Around 40,000 gaming fans attended the 2017 League of Legends World Championship final between two South Korean teams at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium on Nov 4. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Lucrative competitive gaming sector taking China by storm
China is ushering in a golden era of e-sports, with industry revenue, prize money and viewership all skyrocketing to reshape the traditional sports entertainment landscape.
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, the ongoing playoff for the King Pro League's fall season provides a perfect snapshot of just how and why the gaming craze is sweeping the country.[Special coverage]
The league, based on Tencent's role-play fantasy mobile game King of Glory, kicked off its eight-club playoff in late November, with arenas sold out for every matchup.
Hours before the Nov 26 clash between the defending champion QGhappy team and Shanghai-based club JC, a huge crowd queued outside the venue waiting for admittance.
Inside, fans were rewarded with an electric atmosphere and a slickly produced show, with jumbotrons, subwoofers and a high-tech lighting system creating an overall effect akin to a live NBA game.
Thanks to the popularity of King of Glory, which has attracted over 200 million registered users since its launch in 2015, the KPL has eclipsed some of its traditional sporting rivals in terms of viewership.
Its 2017 spring season was viewed over 2.68 billion times on streaming platforms, more than nine times the total viewership for the 2016 season of soccer's Chinese Super League.
Last month, Beijing's iconic Bird's Nest stadium witnessed hysteria levels not seen since the 2008 Olympics as 40,000 fans attended the final of the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, based on US developer Riot's hit multiplayer online battle arena game.
"The LPL's (League of Legends' professional competition) ascent to massive popularity, as evidenced by its online viewership of 2.7 billion for just the first half of this year, has heralded a new era for the sports entertainment business in China," said Mars Hou, a senior manager of Tencent Interactive Entertainment.
Years ago it would have been absurd to think that a videogame event could generate such interest levels and stir national pride, given the government's once-critical stance on gaming's influence on youth.
"It's unimaginable that competitive video games could be developed into a serious business now with so many followers, with so much money at stake and with the government's approval," said Meng Yang, a retired League of Legends gamer who now works with Tencent's online development department.
According to the 2016 China Game Industry Report released by industry analyst Penguin Intelligence in June, the market value of China's e-sports sector reached 20 billion yuan (about billion) generated by gamers' spending, copyright distribution, merchandizing and e-commerce.
Another industry consulting agency, iResearch, estimated that the figure will rise to nearly billion by the end of this year, with the number of registered online gamers jumping to 220 million from 170 million last year.
To illustrate just how high the stakes are for competitors, the total prize purse for all e-sports tournaments in China last year was million, according to market researcher Niko Partner. That's around 22 times the amount tennis star Li Na earned for winning the 2014 Australian Open.
Seal of approval
As China aims to develop an ambitious sports industry valued at 5 trillion yuan by 2025, the government and traditional sports bodies have embraced e-sports as a legitimate contributor to the sector.
During an October 2016 executive meeting of the State Council, China's cabinet, Premier Li Keqiang urged all relevant departments to work on preferential policies and to upgrade facilities to boost e-sports growth and consumption.