We're back! Let's Catch Up.
Vol 4.1 | April 17, 2021
Hello Esports Enthusiasts!
It's been a minute, so let's "reset the room":
How it started:
In Feb 2019, after a year of annoying my friends with daily Slack updates on esports in China, I decided to start rolling up the news into a less-annoying monthly list. And so the first “ChEsports” (China + esports, get it?) was born:
In June 2019, I re-launched the newsletter as a weekly newsletter, because covering the rapidly maturing esports ecosystem in China was leading to some very LONG documents. I added occasional features and interviews, and was never at a loss for news during a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the development of esports globally, but nowhere as dramatically as China. After 18 months of weekly newsletters, I took a break from writing in January to devote time to a “bucket list” project and some personal matters.
How it’s going:
Today I am rebranding this newsletter as “China Esports Biz”, because:
“China Esports Business News Digest” is a mouthful
I already have the Twitter handle
Going forward, it will be more of a “review” than a “digest”
Basically, I want to zoom out a bit on the news, and put more energy into the macro trends that make China's esports ecosystem so compelling. This means more commentary and fewer news recaps. Fortunately, the reporting in this area has markedly improved, and I will keep a list of good resources on the landing page. Please also follow @ChinaEsportsBiz on Twitter where I will continue to cross-post links to articles of interest.
That’s it for the update! As a bit of orientation, today’s newsletter is devoted to an update of the “competitive scene” in China, i.e., the teams, leagues, and tournaments that make up the lifeblood of esports. Future updates will include updates on media and marketing deals, new research, and developments in the overall ecosystem, such as regulatory activity and commercial development.
Thank you for subscribing, and if you like this newsletter, please share it with a friend!
For the person in your life who could benefit from a good, brief intro to esports in China, I recommend this article from the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai’s bi-monthly magazine, Insight. You can download the entire magazine at their site, here. Contains a few quotes from yours truly, but it’s still a good article.
The Competitive Scene
Jan 1 - Mar 31, 2021
COVID-19 has been suppressed well enough in China that esports events have generally returned to LAN play, and live audiences are coming back. This leads a broader trend across Asia, as discussed in an excellent blog post by Niko Research. (Link: English) Event capacity restrictions in China are being lifted across entertainment venues, bringing more good news to the esports industry, including internet cafes which were hit particularly hard last year, causing thousands to go out of business (Link: English)
The 2022 Asian Games
ICYMI: Esports has been added as an official medal sport for the first time for the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou (Links: English, Chinese). Six esports titles are expected to be selected. The Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which organizes the Asian Games, has partnered with the Asian Esports Federation (AESF) to produce the event. (Link: English) The esports events will take place at the Hangzhou Downtown Esports Venue, which is under construction and will have a 4,087 seat capacity when complete. (Link: English) South Korean esports stars are particularly eager to compete in the games, as South Korea has previously waived conscription service for athletes who brought home medals in the Asian Games. (Link: English)
League of Legends (LoL)
After hosting the 10th annual League of Legends World Championships successfully in Shanghai last year (see vol 3.33), Riot will again host Worlds in China in 2021, this time holding the finals in Shenzhen. (Link: English) The tour will include 6 cities in total, including Wuhan which will host the knock-out stage.
As the regional leagues finish their Spring Splits, the 2021 Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) gets underway on April 17 at Laugardalshöll Indoor Sporting Arena in Reykjavík, Iceland, and will be run alongside the first Valorant Championship Tour. (Link: English) The nearby Fagradalsfjall volcano erupted upon hearing the news. (Link to cool photos)
China’s LPL came into 2021 as the crown jewel of esports leagues, which as Niko Research notes, “now features 17 clubs and local venues used for traveling play is at the leading edge of esports in terms of league size, frequency of matches, and city-level localized esports fandom.”
The LPL 2021 Spring Split playoffs consisted of storied teams RNG, EDG, TES, JDG, FPX, Team WE, SNG, Rare Atom, iG, and LNG. The finals will be held Sunday April 18 in Wuhan between RNG and FPX. Recommended Viewing!
Other LPL headlines from this past season:
TJ Sports, the joint venture of Tencent and Riot Games that operates the LPL, announced that only two years after its creation, it has already met its three-year development goal to reach ¥1B RMB and four billion hours watched. (Links: English, Chinese) It plans to continue to develop the home arena system, move to daily international broadcasts (which saw a 188% increase in overseas live viewership during last year’s MSI), and focus on the youth training system.
Wuhan eStar's LPL team rebranded as Ultra Prime (UP), following its acquisition by Guangzhou-based Nenking Group, which also owns the Guangzhou Charge OWL team. (Link: Chinese) Following eStar’s move, LPL team Vici Gaming rebranded to "Rare Atom" and relocated to Wuhan from Shanghai. (Link: English) Vici Gaming's Dota 2, Honor of Kings, and CS:GO teams are not similarly rebranding, so it presumably Wuhan offered VG a deal it could not refuse.
