietnamese popularity. Red Alert, StarCraft, Counterstrike and Asian MMOs like MU Online were also a big part of the gaming café scene. Redditor Egalit3 attributes AoE’s initial popularity to a Vietnamese love of history. He believes that a game about the epic battles of antiquity appeals more to the residents of one of the oldest and most storied countries in the world than a game about fictional battles involving orcs. A 20-year retrospective by Vietnamese gaming site GameK notes that AoE‘s easy to learn but hard to master gameplay played a role in its modern success among all ages. But beyond the broad narrative and mechanical appeal, Egalit3 adds that two gamers in particular deserve credit for elevating the AoE scene.

As he describes it, the late 2000s saw a lot of excellent AoE players but no strong community. That changed with the growing popularity of streaming, and two streamers in particular — Be Yeu and G Man. Be Yeu was skilled, while G Man offered frantic soccer-style commentary full of irreverent, hilarious and meme-worthy expressions. The comical streams would be reuploaded to YouTube and acquire more fans, and a rekindled interest in the childhood staple grew from there. G Man is still an active commentator with a host of imitators, although Be Yeu passed away unexpectedly in in 2010. An annual tournament has since been played in his honour, with one stream of the 2018 Be Yeu Cup acquiring 591K views. 

Niche of Empires

Today, Vietnam is a rapidly growing gaming market worth an estimated $365 million USD. The current hit games are largely what you’d expect: League of Legends, Overwatch, FIFA, Minecraft, and various mobile games. While gaming cafes are still common, they now tend to feature cozy chairs, fancy peripherals, and other amenities inspired by Korean PC bangs. AoE’s found a modern niche amongst all this, with a 20,000 person strong Facebook group featuring daily discussions of streams, strategy, fan mods and gameplay variants, the pros and cons of the Definitive Edition, and high profile players and their matches. In one post, a fan says that he increased the difficulty on his mom’s copy of the game as a prank, only to express pride when she eventually overcame the challenge. 

No one seems sure how long this niche will last. Egalit3 says that views are slowly dwindling because the fanbase, relatively older gamers in their late 20s and early 30s, don’t have as much free time to play and watch. But he also says that his friends are passing the game down to their children, and the stable careers of adulthood allow them to be generous in their financial support of AoE streamers. He hopes that the release of AoE4 will help attract younger gamers to the fanbase, but for now he’s happy to just enjoy the scene while it lasts. 

Hoàng Kỳ Anh, who just left a nine-year career at eSports news source and sponsor Vietnam GameTV, also emphasizes AoE’s older but loyal — and change-resistant — fanbase. “They play [the 1998 version] mostly and it’s hard to switch to [the Definitive Edition] or other games.” He adds that while AoE’s age and mechanical roughness make it tough to attract Vietnamese gamers under 25, he thinks that the money will keep pros around for a while. AoE is the game of choice for some of Vietnam’s top earning gamers, and for now there’s no reason to expect radical change. 

And so GameTV’s website prominently features AoE news right alongside DOTA2, Overwatch, and Apex Legends. On September 10th they announced the 2019 Vietnam Open with a dramatic video, a marketing blitz, and pictures of players in cushy gaming café chairs. Unfortunately, the tournament was suspended midway through, seemingly due to an investigation into gambling in the AoE competitive scene. But if nothing else, that’s just another indicator of how big the game still is.