Change in Context: Esports Perception in China

Gaming has gone from “corruptive to the mind” to a recognized economy in the eyes of China’s official platforms

On February 4th, 2021, one of the major official media outlets of the Chinese government, published an op-ed titled “Chinese Esports with a Bright Future”. The article clarifies that esports does not equal simply playing video games and the qualified players are in fact multifaceted talent. It continues to refer to the international recognition of esports, and introduces the upcoming Asian Games in 2022, hosted in Hangzhou, China, where esports will be included. This brief one-minute read might seem like a mere advertisement to drum up excitement for the competitive event. However, to anyone familiar with the Chinese society, a positive review written on means no less than a nod from the central government itself. Such encouragement is an indicator to the public that the subject matter will not face any crackdown in the immediate future, sometimes even followed by advantageous policies.

The change in attitude regarding esports reflects the growing acceptance in China. As the op-ed points out, video gaming used to be considered “corruptive to the mind” in the Chinese society. The risk of addiction, especially among teenagers who are supposed to focus solely on schoolwork, painted video gaming as a harmful means of indulgence. In 2008, CCTV, an official television broadcaster, praised a psychiatrist who treated “internet-addicted” adolescents and adults, meanwhile describing World of Warcraft as violent, gruesome and terrorizing. The doctor treated 3000 children sent by parents, before his practice using electric shock was uncovered by other media and banned by the Ministry of Health.

So the question remains: what made the government and the society as a whole in China flip their opinions in a decade?

The wide adoption of smartphones contributed to the reduced stigma of video gaming. Market research by eMarketer shows that 60% of China’s population uses smartphones, which translates into 847 million people. The average time spent on smartphones in China has increased 10 folds between 2011 and 2019. Some sources state that in 2020, each user spent an estimated 6.2 hours per day on mobile devices, partially due to the strict lockdown earlier in the year. Usage of the internet has become prevalent and imperative in everyday life. With the spread of social media applications, such as TikTok, finding entertainment online is much more normalized today than a mere decade ago.

Naturally, as the new generations grow up with the culture of video gaming, the society is gradually more open to recognizing esports. Unlike their parents, the Chinese millennials have experienced technology since childhood just like any of their counterparts in developed countries. Similarly, this age group embraces entertainment and is more willing to spend time and money on it. Streaming platforms provide the audience with unprecedented access to relevant content, gaming included. A recent study projects that over two-thirds of internet users in the country will watch live streaming videos at least once per month. The number one digital game in China, Honor of Kings, attracts over 62 thousand unique viewers per month, which equals 469 thousand hours of streaming time and 21 million yuan worth of “tips” (approximately 3.5 million USD).

Last but not least, the influx of capital uprooted the preconceived notion that esports does not provide jobs. In 2012, Invictus Gaming Esports Club won the first ever international championship in Dota as a Chinese esports team. Players received one million US dollars as a prize, shocking the nation with the new realization that playing video games can have higher earning potentials than the lifetime salary of an average employee. In addition, Invictus Gaming was founded in 2011 by Wang Sicong, son of one of richest men in China. Born in 1989, was well known for his unconventional outspokenness on social media. Wang was passionate about esports, investing his time and resources in clubs, streaming platforms, and other similar ventures. Although many of them struggled, his high profile did garner public attention to the blue ocean of esports. In the span of three years between 2017 and 2020, the revenues of esports in China tripled, reaching 150 billion yuan, approximately 25 billion USD. Neither the Chinese government nor the society is immune to the growing cash flow.

In conclusion, the social norms morphed with improved life quality and higher spending. In this expanding world of attention economy, esports will continue to develop and thrive in China on the basis of a large population that demands online entertainment and can afford to pay for it.