There is speculation that Suning may be preparing to exit sports entirely after shutting down its Jiangsu CSL club earlier this year, which could potentially include its LPL team SNG, the second place winner of Worlds 2020. (Link: English)
Counterpoint: SNG just secured jersey sponsorships with One Plus and Skyworth (Link: English), and, unlike in the CSL, the LPL has continued to allow teams to bear their corporate owners’ names, a primary motivation for their investment.
FPX suspended its jungler Zhou "BO" Yangbo, who confessed to allegedly coerced match fixing when he was in the LDL, the LPL development league. (Link: English) This came as part of a string of match-fixing scandals in the LDL that prompted TJ Sports to take the extreme step of shutting down the league for “reorganization.” (Link: English) Some useful context from Pandaily’s Qian Yizhou:
While traditional sports are also prone to match-fixing, some key characteristics about esports increase the risk – the illegal gambling economy being one of them. It is especially the case for LDL. Despite serving as the talent pool for LPL, LDL’s salary levels, sponsorship opportunities, and media exposure are not comparable to those of LPL. Most LDL teams are made of younger players who are particularly vulnerable to betting-related match manipulations and are susceptible to committing illegal conduct to make “quick money”. (Link: English)
NA LCS teams unanimously are in favor of lifting Riot’s rule limiting the number of foreign players a team can import, which could lead to increased recruiting efforts focused on the LPL. (Link: English) One such recent import, former SNG support Hu “Swordart” Shuo-Chieh reached the number one rank on the LoL North American server and is proving the value of his record-setting contract for Los Angeles-based TSM. (Link: English). The phenomenon of top esports players from Asia going west was recently covered by the New York Times in the surprisingly good read They’re Flocking to America to Make a Fortune Playing Video Games.
Honor of Kings (HOK)《王者荣耀》
The 2022 KPL (China’s pro HOK league) Spring Season began in Shanghai on March 27, with 16 teams. (Link: Chinese) The season opener, produced by VSPN, featured an over-the-top opening ceremony with classical pianists and a symphony orchestra performing the game music.
LoL rules global esports, but if China has a “national game”, it is probably HOK, with its conscious adoption of Chinese heroes and mythology, and widespread popularity among both male and female gamers. It is also the only game that consistently ranks at the top of the global revenue charts while earning more than 90% of that revenue from China alone. The King’s Pro League (KPL) esports ecosystem run by TiMi Studios and VSPN leans into the national pride associated with the game. For more on the game’s background, check out SCMP’s Before Honour of Kings became the world’s most popular game, it was a desperate experiment, by Josh Ye.
Tencent’s TiMi Studios announced it would invest $154M USD for HOK esports in 2021, and the HOK World Champion Cup will have a $7.7M prize pool. The announcement was part of a presser by Timi Studios on its 2021 esports strategy for HOK, Crossfire, QQ Speed, and new title Call of Duty Mobile. (Link: English)
Two notable additions to the KGL, the KPL’s development league:
Tencent entered into a cooperative agreement with the Organizing Committee of China's 14th National Games to promote the games through Honor of Kings esports events. (Link: Chinese) Regional qualifiers begin in April and run through the summer, with 32 teams competing in the national competition beginning August 21. The championship will be held in Xi'an on September 10 and 11. (Link: Chinese)
PUBG Mobile | Peacekeeper Elite 《和平精英》
The 2021 Peacekeeper Elite League (PEL) began its new season with a new format that awards $1M RMB to weekly champions during the regular season. The first winner was Titan Esports Club (TEC), the former GM5 team acquired by Titan Sports Media Group in its first entry into esports. (Link: English) PEL sponsors for the 2021 season include OPPO, Warhorse, Buick, Snapdragon, GOGO, JingDong, Suansuanru, and Stride. (Link: English)
LGD Gaming signed PEL player Mi “Cheng C” Jiacheng for $1.82M USD / ¥11.78 RMB, the first time a player has been acquired from the PEL transfer market for over ¥10M RMB. (Link: English)
Chinese teams dominated the PUBG Mobile Global Championship in Dubai, which was won by Chinese team Nova Esports (NV-XQF), beating PUBG mainstay 4AM. (Link: English) The event was hosted by Tencent, PUBG Corporation, and VSPN, sponsored by Qualcomm, Mountain Dew, OnePlus, and NimoTV. (Link: English)
Teamfight Tactics (TFT)
Tencent held its first official TFT tournament, the Funiu Cup Challenge, China’s, with a total $260K USD prize pool. (Link: English). Winners advanced to Riot Games’ TFT Fates Championship, for a $250K prize pool, in which Korea’s “8ljaywalking” came away with the top spot. It appears that China’s prowess in Tencent titles does not yet extend to TFT, but its prize pool is larger, which is … interesting.
