This is what it’s like to game in Cuba

Teo Escobar is working with The New Tropic through the the Cuban Journalism Fellowship, an initiative of the International Center for Journalists with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The fellowship seeks to strengthen ties between Cuban independent journalists and their counterparts in the United States. 

HAVANA — When you picture gamers, you think of a bunch of teenagers sitting in a room surrounded by high-tech computers loaded up with extra RAM and graphics cards. Everything is moving at warp speed, and they could be playing with someone halfway around the world.

Not so in Cuba.

Here only 5 percent of the population has Internet access, and only 1 percent has broadband. Most of the people that get online do so through WiFi zones in parks and public spaces with a price of around $2/hr (that’s almost 10 percent of the average monthly salary in Cuba) for a 2G connection.

On top of that, computers are almost nonexistent in official stores. Most are purchased through the black market, and they tend to have outdated hardware since we are not able to keep up with the market’s speed.

In sum: It isn’t easy to be a gamer in Cuba. But despite technological limitations, restricted Internet access, conflicts concerning copyright and the government’s skepticism of a community that has no political affiliation, the gaming community continues to flourish.

In August last year, the tournament enlahabana DOTA 2 Arena, held in the alternative art and community space “Fábrica de Arte Cubano,” created a precedent for gaming in Cuba with 237 gamers in the qualifying rounds. Also many private businesses, such as Tigon, Tecno Premier, Vistar, and Kroma Estudio started sponsoring cuban DOTA 2 teams and events.

DOTA 2 (DOTA’s sequel) is an acronym for Defense of the Ancients 2, a free to play online multiplayer game that has more than 13 million unique players worldwide. But there are almost no gamers in Cuba in that group because the game demands an Internet connection speed unlikely to be found on the island.

But this year, despite all those obstacles, Cuban gamers pulled off the island’s biggest tournament yet. When Julio a.k.a Requiem (who asked that his last name not be used) found out about the DOTA Cuba 2016 tournament at Estudio Kcho (a nonprofit cultural center and also a free WiFi zone in La Habana), he immediately called his teammates and told them, “This one we are definitely going to.”

The daily grind

Most of the time Julio plays alone at home or he goes to LAN parties, when a group of gamers brings their computers to a friend’s house to play in multiplayer mode for a couple hours. He has no home access to Snet (Street Network), the semi-underground offline network that thousands of people in La Habana use to play, chat, and share as a substitute for the Internet.

Snet connects more than 9,000 computers all around La Habana using a combination of WiFi antennas and LAN cables stretching through windows and rooftops. As the law in Cuba heavily restricts the use of WiFi networks, Snet is able to exist under a legal grey area. To prevent being shut down, they have self-imposed policies restricting political, pornographic, and religious topics and prohibit business transactions.

Every time Julio goes to a LAN party, often with me, he has to lug his desktop computer from his 9th floor apartment to the lobby where a friend who owns a car is waiting for him. It’s quite heavy, but between the two of us we manage to carry it all the way down — the elevator is not working, as usual. In a small bag he carries the mini fan he uses to keep his old CPU from overheating and melting down.

The big time

DOTA Cuba 2016 was basically a dozens of LAN parties combined.

The Kcho Estudio Romerillo, where it was held, has art everywhere. There’s a fountain in the middle of the courtyard, white pigeons wandering in the eaves, and many sculptures, one of them a raft crucified on a cross made of raw bricks.

Inside, there’s an Internet room with free WiFi, a theater, an exhibition room, and a bar, both with seats and screens to watch the matches.

The invited teams began arriving on the morning of Aug. 25. The eight computers owned by the “DOTA Cuba” group were already there, but the tournament needed 12 more for the event to start. The gaming community began making calls and managed to get 12 more to the tournament within a couple hours. We all breathe a sigh of relief.

The crowd was there early, mostly young men — gamer girls are still uncommon in La Habana, but also friends and girlfriends of some of the participants and some otakus (manga fans) who are cosplaying DOTA 2 characters. Everyone wanted to take a picture with them because gaming and anime are very closely connected in Cuba.

This year was the first time a tournament was played through the online gaming platform Steam. Previously it was almost impossible to find an Internet connection faster than 2G that didn’t lead you to bankruptcy in an hour. Even so, DOTA Cuba’s programmers had to use proxies to trick Steam into think we were in Europe.

Seven hundred people across the world tuned into Twitch, a live streaming platform, to watch our tournament.

Players from Cuba’s outer provinces also participated in this event, disproving the general belief that Habana’s teams are much stronger. A team from Ciego de Ávila, called “Eternity” eliminated several of Habana’s favorite teams and made it to the grand finale, though they eventually lost to Habana’s last hope “DK Reborn.” The games were supposed to end by 10 p.m. but players stayed until the early hours of the morning, not wanting to leave until the last second.

At this point the ability gap between Cuban gamers and international ones has gotten much smaller and the passion for e-sports in Cuba keeps growing. But the lack of Internet access remains our major handicap, and the absence of proper sponsorship diminishes the chances of becoming a professional gamer in Cuba.

Nowadays Cuban gamers fantasize of participating in international DOTA 2 tournaments. Perhaps, if things keep going in the right direction, that can be more than just a dream.