On the outskirts of the most diverse cities in Brazil lie neighborhoods that climb steep hills and stretch for miles. These neighborhoods often have a precarious structure—houses built side by side, with no apparent order, and only small corridors that are poorly lit. It is in these favelas that thousands of Brazil's youth dedicate hours and hours of their days to esports, with the dream of making it big in the industry.
Projections point to a market that, in 2023, should surpass $1.5 billion, and in Brazil even traditional football teams such as Vasco da Gama and Flamengo have begun to assemble esports teams in games such as League of Legends and Pro Evolution Soccer. The top athletes win millions of dollars in prizes, while the average salary of a professional League of Legends player exceeds $400,000 per year.
Brazil is an extremely unequal country with an immense social abyss—about 25 percent of the Brazilian population is considered poor, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Social inequality in Brazil, according to the Gini index (used by the World Bank to measure inequality among countries or groups of people), has increased in recent years. In regions like the northeast, almost half the population lives in extreme poverty on less than $1.90 a day. This inequality is also reflected in the country’s esports industry.
The basic items an esports athlete or streamer needs—access to the internet and quality equipment—is not always available for those living in the favelas. In an extremely competitive environment where fractions of a second can make all the difference and lead to a victory, slow internet and outdated equipment can be fatal to success. There are immense differences between those living in the favela and those in the “asphalt”—that is, people living outside poor communities, who have access to better schools, health services, and greater purchasing power, and who often frown upon those from the favela.
Most Brazilians from the asphalt are afraid when passing near a favela, often thinking immediately of violence and drugs when favelas are mentioned, according to a survey conducted in 2015 by Agência Brasil, the government’s public news agency. In comparison, 65 percent of favela residents said they have been victims of prejudice by those who live in the asphalt.
For esports athletes in the favelas, there are several obstacles they must overcome to even compete in the first place. From accessing the internet, such as mobile phone data and a reliable connection, to dodging bullets from disputes between criminals, traffickers, police, and even militias.
Esports athletes in Brazil "often play using the Wi-Fi of their friend's house, always dribbling difficulties," says Preto Zezé, president of the Unified Centre of Favelas (CUFA)—an NGO created in 1999 by young people living in favelas to promote cultural, artistic, and sporting activities and to improve the community’s living conditions.
Those who live on the asphalt often do not have these difficulties, as they have solid internet connections and don’t need to balance their time between jobs or even fear police raids and stray bullets, as is the case for those who live in favelas. "While on the asphalt everything is guaranteed, in the favela, to be able to play, there are several barriers and steps to take," added Zezé.
Overcoming Inequality Through Esports
At 25, Raffael Simão, who goes by “Dexter” in-game, lives in a poor neighborhood in the countryside of São Paulo. He faced a series of difficulties in his life before being hired by esports team Zero Gravity last year to be a Fortnite streamer (although he also competes in tournaments). Before that, he woke up at 5 in the morning to work from 6 am to 6 pm as a porter, doing everything "amateurish," he says, and counting on his family's support to be able to buy equipment.
Dexter was struggling to make ends meet. His wife has a kidney problem and does hemodialysis. In September 2019, he posted on Twitter "asking for help to get a health insurance plan for my wife because with the salary I was earning I could not pay,” he says. “Some people in the Fortnite community got together and helped." He signed with Zero Gravity to improve the quality of his streams and for the visibility he could gain in the Fortnite community.
“Zero Gravity came into my life to give the support I needed—they pay my wife's medical insurance, they pay my salary, and I follow several rules—I have hours of mandatory video production per month. But they gave me the first chance at esports, they gave me a computer—I [previously] played on a PS4 and a stained TV—so I could work," says Dexter.
The challenges he faced are not uncommon for people living in poor communities. "I guess that's the difficult part," Dexter says, of buying equipment. For those who live in the favela, it's an expensive purchase and one that often takes a lot of time to achieve. "For us, from the favela, everything is more difficult to achieve things."
But, he says, "the will to dedicate, to want more and more is our differential, we want to win and show the world that the favela—and favela dwellers—can get where the asphalt people already are.”
Because of such economic and social situations, some initiatives seek to mitigate these problems, or at least give hope to young athletes.
Initiatives and Competition: Championship for Change
Zero Gravity was founded in 2019 by Glauber Molinari and his wife, Hanna Rocha. Their aim was to be just like every other esports team, except for one thing: “We only hire young slum dwellers and those of low income," Molinari explains. "We realized that in the competitive scene there was a bubble that did not allow low-income young people to enter esports head-on. So, we decided that our organization would be a social project."
With the idea of investing in players, Molinari decided to support another project at the end of last year that aimed to promote esports in the Brazilian favelas—the Favelas Cup (Copa das Favelas).
