If Brazil is famous for one thing, it's the laugh.
Or maybe it's the Amazon river—that whole rainforest is kind of a big deal. Or maybe it's Pelé, legendary football player. Or right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro? Or the Caipirinha, the national drink of choice? Look, Brazil is the fifth biggest country in the world: it has a lot to be famous for. Ask anyone there who grew up obsessed with videogames to tell you what is uniquely, definitively Brazil, and they'll tell you its history of Sega Master System clone consoles and bootleg game cartridges, creative workarounds for import prices that could easily cost a month's rent. But if you ask PC gamers, it's gotta be huehuehue.
The Brazilian Portuguese version of hahaha became a meme in early MMOs, and later in League of Legends, as the games attracted huge numbers of Brazilian players. Huehuehue's usage in Brazil morphed into a racist, trolly way to belittle Brazilian players, though the indie developers I met in São Paulo during the Brazil International Games festival felt like they were firmly in on the joke.
"Those of us from Brazil, we love this," said Leonardo Castanho, founder of the indie team behind Astrea. "We do this joke with ourselves, sometimes. Latin American players use jajajaja, and we make fun of that, too."
Brazil's famous laugh may have more than a little to do with the country's competitive nature in sports and esports; Camilla Slotfeldt, founder of BitCake Studio, had mischief in her eyes when she broke down the difference between huehuehue and real Brazilian laughter. "It's very common for people to laugh like huahua," she said. "Huehue is more of a troll kind of laugh, and it became a meme that represented the trolling side of Brazilians, where you do things in a way that you shouldn't really do, but kind of get away with it. That's huehue."
Before I went to Brazil, I thought the laugh was used to mock Portuguese-speaking players more than anything else. But after speaking to Slotfeldt, who's only ever seen huehuehue typed by other Brazilians, I realized that many of the country's PC gamers solely experience it as a friendly in-joke. Brazil's gaming scene really is its own pocket galaxy—partially because it doesn't get enough attention from the rest of the world, and partially because Brazil really is that big all by itself. What's a little light trolling between you and 95 million fellow gamers?
Why it's hard to get hardware
According to stats published by Newzoo at the 2021 BIG festival, close to half of Brazil's population of 215 million people play games. Almost half of those players are on mobile, with the rest split between consoles (29%) and PC (24%).
The PC market may be the smallest, but based on the developers I talked to, that's largely about access, not taste. Compared to US players, Brazilian mobile gamers favor competitive games and strategy over puzzles; the country's most popular game is battle royale Free Fire. Being a PC gamer in Brazil means you're either wealthy enough to afford obscenely expensive hardware, or you're most likely playing free-to-play games like CS:GO on a low-spec machine.
Or, to put it in more dramatic terms, being a PC gamer in Brazil means "you're constantly scared your GPU will burn [out] when the electricity goes down," said Thiago Cancian, lead designer of the indie team making Knights of the Deep.
The last two years of GPU shortages and Ebay flipping can give you an inkling of what it's like trying to buy PC hardware in Brazil. "In the US you can get a decent GPU for what, $300?" Cancian asked. "That's over two months of pay for the average Brazilian. Hardware here is really expensive."
Buying pricey tech from abroad is unrealistic for the average Brazilian, thanks to taxes and a weak exchange rate, particularly against the US dollar. For years any import goods bought online were taxed 60%, so a $1,000 PC would actually cost $1,600—or 8,000 Brazilian real. The average monthly wage, according to Brazil's government, is about R$2,600, or $520 USD. A modest PC would cost more than three months' pay even if you didn't have pesky expenses like food and rent.
Despite the popularity of free-to-play games, getting into PC gaming still ultimately comes back to the hardware. For the 12 million Brazilians who live in favelas, owning a PC is impossibly out of reach—according to a 2021 survey, 43% of Brazilians in favelas have either poor mobile internet at home or none at all. Cyber cafes provide key access to the internet, and to games.
Esports is starting to look like a viable career for a lucky few thanks to organizations like AfroGames, but little of the money flowing into the favela esports scene ends up in the players' pockets so far. Nonprofit publication Rest of World highlights how esports sponsors have seen their product sales spike in Brazil while players still can't afford their own PCs. The three winners of a Free Fire tournament "made no more than a combined $6,000—a modest amount, considering the tournament’s final was broadcast by SporTv, one of the biggest sports channels in Brazil," Rest of World reported.
The situation is getting slightly better for middle class Brazilians, however: the government has reduced import tax rates 20% in the last year to combat inflation. But high-end hardware is still largely rare and out of reach. Until recently, Cancian's three-man indie team was working on 10-year-old hardware. "Just last week we purchased the notebooks we're playing on here at the event, and they were cheaper," said Cancian. "But Brazil was also hit very hard by the Covid pandemic. Things are improving slowly. I'm looking forward to the next decade—hardware will be more accessible, and more people will be able to start developing games here. I think the hardware being as expensive as it is really is a tough barrier to entry."
