Hong Kong plans rise of the virtual athletes
Fans cram into stadiums while millions of ardent viewers plug into the internet to cheer on avatars of geeky young stars battling it out on the screen, as reports from Hong Kong.
Around 20,000 seats in the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles are taking a pounding from crazy fans. Four huge screens are erected on the stage like a crystal cube with one of the world’s highest-paid DJs in the center. The screens light up with animated unearthly creatures and the crowd goes wild.
The stadium, home to two famous National Basketball Association teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Los Angeles Clippers, has been taken over by another competitive activity that inspires fanatical devotion — electronic sports, or to use its trendy moniker, e-sports.
World-class players of League of Legends, one of the world’s most popular and topgrossing online battle video games, have captured the hearts of 43 million unique viewers, with a peak concurrent viewership of 14.7 million worldwide in the final of the 2016 LOL World Championship on Oct 29.
Two teams from South Korea, with members age about 20, fought for the world championship via their avatars. They didn’t even have to try that hard to impress their die-hard fans; no fancy moves, at least in the real world. Standing with slightly stooped postures, the teenagers fueled the global adulation simply by flashing geeky smiles and offering slightly awkward waves to the audience.
E-sports “athletes” are the poster boys for the sector’s sudden rise. What was a solitary activity in the dark corners of internet cafes and viewed suspiciously by some as an indulgence to keep an eye on, has blossomed into a sophisticated, multiplayer open sport that has the potential to suck in the entire post1980s internet generation.
Hong Kong has been relatively slow in catching up, despite e-sports’ burgeoning popularity in the Chinese mainland and South Korea, the world’s leaders in the field.
It was not until February that the city’s Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po used the term “e-sports” in official doc- uments for the first time, recognizing it as “a form of international sports competition” with “economic development potential”. The government tasked Cyberport, a “creative digital community” owned by Hong Kong Cyberport Management Co, with exploring the promotion of e-sports in Hong Kong.
Confronted with the huge market potential, Man Kinfung, CEO of Global E-sports, a local e-sports company that owns PandaCute, the city’s first female e-sports team, decided to take a headlong dive into the burgeoning industry.
According to Man, the rapid growth of e-sports reminds him of the time Facebook first emerged. Man acquired a South Korean live-broadcasting platform, and through that acquisition, he became acquainted with a teenage girl nicknamed “Deer”, who brought him into the e-sports world. Deer, a League of Legends enthusiast, wanted to build a five-member female team to play in a match hosted by a local internet cafe. Man became the catalyst for Deer to realize her dream, helping her
I want to build a healthy image of e-sports players to combat the traditional misunderstanding of staying up all night playing video games immoderately.” Man Kin-fung, CEO of Global E-sports
team to win its first local title.
The five teenage girls quickly got used to the life of professional e-sports athletes. All too aware of Hong Kong’s strained land supply and high rents, PandaCute’s members approach their new roles as full-time jobs.
Although dedicated, their routine is mild compared with some places where e-sports teams are sent to boot camps to train, live in dormitories and remain isolated from the world before they make their debuts — just like budding pop stars.
The girls go to their office at about 10 am. They play e-sports on their own in the morning and then begin group training in the afternoon, including a team battle. Following this, they will review their battle strategies and failures. They usually call it a day at around 6 pm — sometimes 8 pm if they get carried away.
“I want to build a healthy image of e-sports players to combat the traditional misunderstanding of staying up all night playing video games immoderately,” Man said.
Talking about e-sports obvi- ously excites the 30-something “big kid”, whose eyes sparkled as he spoke about the success of e-sports and future prospects.
A common notion is that e-sports players’ professional lives are short, with reflexes said to be dulled by the time they reach age 25. But Man noted there are prospects for players who retire. The e-sports sector has spawned a bonanza, leading to a fully fledged industry chain to support related roles.
“They could be trainers, anchors hosting online live broadcasts and explaining games, game consultants, managers of e-sports teams, and so on,” he said, though he added that just as in physical sports, athletes are not guaranteed a bright future after retirement.
The tech-based nature of e-sports also promises continuing growth, and unlike traditional sports it can reach remote regions and involve an ever-growing number of people.
“I foresee that in the near future, people will watch the League of Legends world tournament with virtual reality glasses and a 4-D experience,” Man said.
He conceded that e-sports have not fully taken shape in Hong Kong because the ecosystem is incomplete, despite the high-speed development globally.
E-sports have made a name worldwide. In 2003, China listed e-sports as an official sport. Since then, the sector has taken off, with a market value of 40 billion yuan ($6 billion) last year. Viewership of matches in China has grown to 170 million, accounting for more than 50 percent of e-sports viewers worldwide. In April, the Olympic Council of Asia announced that e-sports will be an official medal sport at the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, after being added as a demonstration sport at the 2018 Games.
