More than 40,000 spectators, giant screens, players glued to their keyboards and more than US$1 million prize money for the winners: Welcome to the world of electronic sports (e-sports) in China, a nation that has become a leader in competitive video-game playing.
The final of the World Championships for League of Legends, one of the most-played video games on the planet, took place on Saturday in Beijing’s Bird’s Nest, the national stadium built for the 2008 Olympic Games.
“The atmosphere is great! It’s better than at home, no?” said Yu Yating, a 23-year-old customer service manager dressed in a long green wig, white minidress and holding a plastic golden scepter.
“I’ve been playing League of Legends since 2013, because I love the monster fights — it relaxes me,” she said, as screams broke out in the stands when the competitors arrived.
One of the players slaughtered a virtual dragon, prompting howls of excitement.
“Oh, huge,” said 19-year-old student Qian Feng, one of the spectators following the multi-player game on three giant screens that were practically the height of the stadium.
Two-thirds of the audience were males between 15 to 35 years old. Some, like Qian, had traveled hundreds of kilometers to watch the final in person.
“E-sports have taken off in China because all young people have a computer now,” he said. “When I have school, I play League of Legends with my friends an hour a day, otherwise we play all afternoon.”
Tickets for the event cost 280 yuan to 1,280 yuan (US$42.24 to US$193) and sold out in minutes, with touts hawking them on the black market for up to 13,000 yuan.
The size of the audience for the League of Legends final, a game owned by Chinese internet giant Tencent, matched that of this year’s Europa League final between Manchester United and Ajax — without including the tens of thousands of fans streaming the match live.
The packed event showcased China’s ambition to become the world leader for e-sports.
There are 191 million e-sports fans around the world, and numbers are projected to increase by 20 percent by 2020, according to video game specialist Newzoo.
“I also play traditional sports, badminton, but China is very populous, it is sometimes difficult and expensive to reserve a court, whereas I can practice e-sports with my roommates where and when I want. A computer is enough,” 22-year-old student Li Hangtian said.
Enthusiasm shows no sign of slowing down. Global turnover from e-sports is US$696 million, with Newzoo saying it will climb to US$1.5 billion in the next three years.
Asia could be its future, with China accounting for “around 15 to 20 percent of global e-sports revenue,” said Ignat Bobrovich, chief executive of TwogNation, an international e-sports management agency.
“North America is the biggest market for now, at 35 to 40 percent, but in two years’ time, Asia, which is home to half the world’s e-sports fans, will easily outstrip this,” he added.
Saturday’s face-off featured two South Korean teams, with Samsung Galaxy vanquishing SK Telecom T1 3-0 and pocketing about US$1.7 million in winnings.
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