How entrepreneur Samson Oh rose from poverty to build an esports and gaming empire

PHOTO: The Peak

Many people look back on their childhoods with rose-tinted glasses and the nostalgia of carefree days spent frolicking with friends. But not Samson Oh.

He refers to his growing-up days in Imbi, once the red-light district of Kuala Lumpur, as the “dark side”. As a child, Oh had a front-row seat to the unsavoury drama, violence and corruption that plagued the neighbourhood.

“In the ‘70s, I lived next to the headquarters of one of the first red-light districts in Kuala Lumpur. My mother was a seamstress, and sometimes she would ask me to deliver clothes to where the prostitutes lived,” says the 45-year-old, now a self-made esports and gaming entrepreneur. His business suite in this sector includes esports news portal GosuGamers, esports talent agency Team Flash, media agency Redd+E and the incubator Cargo Studio.

Years after he worked his way out of Imbi, he still has vivid memories of peering out of his ground floor apartment window when commotions occurred on the street. “There was a lot of bribery and corruption, and I saw people getting stabbed outside my door. In school, I sometimes had to protect my schoolmates from gangsters,” says Oh, who became a Singapore citizen this year. “I have seen things no person should.”

A turning point for the young Oh came when he was introduced to a church, where older children like himself were tasked with taking care of the younger ones. “This was the best leadership school for me. It taught me to have a heart for youth and to leave no one behind. That has carried me through my life,” he reflects.

Today, the area, within walking distance of the Bukit Bintang and Sungei Wang shopping precinct, has evolved beyond its tainted past and is now better known for its vibrant street food scene.
But for Oh, these experiences are an indelible part of his identity. A licensed practitioner of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), he says he draws strength and direction from his past.

As a reminder of how far he has come since his gritty childhood, he has even posted a photograph of his old street on his Facebook account and looks at it at least once a year to ensure he stays the course.

Nurturing young developers

As he continues to grow his esports and gaming empire one company at a time, Oh is crystal clear about his mission: he wants to empower the next generation by offering them viable career options in the esports and gaming industry, regardless of their backgrounds or academic abilities.

“I am still buying and creating companies because I want to hire as many as possible regardless of their educational qualifications,” he says. His companies have a headcount of about 200 employees, with more than half of them based in Singapore.

Most recently, he raised $750,000 to launch the games development incubator Cargo Studio in February. Its programme for aspiring developers includes mentorship and guidance on essential entrepreneurship skills such as project and resource management, operations planning and monetisation design.

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This month, Cargo Studio launched its first two games, Rumble Jungle and Aesir Defense, at Gamescom Asia 2021.

“Building and shipping a game is like a start-up venture. My team does not look at the applicant’s PSLE scores or educational background but his passion and hunger to create something,” he says.

In a way, he is following in the footsteps of his former mentor, a supervisor from one of his earliest jobs at a financial software company. “He told me he believed I had the potential to do regional jobs even though I didn’t have the required experience. When I began travelling, I realised my world was different from the rest of the world,” he says.

“I also realised that all one needs is to have one person who sees the potential in you and gives you a chance.”

Hacking a passion

He first began dabbling in esports about five years ago, when a friend asked him to invest in forming a gaming team. “Everyone says if you play games, you can’t earn a living, but I saw the potential in the industry,” says Oh, who was at that time involved in the management of tech and IT platforms.

He agreed to provide his pal with funding on the condition that he would be allowed to mentor and guide the team. That experience of guiding a budding group of players towards achieving financial viability inspired Oh to continue investing in this sector.

In 2017, he co-founded talent agency Team Flash, which currently has a presence in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam to talent-spot and groom potential gamers in the region.

“I realised I could not change the world by working for someone. To do that, I had to start a business,” he says.

The next year, the team gave a talk on alternative careers at Northlight School for students with difficulties handling the mainstream curriculum in the country. His key takeaway was that even though they were not necessarily academically inclined, many were highly motivated in their areas of interest, such as building toy models or gaming. However, they lacked the opportunities and mentorship to turn their pastimes into a viable career path.

At around the same time, he had also begun to notice that his son, now 11, faced similar academic challenges and did not seem to respond well to a regular school curriculum. Instead, the boy has an aptitude for digital animation and would happily spend hours in his room creating stop motion videos with his Lego toys.

