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China’s Shaky Esports Future

Hopes are high for China at the Asian Games 2022 in the newly-added esports category, but some worry the country’s gaming regulations will cripple long-term prospects

When athletes take the field at the Asian Games in Hangzhou this September, not all of them will be donning lycra shorts or running shoes. Some will instead be sporting headsets as they sit in futuristic looking chairs, staring at a computer screen for hours on end as they battle in the virtual world for a real-life gold medal.

For China’s estimated 720 million gamers and 400 million fans of esports, or competitive video gaming, the 19th Asian Games will be a historic moment—the multi-sport event held every four years will for the first time include esports as an official medal event. In Hangzhou, participants from 45 countries will compete in eight medal events in esports and two demonstration events in robotics and VR—battling on screen to be crowned champion of soccer simulator FIFA 2021, fighting in Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas (MOBA) titles such as Dota 2 and League of Legends, outwitting one another in digital collectible card games like Hearthstone, and pummeling their rivals in Street Fighter V—all in a new and dedicated arena with a capacity of 4,087 spectators, built at a cost of two billion yuan.

“Progressing from being a demonstration sport [at the 2018 Asian Games] to an official medal sport will help more people familiarize themselves with esports, in turn further advancing the sector’s growth,” Tian “Meiko” Ye, a 23-year-old member of Edward Gaming (EDG), a majority Chinese esports team that won the League of Legends 2021 World Championships, told China Daily in November last year.

“Competing at the Asian Games…players will have a much stronger sense of honor,” Tian added, underscoring the Games’ significance to players who up to now have not been able to represent their country in an official event.

The event will be a breakthrough for the sport, but is only the latest in the development of what is a booming esports industry in China—and one supported by authorities. “We hope to take advantage of hosting the Games to promote the development of the esports, digital, and animation industries in Hangzhou,” Zhu Qinan, director of the Games’ Organizing Committee’s competition department, told reporters last year.

But along with supporting esports, the government has simultaneously adopted strict controls on the wider videogame industry, restricting the number of new titles released, and limiting the playing hours of minors under 18, raising concern from some players and experts that this will harm China’s future hopes of medals in esports tournaments.  

Tencent sponsors an esports competition

Giant internet companies like Tencent produce and distribute video games, while also sponsoring esports competitions (VCG)

Esports have boomed over the last five years, with the Chinese market for competitive gaming reaching 102.8 billion yuan and accounting for 450,000 jobs in 2019, making China the largest esports market in the world according to a paper by researchers at the China Institute of Sports Science, Nanjing Agricultural University, and Macau University of Science and Technology.

In that year, the number of professional esports athletes in the country topped 6,000, while there were over 700 registered esports clubs. A report released in March 2020 by the China Internet Network Information Center, an administrative agency under the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, found that over 260 million people have watched livestreams of gaming, while an estimated 80 million tuned in to EDG’s victory last year. In 2017, a record live crowd of 45,000 fans attending the League of Legends World Championship at the National Stadium in Beijing.

“Esports in China are a part of youth culture,” says Cheng Yiji, a 23-year-old Italian-Chinese retired esports player of League of Legends, one of the most popular titles in the gaming community. Cheng, who once competed under the tag “Forsaken,” started playing videogames as a hobby when he was a child, then went on to play competitively at age 18.

Cheng retired from competition four years later, in 2019, due to difficulties making a living as an esports player in Italy. But he remains a fan of Chinese esports, watching matches of various Chinese players and maintaining contacts inside the League of Legends Pro League, China’s top league for the game. For Cheng, the inclusion of esports as medal events in a continental competition “is great news that could have a real influence in introducing this world to the adult population,” and get them to think of video games as more than a hobby or a “waste of time.”

But becoming a professional esports player is no easy feat, according to Cheng, who worries the new restrictions will harm the development of future esports talents in China: “There are only two to four years in which a player can be really competitive, due to the high level of skills required and the constant search for improvements, and on average players start their professional career at 18 or 19 years old.”

