Academic By Day, Gamer By Night

Malaysia won its first-ever e-sports gold at the 30th SEA Games thanks to Yew Weng Kean. But Yew isn’t your typical gamer: this e-sports extraordinaire is also an assistant professor in electrical engineering.

AsianScientist (Dec. 30, 2019) – You wouldn’t expect it from the number of big-name Hollywood movies that come out yearly, but video games are in fact the world’s most popular and profitable form of entertainment. In 2017, the gaming industry earned around US$116 billion in revenue, nearly three times more than the movie industry’s US$41 billion. Undeniably, gaming—otherwise known as electronic sports or e-sports—is finally having its moment.

E-sports have become so popular that it made its debut as a medal sport at the recently concluded 30th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) held in Manila, Philippines. Also making history at said event? 29-year-old Yew Weng Kean, who clinched Malaysia’s first-ever gold medal in e-sports last December 9, 2019.

Assistant Professor Yew Weng Kean (2nd from right) and his family members celebrating his historic gold medal finish in Hearthstone. (Photo credit: Yew Sook Kwan)

Yew bagged the top prize in the online collectible card game Hearthstone, beating Thailand’s Werit Popan 3-1. Set in the iconic Warcraft universe, Hearthstone is played between two players, who take turns playing cards until their opponent’s health is fully depleted.

Given his historic achievement, many would assume that Yew is a full-time gamer. But the truth is a little more unexpected. In reality, Hearthstone is just a hobby for the assistant professor in electrical engineering at Heriot-Watt University, Malaysia. We asked Yew to share with us his journey to becoming one of Asia’s top scientist-gamers.

From humble beginnings to Hearthstone legend

Yew credits his mother for inspiring him to pursue an academic career in electrical engineering. After all, his mother was also an electrical engineer who worked at Malaysia’s national utility company. Shortly after graduating with his Bachelor’s degree in 2013, Yew’s siblings introduced him to a new online game called Hearthstone. Yew became drawn to the collectible nature of the game, trying to amass as many cards as he could by playing—and winning—regularly.

To his surprise, Yew quickly rose through the ranks, eventually hitting “Legend” status, a rank given only to the top 10,000 players in a region. This opened the door for prestigious tournaments like the 2016 Singapore Major, a massive gathering of Southeast Asia’s best Hearthstone gamers.

By 2018, Yew had become Malaysia’s top point earner in Hearthstone and the country’s captain in the annual Hearthstone Global Games. That same year, he graduated with a doctoral degree in electrical engineering. Since May 2019, Yew has been a faculty member at the Heriot-Watt University Malaysia, where his research tackles the optimization of microgrid systems using artificial intelligence to reduce their energy consumption.

Assistant Professor Yew Weng Kean (3rd from left) and fellow engineers at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Malaysia Prestige Lecture Award Dinner 2018. (Photo credit: John Tan)

Leading a double life

For non-gamers, the flashy world of e-sports and the strict bubble of the academe appear to inhabit two totally disparate realms. But Yew has picked up many lessons through Hearthstone that could be translated offline.

“In Hearthstone, we have to look at the strongest decks and [identify] its available counters,” he explained. “The same way, in research, we have to perform literature review and identify the gaps.”

In the months leading up to the SEA Games, Yew was challenged to divide his time wisely between his academic responsibilities and Hearthstone training. At least two hours of quality training was required daily, said Yew. Weekends were also reserved for competing in online tournaments, allowing him to further improve his skills.

Yew in action at the 30th Southeast Asian Games held in Manila, Philippines. (Photo credit: Firdaus Hashim)

Immediately before the SEA Games, Yew took his annual leave so that he could dedicate himself fully to forming his Hearthstone strategy. “I am very grateful to Heriot-Watt University Malaysia for supporting my journey,” he added. Clearly, all his efforts have paid off.

A balancing act

Yew’s gold medal finish has proven that it’s possible to thrive as both an academic researcher and professional e-sports athlete. Without a doubt, there’ll be many others who would want to follow in his footsteps. When prompted to share his advice for aspiring scientist-gamers, Yew cautioned that a delicate balance must be achieved between academic and gaming pursuits.

“Gaming can be a stress reliever. But at the same time, it can be detrimental to our studies and life if not controlled,” Yew said. Scientist-gamers must still remain focused on their science, he added. “Don’t forget the reason you chose the research path in the first place.”


Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Yew Weng Kean.
Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AsianScientist or its staff.

A molecular biologist by training, Kami Navarro left the sterile walls of the laboratory to pursue a Master of Science Communication from the Australian National University. Kami is the former science editor at Asian Scientist Magazine.

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