The jury may be out on whether or not competitively playing a video game counts as a sport, but whatever your opinion, eSports are rapidly growing worldwide. eSports generated $194 million in revenue last year with a combined viewership of roughly 89 million enthusiasts, most of whom are located in Asia.
The most popular competitively played computer games in China are almost entirely the same as the most popular competitively played game in the USA: League of Legends, Dota, Counterstrike: Global Offensive, and Starcraft 2. The only exception is Crossfire, a first person shooter made by Korean company Neowiz. The growth of any sport is fueled by the existence of strong teams and the performance of their athletes, and eSports are no exception.
The number of professional eSports organizations has ballooned in China – while there have always been teams of high level players competing at high levels, only within the last few years have compensation levels for these teams reached what would considered pro-athlete levels in the West.
Compensation for Chinese players is somewhat similar to the USA, in that teams pay their players a small salary along with a percentage of the winnings from various tournaments – The International 2014, Dota 2’s annual championship event, had a total prize pool of $10 million dollars. Newbee, the winning team, and its 5 members took home $5 million dollars. That’s $1 million per player, and a higher total prize pool than for the 2014 golf PGA championship.
The amount of money for winning a less famous tournament, even in China, can be quite high, with many Asian tournaments boasting prize pools of over $1 million dollars. However, the vast majority of teams cannot win first place; instead, they rely on sponsorships and revenue from live web streaming of their practices.
Numerous Chinese and American tech companies and websites sponsor eSports athletes in an attempt to reach young people, and these sponsorships provide the money for eSports teams to train. However, one major difference between Chinese and American teams is that many Chinese teams have sponsors who are not tech companies – Wang Sicong, son of Wang Jianlin, one of the richest men in China, sponsored Invictus Gaming in an attempt to build a base for expanding the Wanda empire into eSports.
Furthermore, LaoGanDie Food and TongFu porridge both sponsor top level teams that bear the names of their companies (LGD gaming and TongFu). Most interesting is that Riot Games, the creators of the League of Legends game, pays out a salary to every player at the professional level. Given that League of Legends is owned by Tencent, one of China’s largest internet companies, it’s clear that many large companies in China have high hopes for Chinese eSports.
Live streaming of practice matches and exhibition matches can be even more lucrative for Chinese players than team salaries, to the point that many Chinese players are making more money after retiring from competitive play than they would had they remained playing – Caomei, one of China’s most famous League of Legends players, signed a contract worth nearly a million dollar contract to exclusively stream on ZhanQi TV.
Given that the most popular players typically have over 100,000 people viewing them during a single hour of practice on a slow day, live streams essentially become one man TV shows.
Chinese teams are taking note, and streaming is likely to become an important source of funding for Chinese eSports clubs in the future as the three major web streaming sites in China (Douyu TV, ZhanQi TV, and YY.tv) each backed by major Chinese tech giants, begin to compete more seriously.
It will be exciting to see what happens to the burgeoning Chinese eSports scene thanks to the influx of money from various sectors of the Chinese economy.
Original title by China Sports: The Rapid Growth of eSports in China