Juan hastily pulls out her phone as soon as she finishes with lunch. Instead of taking a noontime nap as she used to, Juan is messaging her friends on WeChat to play Honour of Kings, now the world’s top grossing mobile game created by Tencent’s Timi Studio.

In May, Honour of Kings took the crown for top grossing game for iOS and Google Play with 160 million monthly active users (MAU), the first time ever for a Chinese gaming title to come top, and in spite of Google Play’s weak presence in China. The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game has been dubbed the mobile version of the world’s most played PC game, League of Legends, which stood at 100 million MAU as of last September.

“A lot of my friends play League of Legends and I’ve tried a few times, but it’s too complex,” says 28-year-old Juan who works as a graphic designer at a Beijing-based startup.

“I once watched a male friend play League of Legends. As a young female who has not dabbled in the world of e-sports, all I saw on the screen was a dizzying array of colors in a fantasy arena with three to five players on each side. The figures moved so fast that I couldn’t follow who was killing whom.”

The League of Legends-esque Honor of Kings
The League of Legends-esque Honour of Kings (Image credit: TechNode)

“Honour of Kings is much easier to pick up,” says Huahua, a 25-year-old accountant living in Shanghai. “It only takes around 20 minutes to finish a game. And it’s on mobile, so I can play anytime rather than having to sit in front of a PC.”

People like to escape the pressures of the real world with video games, but they also like to be challenged. Tencent’s blockbuster hits the sweet spot: It successfully hooks those who are not satisfied with dumbed-down mobile games but cannot afford the time to learn serious PC games which take an average of 40 minutes to play.

The Female Player Majority

League of Legends, like most e-sports, skews strongly toward male players. A report released in 2012 by its publisher Riot Games (purchased by Tencent in 2015) revealed that 90% of the player base was male. Honour of Kings turns this trend on its head: 54% of the players on Honour of Kings are female, according to a recent report by JPush, a mobile big data service provider. The game has a young following: 52% of the total players are under 24.

When it comes to video games, some Chinese netizens seem to have a certain hostility toward females. An online video that went viral features a male comedian vlogger making fun of female gamers for being “careless, mindless and horrible at playing” the blockbuster game. People go as far as calling those who play poorly “female college students” (女大学生).

Vlogger taunting female college gamers
A comedian vlogger taunting female college gamers on Honour of Kings

“I play it for fun. For those who like to be provocative, let them be, as long as they don’t get in the way of us enjoying the game,” says Huahua when I ask if she feels insulted as a young female. Juan also expresses a similar nonchalant sentiment, citing “fun” as the most important driver for her involvement in the game.

National Phenomenon

The game has become an obsession not just for young females. In February 2017, Honour of Kings became a national phenomenon overnight, clogging social media feeds and bringing people together.

Hundreds of millions of Chinese people were traveling home across the country in February for the most important festival of the year. It used to be that families were brought together by the annual Spring Festival Gala. However, as China’s younger generation shows less and less interest in repetitive and over-the-top TV galas, families now choose hongbao and mobile games. Over Spring Festival, Honour of Kings’ daily active user figure surged to 80 million and as of May its MAU was over 200 million—a seventh of the population—putting RMB 3 billion revenue in Tencent’s pocket each month.

“During Lunar New Year, I played about six to seven hours a day,” Juan says. “With my relatives, the ones in their twenties.”

Honour of Kings has become so popular that it even inspires young thieves. An 11-year-old in Shenzhen stole RMB 30,000, all his parents had in savings, to purchase in-game items on Honour of Kings. The news raised concerns for parents of young children, as those users born after the year 2000 make up 23.31% of the playerbase.

China’s restless parents were temporarily pacified when Tencent rolled out a new feature in April allowing parents to monitor their children’s player account and ban them from playing the blockbuster with one click—via WeChat. Tencent also recently announced that they will pilot a 1 hour limit for players 12 years old and younger.

“Let’s go spread some pesticides!” Honour of Kings players say to their teammates. “Nongyao,” or pesticide in Mandarin, sounds similar to “rongyao” (荣耀), the word for “honor” in Mandarin. It is also a pun signifying the “poisonous” and addictive nature of the game. According to JPush’s report, the average user spends 47.2 minutes per day on the game.

Tencent’s Global Game Plan

Tencent’s e-sports territory expands way beyond the domestic market. In 2015, the mega-conglomerate completed its acquisition of California-based Riot Games. Having seen the the meteoric rise of League of Legends, Tencent signed a Chinese distribution deal for the title as early as 2008. At least 40 million of the 85 million MAU are in China, based on estimates from research firm Newzoo.

Many question why Tencent did not just have Riot develop a mobile version of League of Legends. “Riot still operates independently of Tencent,” says a Riot employee during an interview with TechNode. In fact, League of Legends and Honour of Kings do compete for users. “Those who want to play LoL but are not good enough to be competitive end up going to Honour of Kings,” the employee said.

This is not news for Tencent, as it has long been famous for its cannibalistic culture. The immensely popular WeChat, a direct competitor to its own QQ, is a result of its cutthroat internal environment.

Game revenues of top 10 public game companies in 2016. (Image Credit: Newzoo)

Tencent’s global ambition does not stop at Riot. Last year, it bought a majority stake in Supercell, developer of Clash of Clans. It also owns around 25% of Activision Blizzard, the company which puts out Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Candy Crush. Tencent’s voracious grab of global game publishers already makes it the largest game company in the world—the company commanded a staggering annual game revenue of $10.28 billion in FY 2016, compared to $4.8 billion for its nearest Chinese competitor, NetEase.

“For a firm like Tencent, the sky’s the limit,” says Joost van Dreunen, CEO of market researcher SuperData. “Whenever Tencent sees a game they like—based on specific metrics, of course—it decides to either build it itself and improve on it, or invest and acquire the firm behind it.”

Telling the uncommon China stories through tech. I can be reached at ritacyliao [at] gmail [dot] com.

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