Camilla Slotfeldt, who spent her teenage years playing Korean MMO Ragnarok Online, the game that made huehuehue famous, said that PC gaming today seems to skew a bit older due to mobile. "For a long time PC gaming was huge, but now a lot of young people don't have PCs and just have phones. MMOs got huge here in Brazil, and then MOBAs… [now] some households just don't have PCs, which is very weird for me, but each person has a phone and they do basically everything on the phone."
Still, all of the developers I talked to were prioritizing PC, because they see it as a greater opportunity than the overcrowded mobile market. Despite how many players there are right there in Brazil, the dream is to break through to an international audience.
Made in Brazil
Cancian said that only in the last decade has Brazil overcome some of the biggest hurdles for game developers working and selling their games there. "We had a piracy issue for a very long time, and we had the purchase power parity issue, and then we had the actual access to internet and banking issue," he said. "Brazilian players on Steam are now actually buying titles and piracy is not so rampant." Leonardo Castanho echoed that he and other devs he knows aren't really worried about piracy. A recent game like Monster Hunter Rise, $60 on Steam in the US, is 180 Brazilian real, or about $33 USD.
Selling games internationally is one area where the exchange rate works out favorably for developers based in Brazil, and it's realistically the only way for indie studios to grow; there's simply no way for them to make games like Valorant and CS:GO, which are particularly popular in Brazil. 2D indie games dominated the BIG festival when I visited this year, most of them, like Keylocker, made by small teams. For the developers behind those games, BIG is a stepping stone to being noticed by publishers from the US or Europe.
For Brazil's PC gamers, what's popular is a lot like what's popular anywhere else. The top-selling games of June 2020 on Nuuvem, a Brazilian online store, are all familiar names: Civilization 6, Monster Train, Darkest Dungeon, Dark Souls. But language can be a roadblock: according to SteamSpy only about 8,000 of Steam's 63,000 games are available in Portuguese, and only about 5% of Brazilians speak English.
"I learned with Pokémon," said Slotfeldt. "The games were only in English—still to this day, actually, Pokémon doesn't have Portuguese. A lot of people aren't happy about that."
It's an understandable frustration—Nintendo launched the Switch in Brazil in 2020, so it's clearly interested in the population of 215 million Portuguese-speaking players, though it's only localized one game so far. This is one reason big competitive games have found an audience in Brazil: CS:GO, Valorant, Fortnite, League of Legends, Rainbow Six Siege, Dota 2, and Apex Legends all support Portuguese.
At the BIG festival I talked to young CS:GO streamer Renata Katherini, who started streaming during the pandemic to keep up with friends from college. She streams at night, after her day job as an engineer, and also does commentary for a local esports league. Despite already having a career she's interested in working full-time in esports. Those opportunities are rarer in Brazil than they are in the US—but again, it's easy for outsiders to underestimate how big Brazil's audience is. The country contains more than 90% of the world's Portuguese speakers, and streamer Alexandre "Gaules" Borba pulled in more than 700,000 of them simultaneously during a CS:GO major earlier this year. That put him in the top 10 of all-time most-viewed Twitch streams, and he didn't even need Drake to do it.
"Access to games is much easier now, so I hope younger people will be more active professionally playing games like Free Fire," Katherini said. "Language is kind of a barrier for [Brazilians watching big streamers from the US and Europe], but when the action is going on, everybody speaks the same language."
Lumping every Brazilian gamer into the esports bucket would be silly, of course—no country made up of millions of people has such narrow tastes. But I think Brazil's gaming population is unique in that it's at once a monolith and a global minority—big enough to fill up their own regional servers and spawn memes about their laughter, but still forced to learn English or hope a game gets a Portuguese translation. Without the kind of money it takes to fund dozens of competing local esports teams, Brazilians rally around beloved teams like MIBR, united, like they're Olympians on the world stage. I can see how eternally being at the mercy of game studios a hemisphere away could intertwine with that national pride to create a uniquely passionate competitive audience.
Or maybe that's just what happens when everyone really, really likes football.
Either way, being a PC gamer in Brazil means having a streak of that competitive spirit, whether it's playing games or making them. "Brazilians really like competitive games. And the Brazilian audience has a tendency for free games—that's just the truth. Especially with mobile, they expect games should be free. It's a different kind of gamer, really," said Slotfeldt.
"Maybe people from Brazil suffer a little more making a game," said Castanho. "We're used to a struggle. I don't want to say we work harder than you guys in the US, but maybe when it's harder, you run after it more."