By BERNIE CAHILES-MAGKILAT
Online gaming has evolved into a bigger electronic sport being played mostly by young people. It has become so competitive a sport that the Philippines even emerged as ASEAN champion in the last SEA Games.
College dropout Bhenjie Florentino was ahead of his time when he left college to pursue his Internet Café business pursuing his love for e-sports.
ROG stands for Republic of Gamers. It is a 24/7 online gaming cafe that Bhenjie originally founded in 2004 in Taguig City while he was still in college.
“I was supported by my parents with P100,000 to buy my first computers,” recalls Bhenjie. With the money, he initially bought 4 computers that he grew to 16 units. He further expanded to 60 units with two branches. Slowly, his friends got interested and helped in the business.
ROG was rebranded in 2008 together with some friends. It was among the pioneers in Internet Café, but it is not just a mere Internet shop.
ROG seeks to promote responsible gaming and help cultivate e-sports in the Philippines by providing top of the line gaming facilities to breed future professional e-sport athletes.
It aims to be recognized as one of the premier 24/7 gaming cafes in the Philippines and South East Asia.
“Today, we are one of the fastest growing Internet cafes in the Philippines, that provides premium gaming experience at a very competitive price,” says Bhenjie.
According to Bhenjie, he decided to invest in an Internet Café because of the popularity of online gaming. Besides, he, too, was engaged in e-sports. The frustrated e-sports athlete, Bhenjie plays Counter STRIKE AND DOTA 1 when these games were not that popular yet and there was no e-sports tournament yet.
E-sports has grown and became widely recognized, thus various online gaming tournaments have nurtured promising and skillful gaming athletes.
According to Smart Launch report, Asia is leading internationally e-sports. In 2017, e-sports was estimated at $655 million and $3 billion in 2022 where Asia holds more than half of e-sports audience and 79 percent of e-sports athletes are under the age of 35.
The local Internet cafe industry has a target market of 18-40 years old. It also caters to professional e-sport athletes, who are growing in numbers.
Even before the issues of kids spending more time in Internet cafes, Bhenjie said they have already imposed curfews for minors in its premises. Minors are not allowed to stay inside ROG I Cage beyond 9 p.m.
“We are strict, by 9 p.m. no more minors though there is no law that puts a curfew at 9 p.m. for minors but we continue to impose an early curfew so as not to make parents worry and encourage kids to be responsible gamers,” he adds.
“Before there were kids who got addicted to online games, but in our observation this past two years kids have become responsible. They also chose to play in I Cafes near their homes, they don’t go far anymore. Before, they go to as far as Bicol,” he adds.
Bhenjie admitted that the I Café business has plateaued starting 2018, but it is largely because it was growing exponentially in the past several years. To sustain sales, I Cafes are now enhancing their store offering including food. Even ROG, they now offer rice meal and variety of dishes as players tend to linger longer and in groups.
“Even if growth has slowed down, it is still high because we already have a big base,” he explains.
To ensure sustainable growth, ROG has also gone into related businesses like hosting events for e-sports, vlogging, distribution of computers and computer products and paraphernalia.
They also continue updating their hardware to ensure they have powerful enough computers for gamers. He noted that the inclusion of e-sports in the recent SEA Games was a big boost to the industry. ROG extends assistance to players with their computers. Players also go to ROG because they have good Internet connection.
“Three years ago, Internet speed was a challenge with two downtimes in a month, but now we have twice downtimes in a quarter already so the Internet connection has stabilized,” he adds.
As technology advances, future online games will be richer in content and will require more powerful computers and faster Internet connection. This is an opportunity for gaming cafes to supply a unique service.
As the company grew, Bhenjie thought of professionalizing the organization that he hired Francorp Philippines in 2016 to help in the franchising system for ROG.
Now, they have 15 branches, including three company-owned and a good technical support for trouble shooting and some management assistance to franchisees.
For a technology-driven business, Bhenjie said franchising is the way forward. “When you purchase an ROG franchise, you are actually purchasing the years of experience and the proven method of ROG,” says Bhenjie.
ROG provides secured marketing strategy, branch placement, dynamic and innovative management and technical team. They have also high success rate because of the brand’s business and support model.
Besides, ROG is a highly recognized uprising brand in the Philippines with Integrated POS System from its US-based partner, location assessment method, solid branding and identity with strong recall among the youth and gamers, modern industrial interior design, high quality facilities, strong after sales and management support and 24/7 technical support.