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One of his videos has even garnered over 80,000 views on YouTube. Despite his son’s natural affinity for this medium, Oh expressed frustrations over his difficulties finding suitable digital content that he could enrol the boy in to foster his talent.

“The struggle of all those kids became personal to me. I realised there are many who excel in this realm but are not given a chance to pursue their passion and I hated that,” says Oh.
It also did not help that parents often do not approve of their children’s gaming hobbies. “I have encountered many mothers who are so freaked out that they have smart kids who only want to play games,” he says.

But what concerned adults tend to forget when faced with a child who would rather “hole up in his room for hours in front of the computer” is that there is a lot more to the gaming industry, he notes. For example, opportunities abound in content creation, copywriting, streaming, games development, media broadcasting and 2D and 3D artistry.

Indeed, the industry is booming all around the world and is showing no signs of slowing down. According to data from Newzoo, a provider of games and esports analytics, the gaming industry generated US$146 billion in revenue in 2019, which is three times higher than the global box office revenue recorded in the same year.

This growth has surged during the Covid-19 pandemic, with gaming becoming a common go-to activity for people during the widespread lockdowns around the world and is estimated to have increased to US$175 billion last year.

Oh says, “Like it or not, gaming is a culture and it is important for parents to instil the value that controlled gaming is okay and that they can hack their passion into a job.”

Prepping for the future

Gamers with potential may even eventually climb the ranks to become esports champions with the proper training. Once, during a business trip to Vietnam, he spotted a young gamer playing games on a sofa. Team Flash signed him on and today, Tran Duc Chien, better known as ADC, is a top earning Arena of Valour gamer with an impressive 800,000 strong Facebook following.

“He acts like a rockstar, which I don’t like,” Oh quips. “But his mother, who was so worried about his future, came to thank me for changing his life,” he says.

Unfortunately, Oh says, what is generally lacking is the infrastructure in the education system to offer a wider range of students the opportunity to pursue their gaming interests in a constructive manner.

This is despite the fact that the government has been fostering this sector by holding esports events and encouraging established gaming companies from around the world to set up outposts here in Singapore.

“Everyone complains we lack talent, but it is up to us to give youth the necessary training and to give them a chance to excel. Otherwise, how can you expect children to emerge from the education system with the skills they need to excel in esports and gaming?”

So, he and his partner Mark Chew, newly appointed CEO of Team Flash decided to take things into their own hands. In September, Team Flash signed a memorandum of understanding with XCL Education to launch Singapore’s first school-based esports programme at XCL World Academy, an international school.

The school has created an esports facility equipped with high performance gaming stations and Team Flash will provide coaching for the schools esports club.

He hopes such school-based programmes will gradually help to end the stigma around gaming. “The first thing we need to change is how the public views gaming, starting with parents.”

The road ahead

While the pandemic has surfaced new opportunities in esports that Oh is eager to capitalise on, it has also afforded him the chance to slow down after years of jet-setting for work. “Covid-19 enabled me to stop and appreciate the presence of the important people around me and to deepen my connection with them. It also helped me realise that life is not just about chasing money or dreams,” he says.

These days, he finds the deepest joy in routine daily activities such as sending his son to school. “That journey of 15 to 30 minutes is the best quality time I have with him,” he says. “He is very intrigued with my business and wants to pick my brains and asks me to validate his creations.”

Time spent with his three-year-old daughter is simpler. At her age, the toddler mostly wants to play and cuddle – but it is equally rewarding to bond with her while she is young, he says.

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He has also rediscovered his love for golf and guitar playing. “Golf helps me quieten myself. I play every Sunday at 7am and it is my time to reflect and watch the sunrise. To me, this is therapeutic. And when I play the guitar, I escape into my own world and express myself through music,” he says.

Taking this time out for self care is essential, he says. “Being a CEO can be very lonely. You have to shoulder the burden of employees’ salaries, watch the company’s cash flow and take care of your family.

People expect a business leader to be perfect but that is a huge responsibility.” He’s eternally thankful to his wife of 13 years, who has been an unshakeable pillar of support throughout the journey.

For someone like Oh, the stakes are even higher. His ultimate goal in assembling a range of companies that focus on different aspects of gaming is to build a self-supporting ecosystem that can support various talents in this field.

“I want to build a community of people who have the same dreams in Singapore and South-east Asia,” he says, “This is about giving hope to the kids, so that they aren’t shackled to the system.”

This article was first published in The Peak.