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.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - CHINA -

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.

Key junc­ture

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.

Cul­ti­vate tal­ents

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

DENG FEI / FOR CHINA DAILY

Play­ers from across the globe par­tic­i­pate in an e-sports com­pe­ti­tion in Shen­zhen, Guang­dong province.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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

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