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The eSports champions of Cuba

Cuba’s pro players struggle to find competition

Cuba’s top StarCraft 2 player at his rig.
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Javier "ToXavier" Hernandez has an unusual problem: As Cuba's twice-crowned StarCraft 2 champion, he has no one left to play against. Not if he wants to get better.

He's stuck, he tells me after I drive out to meet him at his home near the beach just outside of Havana.

"I'm number one," he says through a translator. "I've been number one the last two years, 2015 and 2016. But Cuba has a pretty small community with limited online resources. There's a moment when you get sort of stuck at a specific level in a game.

"Because we're actually isolated from other communities, we can only get so good."

While a form of competitive gaming flourishes in Cuba, because of government rules and international embargoes, when Cuban gamers play multiplayer games they play on local area networks or at tournaments arranged by local groups.

There is no online gaming that extends beyond the shore of the island nation.

What that means for players like Hernandez and the robust eSports community of Cuba is that they may never see their full competitive potential or be able to compete in any of the international tournaments that are increasingly popular in countries around the world.

Ten years ago a group of friends in Havana started organizing StarCraft tournaments just for fun using massive local area networks. But soon, the tournaments were attracting so many players that the friends decided they needed to do something special for the final match of that first tournament.

While organizing what would become Cuba’s first major competitive tournament, the group thought it might also be a good idea to create some sort of organization to help both manage future events like other tournaments and to run the games running up to the finales.

Looking at what was happening in Korea, the friends decided to form Agrupacion de Deportes Electronicos de Cuba, or ADEC, based on the Korean eSports organization KeSPA, says Ien Pedro Carbonell, president of ADEC.

First, the group organized the tournaments and a ranking system based on the chess Elo rating system. Next, it started hosting events so that players and fans could meet each other, to get to know one another and the wider gaming community in Cuba.

Ien Pedro Carbonell, president of ADEC
Ien Pedro Carbonell, president of ADEC
Brian Crecente/Polygon

“So you know, like you see their nickname and say, ‘oh, this person will be like a monster,’” says Carbonell. “Also, we wanted to get people out of their houses and socialize so we always had to put [this] social component in our organization of people getting together and [becoming friends] and bonding with players, and also [building] rivalries.”

That first tournament finale was held in one of Cuba’s Joven Clubs, youth centers created and run by the government in an effort to give everyone access to things like computers and limited internet. The next year, the group held the finals in a big house. The third was so large that the group held it in an event center at Havana University. Finally, the tournaments, now broken down into four seasons, began to be hosted in theaters and major event centers, often bringing in about 1,000 people to watch.

While ADEC started out only hosting StarCraft tournaments, now it runs tournaments for Dota 2, StarCraft 2, Battlefield 3, World of Warcraft player-versus-player arenas, Rocket League, FIFA, Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter 4.

“We have a very decentralized model now,” Carbonell says. “If there is a community of players of one game, then if one of them wants to then we give that community and that person the organizing support and ideas for tournaments.”

Despite its dominance elsewhere, League of Legends isn’t very popular in Cuba. That’s because, Carbonell says, the country’s hackers and modders are still working to get it to work correctly on underground street networks such as Snet, where most of these games are played.

ADEC’s first tournament
ADEC’s first tournament
IluminArt with permission from ADEC

“There are some things that don’t work well, but they are fixing, fixing, fixing,” he says. “The servers right now are like 98 percent stable.”

The best chance for eSports to take off in Cuba and extend outside the country would likely be through government support, Carbonell says.

“I think in this moment, there are great conditions for the government to support an eSports scene or eSports organization,” he says.

That’s in part because the government, which used to view video games as a bad influence, has recently begun to embrace the power and positivity of gaming.

“Now, Joven Clubs are allowing people to pay for computer time to play games,” he says. “... Before there was a lot of criticism for World of Warcraft, but now they have World of Warcraft servers at Joven Clubs."

Where ADEC serves as an umbrella organization for eSports in Cuba, DOTA Cuba focuses just on organizing DOTA players, teams and tournaments.

Like, ADEC, DOTA Cuba started out with a bunch of friends, this time students, playing games together all of the time. Eventually, a few of them decided to organize a group dedicated to Dota tournaments, said DOTA Cuba founder Victor Agrelo. The group also spends time mining the Snet for talent, with hopes of placing them in teams and getting them competing, he says.

For the first tournament, held last August, the group found the 84 best teams on Snet and had them compete to determine the top eight. Those eight teams then came together at a live event to compete to see who was the best in the region.

The ultimate goal for the group is to find the best players in the country and assemble a team that may one day compete internationally, representing Cuba.

Currently, DOTA Cuba is running a series regional tournaments to find the best teams. Sixteen to 32 of those teams will then come to Havana in August to compete for the Cuban championship.

DOTA Cuba founder Victor Agrelo
DOTA Cuba founder Victor Agrelo
Brian Crecente/Polygon

As with other eSports tournaments in Cuba, the winner takes home a trophy, but no money.

While Argelo says he’d love the top team in Cuba to be able to compete in Valve’s annual tournament, The International, he doubts that will happen. A big problem is that the Cuban teams have no way to compete internationally to qualify.

If they got in, Argelo believes they would be competitive, though probably not the ultimate winners of the tournament.

While the teams don’t compete outside Cuba, they do watch plenty of other teams competing and Argelo feels strongly that Cuba could easily take on teams from Mexico and Brazil.

“To us, they play at the level that our children are at,” he says. “We want to take on Peru.”

