“Let’s defend first, let’s defend first—there’s no rush,” said a reserve team player with the gamer ID “seven.”

“Go to the bottom lane and counterattack. I can do it this time,” said a starter nicknamed “Yitong” as he wiped his hand with a tissue to make sure he could keep a grip on his phone.

Dressed in T-shirts, shorts, and slippers, this group of teens and young twentysomethings, all members of Vici Gaming, a Shanghai-based e-sports club, are some of the best “Honour of Kings” players in the country.

Because it was the off-season for the King Pro League (KPL), the professional league of “Honour of Kings” founded by Tencent, the players only need to train three hours a day. Once competition season starts, however, training could last from two in the afternoon to as late as one in the morning.

These players are among the first e-sports professionals to ride the wave of public, corporate, and government support for the industry, which has been growing noticeably in the past few years. The players’ prospects are rosy, but not without their own uncertainties.

Life as professionals

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The “Honour of Kings” players at Vici Gaming are all young. The oldest member of the starting team is 21 years old, and the youngest has just turned 18. According to the players, though, they all started their careers much younger. Liu Xiang, the 18-year-old player more widely known by his handle “Yitong,” said he started competing at the age of 15.

“After playing the game for a week, I was in the master tier, and then I helped several of my friends get to that tier as well,” Liu said, referring to an in-game ranking that only the top 3% of players achieve.

Becoming a professional, however, requires a lot more than just being better than 97% of all players. To compete for a club, one must spend countless hours to truly stand out. “Before getting signed, I spent most of my waking hours playing this game,” said Li Tianshun, a 19-year-old starter team member better known as “tgod.”

During the season, Li still spends most of his day playing the game, though now it’s in collaboration with four other team members. Players show up the training room at 11:30 a.m. for warm-up matches. Then, after a lunch break, they proceed to training matches with other clubs, which last from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. Another training session with rival clubs takes place between 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., followed by two or more hours of “pinnacle matches,” competing with random players in the “Honour of Kings” master tier.

To make this kind of training possible, Vici Gaming players live at the club. The top floor of the three-story training center is used as a dormitory, and the in-house canteen means that players do not need to leave the building.

While players say they still love the game, the intense training and immense pressure to win does take some of the fun away. “When an interest becomes a job, it can become a bit more monotonous because you are doing it all the time,” Li said.

One professional player at Vici Gaming is playing Honour of Kings on July 17, 2019 in Shanghai. (Image credit: TechNode/Shi Jiayi)

Long hours of playing doesn’t always lead to tournament wins. This is why Vici Gaming hired the coach of the Chinese “Honour of Kings” team that won gold at the 2018 Asian Games to help players review matches and hone their skills.

“Each player has his own level of skill and play style, and it is up to the coach to devise different strategies based on those factors,” said Zhang Nuozhou, the manager of Vici Gaming’s “Honour of Kings” team.

A booming industry and its rewards

E-sports is thriving in China with a market of RMB 8.48 billion (around $1.23 billion) in 2018, according to a report from China Central Television (CCTV), the country’s state television broadcaster. The same report predicts that the number will more than double by 2020 to RMB 21.10 billion, creating demand for half a million e-sports professionals nationwide.

Revenue from the industry is also projected to grow at a steady rate. A report provided to TechNode by PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that revenue will rise by 23.3% year-on-year to reach $202 million in 2019 and further increase to $392 million by 2023.

Viewer numbers are soaring as well. Tencent’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL) hit 15 billion cumulative viewers in 2018. That’s a total of 2.5 billion hours watching matches organized by the league, according to company statistics. With so many people watching, more corporate sponsors are getting involved, including Mercedes-Benz and Shanghai Volkswagen. According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report, e-sports sponsorship in China will reach $76 million in 2019.

For professional players, the most obvious benefit of this rapidly growing industry is the rocketing value of tournament rewards. The summer season of LPL, for instance, offers RMB 1.5 million to the winning team. The 2019 “Honour of Kings” World Champion Cup, ended on August 11, has an even higher overall prize pool of RMB 32 million, thanks to Tencent’s efforts to promote the title. The winning team, Shanghai-based eStarPro, took home RMB 13.4 million.

From untamed to professional

According to analysts, the most important change for professional players has been the industry’s development toward standardization and professionalization, which only truly started a few years ago under the combined effort of companies such as Tencent and local governments.

Due to the limited means of promoting the sport and public suspicion toward gaming in general, China’s e-sports industry prior to 2014 was a challenging environment for both clubs and professional players.

“Clubs at the time didn’t have a well-developed system to select players and generally lacked funding because most of them depended on prize money. On the players’ side, when they joined the industry, they faced pressure from both their families and society. Nor was there a scientific training system,” said Liu Jiehao, an analyst from research group iiMedia.

