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environment where fractions of a second can make all the difference and lead to a victory, slow internet and outdated equipment can be fatal to success.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.”
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