Organized by Rocketz, a computer and accessories trading company, Matiz, an events company, and the people behind PerifaCon, an annual event for the favelas, the Favelas Cup hosted 12 teams from all over the country to compete in the game Free Fire. More than 120,000 people watched the event live.
"I looked for one of the managers of the Cup in order to try to sponsor it by giving the MVP of the championship a place as a professional Free Fire player,” Molinari says, adding that it was “certainly one of the best partnerships we have made." Almost at the same time Favelas Cup was being held, another major favela-centered esports event, the Favelas Bowl (Taça das Favelas), organized by CUFA, was taking place.
The Favelas Bowl has existed for more than 10 years, but with football as the game of choice, not esports. “With the pandemic, it was no longer possible to do the competition. So we decided to go another way, bet on another type of sport, but that had much adherence to the favela and could fill a gap,” says Marcus Athayde, director of the Free Fire Favelas Bowl and also director of innovation at CUFA.
Over 50,000 people signed up for the Favelas Bowl, from more than 100 favelas across Brazil, in a competition designed “to show the power of the favela, the quality of the teams and players,” says Athayde. “So we break this paradigm and show that we also have talent in the favela in any kind of game.”
Both competitions brought together hundreds of young people from all over the country to play Free Fire, with the competition streamed on Twitch and, in the case of the Favelas Bowl, the final was broadcast on one of Brazil's largest cable TV channels, SporTV. CUFA’s objective was to give players visibility, to distribute prizes, and even to facilitate the entry of the best players into professional teams—and, as happened to Dexter, to change their lives.
"The idea of the championship was sensational, and when I saw it, I had a great desire to participate," says Bruno Santos from São Paulo. He’s the manager of the Brazilian Free Fire team for the American professional gaming organization Team Liquid and was the commentator of the Favelas Cup. “It was a privilege.”
“The competition's mission is to reach the most communities in Brazil, offering esports championships and encouraging children and adolescents to enter the world of technology and innovation,” says Deylanne Nayara, hostess of the Favelas Cup, who is also a streamer. The competition reached “about 100 favelas throughout the country, with 200 registered teams and a total of 800 players. From these favelas, the competition had a draw to select the 12 teams who finally competed.”
Although she doesn’t hail from the favela, as a Black woman Nayara has faced her share of difficulties. "Being a woman in a sexist setting is already exhausting, and being also Black—we are still at the base of the social pyramid and always having to be proving our worth," she says.
After the competitions, Molinari signed the Favelas Cup MVP, Kaique Gabriel Machado, to Zero Gravity. As for his teammates on Team SI, who all hail from São Paulo, they won contracts to compete for Zero Gravity in the third league division.
Two players from the winning team of the Favelas Bowl, from the favela of Divinéia, in the state of Paraná, were also hired by professional teams. Pedro Paulo “Diniz.av” Alves was signed by Brazilian Team Sintonia and Gustavo “Gusta.tx” Nunes, the final’s MVP, was signed by Team NewX Gaming. They’ll both play at the next national Free Fire League’s second division
Athayde says that “the biggest impact in these young people’s lives, besides the financial gain for those who finished first, was the valorization of esports athletes.” Previously, only those playing soccer were valued—they were told that soccer could guarantee them a future. “Now, they see opportunities in esports and gained recognition in the favela, the favela recognized how they played and where they can go.”
Why Free Fire?
Free Fire, a battle-royale-style game, was chosen for both competitions because it is free and runs on any Android or Apple phone. It doesn't require state-of-the-art equipment, which makes it the perfect game for players from the favelas, according to Team Liquid’s Free Fire manager, Bruno Santos.
Worldwide, Free Fire has more than 450 million downloads and 80 million active users per day, and in Brazil it was the most downloaded game in 2020. “Free Fire is the most played game in Brazil, mainly in the favelas,” says Athayde.
Because it does not require state-of-the-art equipment, there are no notable differences between the favela and asphalt player, says Santos. In July last year, the Pro League Free Fire final, the top Brazilian competition, attracted a huge audience with a peak of 800,000 people watching simultaneously, one of the largest YouTube audiences in the country for a live event.
In the midst of the pandemic and social isolation, the number of esports fans and athletes has grown, and those living in the favela struggle for space and recognition—sometimes even from members of their own families. “It was very difficult for me to get approval from my parents to be a streamer because they thought I should study, take courses, and work," Dexter says.
“I showed them that I was different, that I could work and conquer my space in the world of esports. People who are from the favela, from the community, it's hard to get out of the 'standard' and be big," Dexter continues. The standard in the favelas is to get a job just to survive; someone from the favela “making it big” breaks this cycle and improves their life.
Through streaming and esports, gamers in the favelas can show their "potential—within the game, within the community—and you can show other people in the favela that it's possible to get somewhere," says Dexter.