“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the environment at the time ‘untamed,’” said Liao Xuhua, an analyst at data consultancy firm Analysys.

Starting from 2014, however, Tencent started to construct an e-sports ecosystem based on “League of Legends.” This ecosystem revolves around LPL and is supported by other tournaments such as LPL’s secondary league, League of Legends Secondary Pro League (LSPL), which was replaced in 2017 by League of Legends Development League (LDL).

From 2016 to 2017, Tencent “borrowed heavily from traditional sport” and substantially increased the total number and level of matches with the goal of laying the foundations for commercializing the sport, according to a white paper released by the company. In 2016, Tencent expanded its e-sports ecosystem by creating KPL, the professional league for the mobile game “Honour of Kings.” That year, Tencent also began soliciting sponsors for LPL and selling the rights to stream the matches.

Monetization was made possible by the rise of live-streaming platforms such as Huya and Douyu, starting around 2014; they soon became the hub for viewers to learn about e-sports. “Live-streaming not only provided hopes for monetization but also helped popularize e-sports games and related tournaments,” Liao told TechNode.

In the meantime, municipal governments and the central government have become increasingly supportive of the industry. China’s Ministry of Education, for instance, added “e-sports and management” as a supplementary major for universities in 2016. Earlier this year, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said it would recognize “e-sports operations” and “e-sports professional” as real professions.

At the city level, Shanghai outlined its intention in 2017 to build the city into the “e-sports capital of the world.” In June of 2019, the city revealed more detailed plans, promising to encourage investments in e-sports stadiums and pledging to provide incentives for both high- and low-level tournaments. Cities like Beijing, Chengdu, and Hangzhou have also unveiled plans on a smaller scale to spur development of local e-sports industries.

The professionalization of e-sports, in addition to creating higher prize pools, has also given professional players a fairer and more secure environment for personal development. Both LPL and KPL, for instance, have rules about how clubs and players should behave, as well as regulations about the players’ transfers and payments, though exact numbers are not made public. Each league has a dedicated team who oversees these matters. The teams also make public important information such as player recruitment and transactions on their respective league’s official Weibo account.

Companies like Tencent have very strong incentives to facilitate this transformation, says Cecilia Yau, head of entertainment and media at PwC Hong Kong.

“[Organizing] competitions is a way to extend the life of video games, and to make competitions sustainable you have to keep them as regulated and professional as possible,” Yau said. “Professionalization also helps create a sense of belonging to a team on the viewers’ side. If viewers have a sense of belonging for a particular team, following it could be a lifetime thing.”

Uncertain future

Despite the explosive growth of China’s competitive gaming industry, the revenue of tournaments and clubs is still minuscule compared to what developers and publishers receive, which will add up to nearly 90% of the industry’ total revenue in 2019, according to the estimates of research firm Gamma Data. Tournament sponsorships, streaming rights, and advertisements will likely account for 1.1% of the industry’s revenue, whereas the income of e-sports clubs will only comprise 0.3% of the total revenue of the industry this year.

In addition to generating little revenue and therefore having a smaller voice in the market, e-sports clubs are also vulnerable due to their reliance on certain titles. “Clubs still depend on corporate sponsorships and profit-sharing from e-sports leagues,”  said iiMedia analyst Liu Jiehao.

Once an e-sports game starts losing its popularity and amateur user base, sponsorships start drying up, and profit-sharing agreements lose their value. This decline is likely already happening to Tencent’s “Honour of Kings”—according to data from consultancy firm Analysys, monthly active users in February dropped by around 34% year-on-year and the number of total hours spent fell by nearly 50% year-on-year.

For the players themselves, most will only have a brief career—cut short by competition from new entrants and their own slowing reflexes. In 2019, the estimated average career span of players in LPL is only 2.6 years, according to a Tencent white paper.

“E-sports players generally peak between 17 and 22, after which their skills start declining, but their understanding of the game increases,” said Zhang, the team manager at Vici Gaming.

Professional players may also face limited career options once they retire. With players beginning systematic training at as early as 15, they rarely have time to pursue any other form of education. Zhong Kaiqiang, one of the players at Vici Gaming, told TechNode that he quit school a long time ago. The other two players that TechNode interviewed also never finished high school. While most retired e-sports players have remade themselves as game live-streamers, the players of Vici Gaming’s “Honour of Kings” team said they haven’t really started seriously considering what comes next after they leave the competitive scene.

“One of my plans is to become a singer,” said Li Tianshun, smiling.

Tony Xu

Tony Xu is Shanghai-based tech reporter. Connect with him via e-mail: tony.xu@technode.com

Shi Jiayi

Shi Jiayi is the Shanghai-based visual reporter helping provide multimedia elements about China’s fast-changing technology and culture. She holds a B.A. in Convergence Journalism from the University...

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