Like many involved in eSports, Carbonell and the competitors in Cuba believe that eSports will have a big role in sports competitions around the world.

“We think Cuba always has big results in Olympic events and it would be very sad if we have zero participation in eSports,” Carbonell says. “Knowing that there are smart people here and people that have the abilities in these sports, they only need development. So one of the main drivers was trying to build a community of high level esports players. Athletes. Then to be able, for them to compete in these main events.”

These players, like StarCraft champion ToXavier, dream of competing internationally.

"StarCraft 2 players want to play in, for example, Latin American tournaments,” Carbonell says. “They want to grow. What we see with the best players is that they reach a max here in Cuba and then they're over, and then when other people come in who are good, they start to improve.

“But if they play with foreign players that hit hard on them, they will get much better.”

Carbonell says that ToXavier remains the best StarCraft 2 player in the country, but for team games the players tend not to stick together after a season final. So while you might have a recognized team name, like Die or Cry, the players often switch around between seasons.

Getting Cuba’s pro players (it’s worth noting that in Cuba, eSports pros don’t make any money playing games) out of the country to compete is complicated on many levels. There’s the issue of the Cuba government and other countries allowing the visa, and then there’s the issue of the logistics and the expense. With no real money in pro-gaming in Cuba, getting somewhere, even if it were allowed, could be an impossibility.

DOTA Cuba’s DOTA 2 AllStars event

Carbonell says his group hasn’t tried reaching out to the publishers of the games or organizers of the tournaments, but that’s also complicated due to the nature of the games Cuba play. Most gaming in Cuba is done on pirated titles. Internet access is so slow and restricted that gameplay has to occur on massive local area networks and not the internet.

He also says that he hopes that a new, government supported organization called Union de Informaticos de Cuba could perhaps serve as an umbrella for things like eSports, providing an official route for tournaments and the like in the future.

DOTA Cuba’s Argelo says the country also faces a big issue with infrastructure and equipment.

“The first problem is that the technology is not at the place where it needs to be,” he says. “There’s not a problem with the hardware. We have access to what we need. But we really need better internet.”

If that problem were solved, Argelo says, they wouldn’t need help from the government. That’s also one of the reasons Argelo doesn’t think the country could play host to any sort of international eSports tournament just yet. On top of that, Argelo and other organizers feel strongly that if they were to invite teams from around the world to compete in Cuba, the organizers should pay for the travel, but they simply can’t afford it.

If Cuba were to ever become an international competitor, then groups like DOTA Cuba would likely enact new rules that would govern things like team formation and switching. Right now, because there’s no chance of that in the near future, players usually team up and switch around between teams for fun.

“There’s not so much pressure, “ Argelo says. “It’s not like they’re not capable of staying in one team. There just isn’t any need for that right now.”

Cuba’s top StarCraft 2 player, wearing a white t-shirt with his gamer name on it and a red and black striped swimsuit trunks, sits in his small bedroom on a plastic chair playing his game on a small tube television. A single yellowing speaker sits next the television, both resting on a thick, kitchen table. His computer, which is taller than the table he plays, is unadorned and slightly rusted. The system faces the wall, making it easier for Javier "ToXavier" Hernandez to get to the ports. One side of the system is missing, exposing the guts. The inside of the computer is also slightly rusted; a jumble of multi-colored wires plug into one of the PC’s hard drives, which sits on a paperback book sitting on a bare metal shelf. Another drive rests on the bottom of the computer, also on top of a tattered paperback.

The table that holds the keyboard and television is also home to a pair of headphones, a wallet, a smartphone and, in a place of pride, Hernandez’ most recent trophy, a small, shaped piece of lucite with the StarCraft 2 logo carved into it over the words “Winner” and “Season Finals” and the ADEC logo.

The bedroom itself is completely empty with the exception of the computer setup; even the sky blue walls are empty. A nearby, much smaller room houses a bed.

After showing me his trophy and gaming setup, Hernandez walks me back into the living room to talk to me about his experiences as one of Cuba’s most successful pro-gamers.

I ask Hernandez how he trains when he’s the best player in Cuba. He tells me he watches a lot of tournament videos from other countries.

“Where do you get them,” I ask. “Do you trade videos on the Snet?”

“I really don’t like to talk about Snet because of the rules,” he says.

Javier "ToXavier" Hernandez’s championship trophy
Javier "ToXavier" Hernandez’s championship trophy
Brian Crecente/Polygon

He is willing to talk about some of his other training methods. He is heavy into tournament organizing simply because he needs to play so much to keep his edge. So he organizes a lot of impromptu tournaments simply so he can play in them.

“What I would like to happen is for the government to realize that eSports is a legitimate scene because the logistics involved in putting these things together is so complex that it would be good if they recognized it; not respect it, but at least recognize it,” he says. “I’m hoping that’s the direction that we’re headed.”

Because Hernandez doesn’t have any sort of organization or government support and the country’s eSports championships don’t include prize money, he has to both work a fulltime job and also train. Currently he works in the tech industry and manages to still squeeze in three hours of training a day, but he knows that he really should be training three to four times that amount.

For now, Hernandez plays and trains daily, hoping that one day Cuba will recognize eSports or groups like DOTA Cuba or ADEC will figure out a way to get players into international tournaments.

"It's a dream," Hernandez says. "It's a dream for all Cubans, but especially for competitive ones like me, to be able to go outside the borders and play out there professionally."

Cuba’s gaming revolution

You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.