In terms of numbers, ROG has 1,314 powerful game computers, with average ₱20,000 daily sales from 18,368 active users. This enable a franchise to achieve an ROI in 17-24 months.
An ROG franchise starts from ₱3.2 million for 40 units of computers all-in up to ₱9.5 million for 130-unit computer I Café.
Franchising applicants are mostly in Metro Manila. Some are in the Visayas but they prefer in Luzon for easier supervision.
There are also inquiries from other countries. Hopefully, they can close one deal this year. They also plan to bring its events business for e-game tournaments in other countries in the region.
With more Filipinos engaged in e-sports especially after the country’s performance at the recent SEA Games where the Philippines was the overall champion in this sports category, Bhenjie believes his business is in for more exciting second wave of growth.
ROG is targeting close to 100 branches after 4 years. They are hoping to have 20 branches this year.
In the franchise team alone, ROG has 10 dedicated people. Since ROG I Café operates three shifts, it requires two people per shift.
While other players shift to playing in their homes, Bhenjie said that playing in an Internet café is still the preferred venue because this is where gamers converge. The I Café ambiance also encourages players to be competitive. It is air-conditioned with convenient chairs designed for gamers. ROG has become a place for gamers to hangout.
According to Bhenjie, they were able to realize a 20 percent increase in sales last year and is looking forward to higher 30 percent growth this year.
“It is still lucrative because we have a big base already,” says Bhenjie, a computer engineering dropout from Don Bosco Manila.
According to Bhenjie, he dropped out of college while he was on his fourth year already because the business demands his full-time attention. He was supposed to graduate in 2004, but he left in 2003.
While business provides him the financial rewards, Bhenjie said that education was his biggest frustration. “I always tell my kids that finishing a degree is most important because knowledge is something that cannot be taken away from you,” says Bhenjie, father of two kids, 11 and 3 years old.
Perhaps, he said, he was just fortunate that his business is thriving or else it would be difficult for him to land a corporate job being a college dropout.
But it is not yet too late. This 37-year old businessman is bent on finishing a college degree with the equivalency system being offered by the Department of Education so he could go for graduate studies or an MBA.
Judging from his experience, Bhenjie has learned to be able to diversify his ventures to cushion from a negative impact when one venture goes down.
“Don’t put your eggs in one basket,” says Bhenjie. That is why apart from the Internet shop, ROG is now expanding to related business like events where they host e-sports tournaments, vlogging for e-sports and distribution of computers and computer paraphernalias.
“I am happy that I am able to help so I just continue working and never to stop,” says Bhenjie, who has started venturing as a general contractor for low cost mass housing projects and warehouse construction. He is also in the conceptualization stage for a technology-driven laundry business.
“Always keep your feet on the ground, be humble at all times and continue learning even if you think you are successful already, just keep on learning. Most of all, always involve God in all the things that you do,” he adds.
Even as a young entrepreneur, Bhenjie tries to be fair as much as possible.
This is important especially that ROG. Fairness ensures harmonious relationship in the company that is composed of friends. The company is also growing and they have to ensure they overcome conflicts.
The idea of being successful has not really entered into his mind. “Success is very subjective and it is humbling to be asked about it but success to me is being able to help my family, being able to continue learning, being able to expand into other businesses and network with startups,” he says.
ROG has won prestigious awards such as the Elite Business Awards, Philippine Social Media and Star Awards.
For ROG, the future is more geared towards building a capability to implement a universal automated payment system, develop an app-based reservation/loading system, form a professional E-sport team, and being able to organize a prestigious e-sport event.
To stay relevant, ROG is constantly investing on Research and Development to ensure that our brand will continuously leading the industry.
“When e-sports was just starting in the Philippines, there was only one tournament in a year, players have to go abroad to compete, but now there are tournaments happening on a weekly basis locally so gamers need not go overseas anymore to compete,” he adds.
“We have a very good showing at the recent SEA Games where e-games have the highest audience among all the games played. This is the next generation of gamers and we have very good players. Hopefully, e-games will be included in the Olympics because this is one sport where we excel.”
With the inclusion of e-sports in the last SEA Games, Bhenjie has high hopes this is the first step towards elevating this sport at part of the Olympic Games.