Mobile Esports: The Next Evolution of the Industry?

July 26, 2018

In 2007 I bought a first-generation iPhone. It was great. I would walk to the subway listening to music, watch a movie or TV show during my commute, switch back to music on the walk to the office, make calls on it during the day (assuming I remembered to plug it in; I was tough on the battery), then repeat on the way home.

It seemed like a gamechanger, but the real change came the following year, in July 2008, when the App Store opened and suddenly the phone became available for (legal, not jailbroken) third-party apps. Suddenly, my commute was filled with Angry Birds and Plants Vs. Zombies.

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The App Store opened up a world of mobile gaming that is now available across all platforms. Still, this was the realm of casual gamers with games that were made to be played minutes at a time. PCs and consoles were where the serious gamers went to play. Esports on a mobile platform would never be a real contender. In fact, the analytics service Esports Charts published an article on the perspectives of mobile games in esports. Its conclusion was that, “Championships in mobile games will never reach the level of Worlds or International.”

Six months later, in February 2018, Esports Charts published an article titled, “Mobile esports is a new trend of 2018.”

Um, what happened?

For one, the esports industry saw explosive growth over that time period, so it makes sense that mobile would be part of that growth as well. However, just riding esports’ coattails isn’t enough to explain it. Another reason is China, specifically Tencent.

Market research company Newzoo found that, “Of the top 100 grossing games across all Android stores in China, an amazing 24 are considered esports titles with organized tournaments and matches.”

Photo Credit: Folk Fest

Tencent is the country’s web giant. The company has flourished since it was founded nearly two years ago, largely due to facing little to no competition thanks to the “great firewall” that has kept tech giants like Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter from entering the market. In turn, Tencent has created applications that imitate those companies’ services.

Tencent also made investments in a variety of businesses worldwide. It has a 12 percent interest in Snapchat and a five percent share in Tesla. It is also deeply committed to mobile gaming. In fact, the company relies on gaming for more than 40 percent of total revenues. Tencent paid $8.6 billion for the Finnish company Supercell, maker of mobile giants Clash of Clans and Clash Royale, and owns Riot Games, developers of League of Legends. It also owns a part of Epic Games (Gears of War) and Activision Blizzard (StarCraft II, Call of Duty, World of Warcraft, and Candy Crush).

And that all leads to the most important of Tencent’s assets (from a mobile esports perspective): Kings of Glory (a.k.a. Honour of Kings). Kings of Glory is a fantasy role-playing game based on Chinese historical characters that shares more than a passing resemblance to League of Legends but with smaller maps and shorter session times. The game is also the highest-grossing mobile game in China on both Android and Apple’s iOS platforms, earning about $1 billion per quarter with more than 50 million daily active users and 200 million registered users. It’s extremely popular as an esport as well. The Summer King Pro League registered nine million viewers at the peak, while the King Pro league Fall Season saw that number rocket to 20 million viewers at the peak.

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In fact, the game is so popular in China that the state-owned People’s Daily newspaper issued a commentary lambasting the game, describing it as “poison” and a “drug” that was harming teenagers. “Don’t commit evil,” the commentary read. “As a company that does good for the world, we will get better rewards in the long run even if we have to sacrifice some short-term profits.”

This thinly veiled implication of a potential government crackdown was enough to encourage Tencent to impose one-hour time limits for people under the age of 12 and two-hour limits for 12- to 18-year-olds.

But that’s in China. No such limits exist for the rest of the world, and Tencent recently rebranded the game for North America and Europe as Arena of Valor. As part of this rebranding came a focus on creating an esports following and competitions for the game outside of China.

The E3 Expo saw Tencent America kick off this campaign with the Arena of Valor’s esports playoffs and its $550,000 prize pool. Four teams came out for the playoffs, and the winner advanced to the world cup in Los Angeles in July. Instead of PCs or consoles, players used Razer Phones tethered to the desk in front of them.

Photo Credit: The Esports Observer

“I’ve always worked in esports trying to pioneer. I got excited about Tencent because they are focused on mobile. Mobile is going to get huge in the west, but we’re still trying to figure out the right format,” Ramon Hermann, Tencent America’s Director of Esports, said to Variety.

“It got me very excited. We have this new platform that’s so much more accessible. We’ve seen how crazy it’s gotten in Asia and China. They fill huge stadiums around mobile games around this game. And that’s what we’ve seen in the west around traditional esport titles. The opportunity I have is to bring that interest in mobile esports to the west and help Tencent lead the way.”

Arena of Valor has been downloaded over five million times.  Tencent is launching a weekly league in both the European Union and North America. Teams such as Immortals, SK Gaming, and Team Vitality will be part of the competition. The game will also be heading to the Nintendo Switch, likely in 2019 after the console is released in China.

Another mobile game that is poised to break out is Supercell’s Clash Royale. Clash Royale has a global esports league that includes Cloud9 and Team SoloMid. Supercell hosted a 2017 esports tournament that drew over 27 million participants.

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Currently, the most established mobile esport outside of China is Vainglory. Developed by (the fantastically named) Super Evil Megacorp, the game has several leagues and recently introduced 5v5 mode for intense esports competitions. In fact, these 5v5 battles will be included as part of the 2018 international esports championship World Electronic Sports Games.

Another tactic that may become commonplace is for esports-friendly titles to release their games on mobile platforms in addition to PCs and consoles. This has already occurred with two heavy hitters that have esports plans about to hit: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite Battle Royale. Developers may be waiting to use these games as a test case, but it’s likely that the genie is out of the bottle. Pretty soon mobile esports may seem as natural as … traditional esports.

“It’s going to get huge,” said Hermann. “If you travel to Asia, gaming has migrated to mobile. It’s crazy. Part of that is based on culture and habits. My generation and people in their early 20s and older have grown up on PC and console, but you look at the younger generation and they may not have a PC or console. For them, it feels entirely natural for play exclusively on mobile.”

If you would like to learn more about the future of esports, including mobile opportunities, give one of the experts at eGency Global a call at 972-323-6354.