Competition has typified US-Chinese relations for a long time but, with a trade war raging between the pair of countries, talks have has been especially frosty in recent months. The rivalry is thawing as the second decade of the 2000s draws to a close but the superpowers will still go head-to-head in an altogether different capacity in 2020, for the throne of the emerging eSports industry, following official government recognition in China.
eSports, or competitive video gaming, is already worth US$1.1bn worldwide, according to Statista, with projections suggesting a further rise to almost $2bn by 2022. To put those numbers into perspective, the latter figure is roughly a quarter of the total value of the NBA – or one whole Dallas Mavericks franchise. The NBA has been around for more than half a century though. Organized eSports didn’t take off in South Korea until the late 2000s.
The industry’s recent growth has been tremendous, and especially so in China, which is tipped to take the second fiddle from Korea by the end of this decade. China’s annual eSports revenue is currently around half the figure the US brings in (US$210m to US$409), with a similar amount already invested in creating new facilities for tournaments in Hangzhou, the host of the 2022 Asian Games. Support from the Chinese government is, however, a very recent development.
King of Glory
Gaming in China has had a colorful history. But, in the shade of a recent console ban, PC and mobile gaming flourished, allowing titles like the China-only game Wangzhe Rongyao (tr. King of Glory, also released as Arena of Valor worldwide) to gain an audience. King of Glory’s (KG) popularity is arguably the source of the majority of China’s eSports income. With around a billion downloads since 2015, KG is the most popular game on earth – yet one many may not have heard of.
KG’s tournaments now have many of the hallmarks of the traditional sports industry. The sports betting from Space Casino, for instance, allows betting on professional KG teams like eStar Gaming and EG Super Play, alongside other games and outfits popular in the country, like Dota 2, which has a ‘Major’ competition in Chengdu. Cash prizes for tournament winners are also on the rise. The recent Alisports WESG event in Chongqing had a prize pool of US$2.5m.
World of Warcraft
While the Chinese government remains cagey about its support for video gaming as a whole, its newly-relaxed stance on eSports is likely to be of interest to foreign developers, who, at present, must publish their titles in China through a Chinese company. This rule includes major corporations like Activision-Blizzard, which provides access to World of Warcraft via the Guangzhou-based NetEase, and Valve, which publishes Dota 2 and operates its Steam storefront via Huzhou’s Perfect World Games.
Perhaps the biggest driver of eSports in China is yet to come through. The possible addition of gaming to the 2024 Olympics Games and, as mentioned, the (confirmed) appearance of the sport at the Asian Games, could help move China a little closer to the United States’ position at the top of the eSports world. What that could mean for gaming as a whole in the country remains to be seen, however.