The twin Crossfire Pro League (CFPL) and Crossfire Mobile League (CFML) spring seasons have concluded all but for the Grand Finals which take place on April 17 in Wuhan. REC.LGD is in both finals, facing AG in the CFPL and eStar in the CFML. (Link: Chinese) Canadian GameSquare Esports just acquired the Reciprocity side of REC.LGD, and is presumably getting an crash course in Chinese esports!
Call of Duty Mobile (CODM)
Tencent launched the first season of CODM esports in China on April 3, featuring a regular season and postseason structure culminating in finals on June 12. CODM is a recent and very successful release in China, developed by Tencent’s TiMi studio in partnership with Blizzard (which traditionally has published in China through NetEase). CODM esports has attracted well-known esports organizations seeking to increase their international presence in a truly global mobile esports system (as compared to HOK or PEL, for example). (Links: Chinese, Chinese)
The biggest news in Dota2 is the return of international majors as LAN events, beginning with the One Esports Singapore DOTA 2 Major. (Link: English). It was the first LAN event outside China for Chinese teams iG, Aster, VG, and PSG.LGD since 2019. These were among the few teams in Dota2 that played regularly via LAN in 2020, which seems to have paid off as iG and PSG.LGD came away from it winning first and second place (again, GameSquare Esports must be pleased). (Link: English). The event was the second most-watched Dota2 Major ever. (Link: English)
In regional Dota2 news, EHOME won the CDA-FDC Professional Dota 2 Championship S3, and ImbaTV launched the Imba i-League in Shanghai, which this year replaces the international Starladder ImbaTV League. (Links: English, English)
Newbee and Avengerls have now (finally) been permanently banned by Valve and Perfect World from Dota2, following the match-fixing scandal which saw the teams banned by tournament organizers last year. (Link: English)
The first eCSL Super League tournament in FIFA Online 4 (FFO4) was held in March by CSL, Tencent, and EA Sports, produced by Bilibili Esports. The top three winning teams will have an opportunity to advance to the EA Champions Cup, the official international FFO4 tournament in June. (Link: Chinese)
While mainland China does not field any FIFA 21 teams, Hong Kong will compete in the FIFA 21 eNations Cup for the first time, marking the first time that the Hong Kong Football Association has sent an esports team to an official international competition. (Link: English)
The Overwatch League (OWL) officially kicked off its 2021 season on April 16, featuring a $4.25M USD total prize pool. This year the league has been reorganized into East and West Divisions, which will compete in four tournaments before the Grand Finals: the “May Melee”, “June Championship”, “Summer Challenge”, and the “Champions Cup”. (Link: English)
China is increasingly important to OWL, as the commercial prospects of OWL grow in China thanks to effective management of COVID-19 and a significant increase in viewership in 2020.
Three U.S.-based OWL teams moved to China and South Korea to compete in the East Division for the 2021 season, which is now comprised of: Chengdu Hunters, Guangzhou Charge, Hangzhou Spark, Los Angeles Valiant, New York Excelsior, Philadelphia Fusion, Shanghai Dragons, and Seoul Dynasty. (Link: English)
Teams in the East division will have the opportunity to compete in live offline competitions: the June Championship, Summer Challenge, and Countdown Cup will be hosted at the home arenas of Hangzhou Spark, Shanghai Dragons, and Guangzhou Charge, respectively. (Link: English)
And this just in: Bilibili has acquired the exclusive production and broadcasting rights to OWL in China in a multi-year deal, for an undisclosed sum, making Bilibili the exclusive home of all official Overwatch competition in China. (Link: English)
Technically, Wild Rift is still in open beta, and has not even been released in China, but that has not stopped teams are forming in anticipation. Already an official esports scene is already taking shape in Southeast Asia. Hong Kong-based Talon won the rights to introduce the Hong Kong leg of the Wild Rift SEA Icon Series, with partners Mox Bank, CSL Mobile, and Hong Kong Cyberport. (Link: English) Meanwhile, Vietnam Recreational and Electronic Sport Association (VIRESA) confirmed that this year’s SEA Games will include Wild Right, along with LoL, PUBG Mobile, MLBB, FFO4, Free Fire, Arena of Valor, and CrossFire. (Link: English)
And finally, Tom & Jerry: Chase
Raise your hand if you expected Tom & Jerry esports to be a thing in 2021! Tom & Jerry: Chase is a 1v4 asymmetrical online mobile 2D side-scroller by NetEase that attracted attention (in my Twitter feed at least) when it was featured in a neXT competition. You have plenty of time to get into this esport: the full competition will run through June 3 on CCNet (CC直播), and it is entertaining. (Link: Chinese) Watch all the insanity HERE (if this goes international, my money is on Spain’s Team Queso)
Thanks for reading! - John