Esports

Opinion: China Esports in 2021 – Not Just COVID-19


For China’s esports industry, 2020 has been a big setback for many companies and will not be forgotten for a long time. During this year, the world has experienced a big black swan event – the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, thanks to the government and the Chinese people’s successful management of the pandemic, the region is now a suitable place to host esports events with live audiences. 

While most countries outside of mainland China are still struggling to deal with the pandemic, China’s esports industry will continue to grow and keep its “high-speed’” development storyline running in 2021.

In the past two months, we’ve seen the comeback of the Chinese esports industry from the low of the pandemic to hosting the biggest esports event of 2020 – The League of Legends World Championship in Shanghai – and a $100M USD Series B investment for a Chinese esports company. 

In fact, many of my colleagues at The Esports Observer have discussed how COVID-19 changed esports in 2020. In this article, I actually don’t want to put too many words into predicting how the Chinese esports industry would take a leap in the time of post-Covid-19. 

Apart from COVID-19, let’s also move our attention to two new topics for the 2021 Chinese esports industry: women’s rights and esports education.

COVID-19: Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Credit: China News

The only prediction that I will put my money on in 2021 is that the COVID-19 pandemic will still be a major destabilizing factor to China’s esports industry. Though many countries in the world have begun rolling out vaccines, it’s still a long road before the pandemic is truly under control. In the presence of coronavirus, humanity should always prepare for the worst, and hope for the best. I believe we’ve seen enough cases in 2020. 

For the Chinese esports industry, small increasing cases of infection could easily make a tournament postpone or even cancel an event. For example, the League of Legends Pro League (LPL) All-Star event was postponed in Chengdu due to the city finding five new COVID-19 infection cases three days before the event. A friend of mine who works in TJ Sports told me that the stage of the event was set up already, but the event was still postponed. 

Put aside western and Chinese political ideologies, most Chinese people listen to the government and respect the decisions the government has made, even if a group of people have to sacrifice their own benefits. It’s what I experienced in China in 2020, and the main reason I believe the esports industry in China would quickly recover from the pandemic. 

In 2021, more esports competitions will be hosted in China with live audiences. The overseas esports expansion of game publishers and tournament organizers will slow down. Tencent, the biggest game publisher in China, announced in November that the company will invest $30.4M to boost the esports ecosystem of Peacekeeper Elite in 2021, which doubled down on its commitment from 2020. On the one hand, Tencent is suffering from losing the PUBG MOBILE market in India, on the other hand, it’s still a COVID-19 concern for Tencent to host tournaments outside of China. 

In the esports ecosystem, many types of revenue streams like sponsorships, ticket sales, and merchandise rely on offline venues and exposure. In ESL’s full 2021/2022 tournament calendar for its ESL Pro Tour StarCraft II and WarCraft III, China became the only offline place to host the $100K DreamHack WarCraft III Championship in December of 2021.

The Rise of China’s Women in Esports 

Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

“Women in esports” has always been a popular topic, not just in TEO, but also in the global esports industry. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people spent more time playing games during the lockdown, and certainly, there are female gamers. 

China now has the world’s largest esports and gaming community, which is growing every year. Especially in mobile esports, China accounts for around 50% of the global mobile gaming revenues, with the penetration of smartphones in the country passing 90% in 2020.

In the past two years, I’ve seen several trends of rising women in China’s esports. First of all, female players have won competitions against the male players. In 2019, Chinese player Li “VKLiooon” Xiaomeng won the Hearthstone Grand Master Global Finals in BlizzCon 2019 to becomethe first female world champion in Hearthstone’s competitive history. In February this year, during the ESL One Los Angeles Dota 2 Major Chinese open qualifier, Chinese female Dota 2 player, Xia “Axx” Bi, and her team eliminated PSG.LGD, the best Chinese Dota 2 team in 2018 and 2019. She became the first female Dota 2 player in the world to compete for a major qualifier in the Dota Pro Circuit (DPC) system. 

Second, in the big picture, China now has more female players and audiences in esports. According to Tencent’s report, which was released at this year’s Tencent Global Esports Summit, Chinese female esports users make up more than 34% of total esports users in 2020. In 2019, the female and male ratio was 3:7 (30% and 70%).

In addition, we’ve also seen a more balanced male and female ratio in a Chinese professional esports company. Chinese biggest tournament organizer VSPN told me that the female/male ratio of the company is 4/6. In November, VSPN started to host an esports program called “Honor of Kings Female Boost Camp,” and the outstanding female player will be signed as a professional player and potentially compete in KGL and King Pro League, China’s top Honor of Kings competition. 

“VSPN just provides a stage for those girls who have a dream about esports,” Duo Zheng, the COO and co-founder of VSPN told me. “Every dream in esports should be respected. It’s the grassroots of the esports industry, no matter if the dream is his or her.”

Esports Degree in 2021: A Broken Dream 

Credit: Yicun Liu

In early 2020, China’s state-owned publication People’s Daily reported that the Chinese esports industry has only 50K practitioners, but a 500K talent/professional gap. In addition, the average monthly salary in the industry reached ¥11K RMB ($1.7K USD). Despite the fact that I’ve questioned the data authenticity multiple times in previous articles, many universities and educational institutions have drawn to educate or train people who want to work in the esports industry, and certainly, make a profit from it since 2017.

In 2017, multiple Chinese tier 3 or tier 4 universities started to offer “Esports Degree” to students. Like U.S. universities, China offers a four-year undergraduate program in the university system, so the first group of students with an esports degree will graduate in 2021. 

China has the biggest population in the world and certainly the largest student group in the world. With esports becoming more and more popular and professional in China, there are many esports enthusiasts who want to start careers in the industry, whether as professional players, shoutcasters, behind-the-scenes talents, or an esports business journalist. 

The questions will be:  Can all of them be trained or educated in a university, and do they really need an esports degree to apply for a job in the esports industry?

In 2017, I asked the same question to VSPN CEO Duo Zheng, and he said that the company did not care about whether the student has an esports degree. Zheng also told me that most of the graduates recruited by VSPN are from “211” Chinese universities. (“211” compares to the Ivy League in the U.S.)

Obviously, education is important for an industry and a long-term project which should not focus on profit in the first place. In this year’s Tencent Esports Global Summit, esports education was one of the main topics. Though the esports industry is growing fast, it still needs transparency on recognition and knowledge. It’s also one of the biggest reasons that I joined TEO, as a voice to increase transparency and foster growth in Chinese esports.

Looking ahead, 2021 will likely be a broken dream for students who have an esports degree and want to move into the business. Whatever the outcome, there will be a lot more discussion on esports education in the future.




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