Hua Lianli, manager of the RNG esports team Beijing branch told Sohu.com in 2020 that players train for 14 hours a day, while asserting that “normally, 24 years of age is too old to be a player.” Similarly, in a 2019 post on Q&A platform Zhihu, one user claiming to be a professional esports player of Dota 2 recounted how some of his teammates would sometimes train from around midday to 5 or 6 in the morning.

Esports competiton stage

High profile esports matches can draw crowds of tens of thousands (pre-Covid) along with millions watching online (VCG)

High earnings for the best players are reward for the long hours of practice to play at the top: 24-year-old Dota 2 player Wang Chunyu has earned total prize money totaling over 3.4 million US dollars across his career, while EDG won close to 500,000 US dollars for their world championship victory last year. As the sport is becoming more lucrative and China more successful, the Hangzhou Games seem the perfect time to promote the industry.

Authorities have for years sought to tightly regulate the videogame market while simultaneously allowing esports to flourish. The country was one of the first to recognize esports as a sport, when the General Administration of Sports granted that status in 2003. It also built the world’s first dedicated esports venue, the Three Gorges Harbor Esports Stadium in Chongqing, in 2017.

In 2019, multiple local governments offered incentives to boost the esports industry in their localities—with Hainan, for example, launching a 150 million US dollar development fund to promote the industry on the island, with professional players given extra housing allowances and esports companies offered lower tax rates. China’s giant internet companies such as Tencent, Netease, and Alibaba have likewise invested millions in game development, including, in Alibaba’s case, by becoming an official partner of the Games in Hangzhou.

But on the flipside authorities placed blanket ban on the manufacture and selling of videogames consoles from 2000 to 2015, prompted by fears of “adverse effects” of games on children. While not directed at esports in particular, More recently, new rules introduced by the General Administration of Press and Publication (GAPP) in September 2021 limit access to video games for under-18s to one hour of playing per day, for no more than three total hours of playing per week, with the possibility of playing only between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays, and on public holidays.

The GAPP has also failed to publish new lists of gaming titles approved for release since July 2021, while it had previously published a monthly list of around 80 to 100 games. That decision forced 14,000 small studios and gaming-related firms to shut down, according to the South China Morning Post.

Controls on minors’ gaming hours are possible because the rules require gaming companies to make players register with their real name and ID number. While it’s theoretically possible for young players to circumvent the rules if they have supportive parents or other means to play under a different ID number, “the new regulations almost kill young people’s chances of becoming professional esports players,” Chen Jiang, associate professor at Peking University’s School of Electronics Engineering and Computer Science, told Reuters in September last year, citing the intense training needed to improve one’s esports skills, and the young age that most successful players begin training.

Female esports player competes

Female players are also slowly entering esports competitons in China (VCG)

Chen does not rule out the possibility of the government rolling out exemptions to the rules for young esports players. Cheng, the retired player, also agrees excessive gaming could have negative consequences such as gaming addiction, but believes the regulations also “risk wasting young talent,” and thus proposes the compromise solution of “putting restrictions up to 16 years, to let young players train in a proper way.”

“Starting to play videogames as a hobby at a very young age helps you realize if you are fit for this kind of activity, and if you enjoy playing video games, a motivation that can be important if you are going to train intensely in the future,” Cheng says, “and if you possess the right skills to consider a professional career. It helps you to familiarize yourself with this world, get to know the games you like, and it will be easier to eventually face the long hours of training needed to improve yourself during your professional career.”

Though the next generation of youngsters may find it harder to play games, the current crop of Chinese esports stars have already begun to establish themselves on the world stage, with female player Li Xiaomeng winning the 2019 Hearthstone Global Championship, Chinese team NewHappy triumphing at the PUBG Global Championships in 2021, and Chinese players involved in League of Legends teams that winning world championships in 2018, 2019, and 2021. China will therefore have a great chance of gold medals at the Asian Games in Hangzhou this September, but how long that success may last could depend on the next move of regulators.

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Davide L. Barattin is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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