Tea Leaf Nation
China Rules E-Sports
Recent tournament victories are changing norms in a country that views video game addiction as a disease.
China may have come third in this year’s Rio Olympic medal count, but the country just emerged as world champion in another major international event. The International 2016, or TI6, an annual e-sports tournament with the world’s largest prize pool, held its 2016 grand final in Seattle on August 13 (pictured above). After playing several intense rounds of the multiplayer game Defense of the Ancients 2 (known as DOTA 2) against U.S.-based team Digital Chaos, the Chinese team, Wings Gaming, claimed the TI6 throne and brought home a $9.1 million prize.
It was something of a watershed for Chinese e-sports. Thousands of people were cheering for Wings Gaming on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like platform. A Dotaer, meaning Dota players, wrote, “An old e-sports gamer feels so proud of you.” Non-gamers also congratulated the team. One user wrote, “I don’t ever play games, but I’m very excited.” For many Chinese, it was a moment of national pride. “Respects to those who brought our national flag to an international stage,” one comment read. Major news outlets, including Xinhua, China Daily, and CCTV all reported on the Wings’ victory as if it were important national news. When Chinese teams won the championships at TI2 and TI4 in 2012 and 2014, respectively, the news received much less exposure.
E-sports has come a long way in China, acquiring a patina of respectable professionalism after once being seen as either a useless diversion or a danger. By 2003, possibly influenced by South Korea’s booming e-sports industry, China’s General Administration of Sports (GSA) had declared e-sports an official sport. But for years afterwards, the Chinese market for e-sports was extremely limited. E-sports clubs and gamers struggled to find sponsors and to play their way into high-level international competitions.
Finding young Chinese, mostly men, enthusiastic about multiplayer online gaming has been easy for over a decade, but until recently, the Chinese mainstream viewed the internet and video games as “electronic heroin” that lured students away from school and family. China was a pioneer in diagnosing and attempting to cure so-called internet addiction, with experts claiming that online gaming would lead to violent behavior and psychological illnesses. Newspaper published numerous stories of teenagers attacking people and stealing their money to pay for video games.
Parents, who want children either spending time with family or studying to advance in China’s punishingly competitive school system, have sent kids to internet addiction treatment camps to endure military-style physical training while deprived of access to cellphones and other electronic devices. At one of the most notorious camps, the psychiatrist Yang Yongxin reportedly used electroshock therapy as a major treatment method and prescribed psychotropic medicine to his young charges. Although the Chinese government later banned treatment camps from using electrotherapy, many former campers say they were emotionally scarred for life.
But things have been changing, if slowly. In 2010, the GSA started organizing national e-sports competitions, and later international ones. It also encouraged video game companies to organize their own gaming competitions. More top-level international competitions came to China, and in 2012 and 2013, China hosted the World Cyber Games. In 2015, the GSA recruited China’s first national e-sports team.
The changes likely reflect, and in turn shape, shifting public perception of e-sports. Playing video games for long hours and ignoring schoolwork remains an understandably unpopular decision for most children. But practicing the skills, techniques, and gaming strategies needed to pursue a career as an e-sports athlete now appears acceptable, at least to state media. People’s Daily, the state-owned newspaper, published an article in February 2015, called “E-sports Should Not Be Seen the Same As Gaming Addiction.” It argued e-sports was “good for teenagers,” just like soccer.
The market for competitive gaming has likewise expanded. Young gamers who got their start ten years ago are now in their 20s or 30s, the vast majority with an income that allows them to buy tickets and pay to view professional competitions online. According to an industry report published by Beijing-based consulting firm iResearch, the e-sports market in China will be worth about $4.5 billion by the end of 2016. The growing market has contributed to the emergence of well-funded e-sports clubs, which then produce highly trained athletes and teams, including the new TI6 champion.
Some now call China a global e-sports leader. But in a country that has often associated success with educational achievement, leaving school or shirking one’s studies to become a professional gamer is still a tough sell, even for those who have already made a name for themselves in the field.
“Surviving in the e-sports field is much harder than the public knows,” gamer Li Xiaofeng told state outlet China Youth Daily in 2014. In 2005, Li Xiaofeng, better known as Sky, became the first Chinese person to win the World Cyber Games (WCG), an international tournament often seen as the Olympics of competitive gaming. (WCG’s organizer shut down the tournament in 2014, possibly over a disagreement among business partners.) But two years before Li became world champion, his family almost disowned him when it learned that the then-18 year-old had decided to become a professional e-sports player.
Those pressures still exist. After his big victory, Zhang Yiping, the 18-year-old captain of the newly crowned Wings Gaming team wrote on Weibo to thank fans, and contemplated how his four teammates would perform in their next tournament. Some supporters read this as a subtle hint that Zhang plans to quit to return to school. If he chooses to leave the sport, even at the pinnacle, his fans say they will understand. “Nothing can be better than choosing to retire and going back to school,” one web user wrote. After all, “a college education is a must.”