The world has been wowed by the rapid development. According to Newzoo, an e-sports researcher and consultancy, by the end of the year nearly 190 million people will be employed in jobs related to e-sports.
Global profits from the sector should surpass $1 billion in 2019 — more than double the figure in 2015.
With optimism spurred by the Hong Kong government’s unprecedented move to list e-sports in official documents, Man suggested the authorities should make an even bolder move and set up qualification courses and scholarships for young aspirants seeking to train in South Korea and the Chinese mainland.
“The coming three years will mark a key juncture for Hong Kong to translate e-sports into a solid, profitmaking, fully fledged industry,” he said.
That isn’t an optimistic or exaggerated view. On Nov 4, the National Stadium in Beijing, aka the Bird’s Nest, will host the 2017 League of Legends World Championship, the game’s seventh tournament. Playoff games will be held separately in Wuhan, Hubei province, Shanghai and Guangzhou, Guangdong province, from September.
The geographical proximity will almost certainly guarantee a flood of media coverage from across the border.
Hong Kong has picked up the signal, but it lacks a developed platform to nurture the city’s game lovers, who are itching to have a go as professional players.
The city doesn’t have its own professional matches to provide constant battle experience for local players, which is why its top player, Kurtis Lau Wai-kin, better known as Toyz — his game name — joined the Taipei Assassins e-sports team.
In October 2012, he was the first Hong Kong player to win the League of Legends world title as his team raked in $1 million in prize money after a battle with a South Korean team in Los Angeles.
That victory inspired Ryan Chow, formerly the best amateur player in Asia, to spend HK$2 million ($256,000) of his own money to start an e-sports company Cyber Games Arena with two partners to provide a platform for local players and even players overseas.
Long before e-sports was recognized as a sport, there was an earlier incarnation in Hong Kong. That was in the early 2000s, when internet cafes popped up across areas such as Causeway Bay, according to Chow, who is also president of the E-sports Association of Hong Kong. According to the government, the number of internet cafes has fallen by about 33 percent from more than 300 in 2002 to just 100 in 2014. At age 13, when they were in Form 1, Chow and his gaming friends were frequent visitors of internet cafes, despite the charge of HK$50 an hour.
Although they won an amateur Asian tournament when they were in Form 3, they had no way of progressing and had to shelve their dreams. But the love of gaming never went away, so the trio decided to establish Cyber Games Arena in 2013.
In a groundbreaking move, the company forged ahead with Hong Kong’s first E-sports Festival in 2015 by partnering with the Hong Kong Computer and Communications Festival, a pilgrimage event for geeks and tech enthusiasts. A HK$100,000 prize pool was offered for onsite e-sports matches.
The second E-sports Festival in August last year, which was heavily sponsored by tech companies, attracted at least 80,000 visitors during the four-day computer fair, creating a much-needed ripple of excitement for the already lackluster tech fair.
Cyber Games Arena had to start from scratch — finding sponsors, suitable kits for livebroadcasting and venues, among other things.
E-sports is picking up in Hong Kong, but the pace is still not comparable with that of other Asia-Pacific regions, which represent 47 percent of the $99.6 billion global games market, as revealed in the Newzoo report.
More sizable investments are expected in the mainland, with Tencent, the leading player in the gaming industry, building a gaming complex with a gaming university, a cultural and creative park, an animation park and a creative neighborhood in Wuhan.
Still, Hong Kong has the potential to make e-sports work, thanks to the city’s easy visa application procedures, internet speed, linguistic advantages, resources and experience in hosting international events.
Chow proposed that Hong Kong should host international e-sports games and the city should improve its efforts to cultivate e-sports talents by changing the social atmosphere to make gaming more acceptable to the general public, especially parents.
Next month, the city will host the Esports and Music Festival Hong Kong at the Hong Kong Coliseum in Hung Hom, Kowloon — the first e-sports open event held by the government — to attract visitors from across the globe.
The 2022 Asian Games will be a huge opportunity for Hong Kong to establish a foothold in the e-sports realm if it can send a local team to compete, Chow said.
Man said that as key cities in the Greater Bay Area, Guangzhou and Hong Kong can team up to consolidate the e-sports industry.
“We have the resources and talents, and the Chinese mainland has the land and venues to host e-sports matches in the Greater Bay Area. It is like ‘a river is formed when water comes’,” Man said, quoting an old Chinese maxim.
Estimated number of people expected to be employed in work related to e-sports by the end of the year
Contact the writer at stushadow@ chinadaily.com.cn
Players from across the globe participate in an e-sports competition in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
The five members of PandaCute, an all-female e-sports team, display the flag of Hong Kong during an event in the city.
Man Kin-fung, CEO of Global E-Sports, which promotes competitions for players