JAKARTA -- As the Chinese athletes squared up to their opponents, the Taiwanese team Chinese Taipei, in the tournament final, the stadium echoed with cries of "jiayou!" -- "Come on!" The stadium was filled with Chinese fans, some of whom had traveled from China just to see the team play. It was like any other sporting event -- except that the match was being played virtually.
Arena of Valor, a multiplayer online battle arena game developed and published by China's Tencent Games, is one of the six video games chosen as demonstration sport at the Asian Games 2018 held in Jakarta and Palembang, Indonesia. AoV, as the game is known, is a strategy game that pits teams of five against each other to infiltrate an enemy's territory and destroy its base. Esports, or competitive multiplayer video gaming, is even being considered as an official medal sport at the next Asian Games in 2022.
The possible inclusion of esports in the so-called Asian Olympics is a testament to how popular it has become. Revenue from the industry hit $655 million globally in 2017, according to Dutch research firm Newzoo, and is expected to reach $1.6 billion in 2021. While popular esports titles like League of Legends and StarCraft 2 are played on PCs, it is mobile esports that is really taking off in Asia. Two games out of the six chosen for Asian Games 2018 -- Arena of Valor and Clash Royale -- are both mobile titles.
"There has been a shift toward mobile games" in esports, said Eddy Lim, president of Indonesia eSports Association, explaining the reason for including mobile games in the Asian Games. "Mobile game [makers] have begun to make games in the esport category, which means it requires strategy and is fair ... [where] winning or losing is based on strategies."
Mobile esports is more popular in Asia than in the West because of the region's "mobile-first culture" according to a report from Newzoo. The report says that 55% of game revenues in Asia come from mobile, which was only 29% in North America and the EU. "Mobile esports is expected to continue its growth in the region. ... We also expect the coming few years to see a boom in the mobile esports market in countries such as Japan, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam," the report adds.
This is a trend that Asian companies are keen to grasp. While the latest high-end smartphones are powerful enough to run most mobile games without problems, several Asian companies have simultaneously announced the release of models that specialize in running video games, packed with powerful processors and batteries as well as higher screen refresh rates.
Razer, the Singaporean gaming hardware manufacturing company, kicked the trend off when it launched its Razer Phone in November last year. The company stressed that it was "built for mobile esports." Its biggest selling point is its high screen refresh rate -- at 120 Hz, the phone promises "zero lag or stutter, just fluid, buttery smooth motion" for all games.
The phone was well received enough to prompt other companies to follow suit. The Chinese company ZTE, under its subbrand Nubia, released in April its gaming smartphone Red Magic, while Black Shark Technology, which is backed by China's Xiaomi, released its phone Black Shark the same month for the Chinese market. Taiwan's Asustek Computer is the latest to jump on the bandwagon with its super-high-end Asus ROG smartphone, announced in June.
For these companies, the phones are a way of differentiating themselves from competitors in the fast commoditizing smartphone market, a strategy that could catch on as popular esports titles get ported to the smartphone platform.
Mobile versions of the popular online multiplayer game "PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds," developed and published by PUBG Corp., a subsidiary of South Korean video game company Bluehole, was released on smartphone last year, while another game Fortnite released for smartphones running Google's Android OS in early August. Both are from the popular battle royale genre, which requires relatively high-spec smartphones to run smoothly.
Samsung Electronics, which has seen its operating profit from the smartphone sector drop by 34% on the year in April-June, has sought to use Fortnite to sell its Galaxy smartphones. Galaxy users had early access to Fortnite when the game was released on Android to coincide with Samsung's launch of its latest Galaxy Note 9. Users of the phone also get an exclusive Galaxy skin in the game. Samsung was also said to be mulling a gaming smartphone of its own, but denied the reports, saying it was "nothing more than a rumor."
However, it might need to reconsider.
"Mobile esports athletes were supposed to use Samsung devices provided by the organizing committee" at the Asian Games 2018 because the South Korean company is one of the official sponsors, said one esports industry insider. "But that was being reconsidered as many said they use iPhones."
And it was indeed the iPhone, that was in the hands of the Chinese athletes who defeated Chinese Taipei to become the first Asia champion in Arena of Valor.
Nikkei staff writer Kim Jaewon in Seoul contributed to this report.