Why gamers in Asia are the world's best eSport athletes

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October 13, 2012 was a warm and sunny Thursday in Los Angeles, yet 8000 people packed themselves into the University of Southern California’s sold-out basketball arena to watch two teams of PC gamers battle for supremacy in one of the world’s most popular video games—a strategy/action PC game called League of Legends. More than 8.2 million people from around the world tuned in to video streaming sites like Twitch.tv that day to catch the action live.

The winner of the tournament, the Taipei Assassins, took home a massive trophy and a $1 million prize—a princely but not uncommon sum. Dozens of players make a good living playing games like League of Legends and Starcraft 2 competitively.

The Taipei Assassins stand triumphant, holding the handcrafted Summoner's Cup that signifies their victory in the League of Legends Season 2 World Championships.

Sure, it’s not the world’s most stable job, but professional gaming can be quite lucrative for top players—especially in the Far East, where careers are on the rise. One of the world’s best StarCraft 2 players, Jang “MC” Min Chul of South Korea, has made $365,000 playing in StarCraft 2 tournaments since the game’s launch in 2010. That figure is on top of MC’s income from sponsorships and a salary from his team, SK Gaming.

Playing PC games has become a bona fide career option, and right now business is booming. It’s a great time to be a PC enthusiast, and it’s a far cry from 2008, when professional PC gaming—eSports, by any other name—was thought to be on the verge of extinction.

The death of PC gaming was greatly exaggerated

In the late 2000s, the glory days of Doom, Quake, and StarCraft 1 were over, and the Xbox 360 home console was a roaring success. The PC had nothing that could compete with the likes of such console megahits as Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, and the soon-to-be-released Street Fighter 4. Each game sold millions of copies and incubated competitive gaming scenes of a size never before seen on consoles.

The eSports business had fallen on hard times, as two prominent gaming leagues (the Cyberathelete Professional League and the venture-backed Championship Gaming Series) had gone dormant, and even popular pro PC games were getting too long in the tooth to maintain large fanbases. In retrospect, it seems amazing that any pro gamers stood by the PC.

The Championship Gaming Series awarded big prizes to professional gamers before abruptly shutting down in 2008.

But stand by it they did, and PC pro gaming went from bankruptcy to basketball arenas in just four years. How did competitive PC gaming rise from its deathbed and enter a golden age in the space of a single presidential term? Why aren’t the world’s biggest spectator video games being played on a console?

A confluence of events occurred at just the right time in 2010 to reinvigorate the PC’s strong legacy of hardcore competitive gaming. Most significantly, the PC’s return as professional gaming’s platform of choice is tied to the economic rise of Asia, along with huge missed opportunities by console game manufacturers.

How Asia quietly saved PC pro gaming

Though the PC competes fiercely with home consoles in North America and Europe, in Asia the PC rules the territory with an iron fist. This is important, because East Asia and Southeast Asia (abbreviated as SEA) have become the heart of eSports.

Much as the United States is home to many of the world’s finest basketball players and Latin America is home to dominant baseball players, East and Southeast Asia are a hotbed for pro gamers. All of the world’s top StarCraft players are from South Korea (to the extent that all non-Koreans are referred to as “foreigners” in the SC2 community), and the reigning League of Legends champions hail from Taiwan. But why does this happen in Asia rather than someplace else?

One factor may be that China and some other East and Southeast Asian countries have banned gaming consoles for almost 15 years. As a result, PC gaming has a strong cultural foothold in countries where consoles are illegal.

“Only a few SEA countries have legal resellers for consoles,” says Lisa Hansen of Niko Partners, a gaming market research firm focusing on the Asian market. “Singapore does, so there are consoles there, but some of the other countries do not, which means gamers need to carry them in from overseas and then they do not get customer service in their local language.”

In short, console gaming is a big hassle in those regions, with no obvious upside. Would you bother trekking across two states to buy an expensive console that works with few games in a language you understand, when you could instead go to a PC gaming LAN center down the street and play whatever game you like? A small number of hardcore gamers do both, but most would rather play PC games with their friends at these local LAN centers, known in South Korea as “PC Baangs.”

In South Korea, Japanese-made consoles were never banned, but import duties on them made the consoles prohibitively expensive during a critical period of the 1990s. Just as significant, perhaps, were the early wiring of South Korea for high-speed Internet, which encouraged multiplayer gaming, and that country’s high urban population density, which made finding like-minded gamers at suitable skill levels easier.

This year the League of Legends All-Star game will be held in Shanghai, which hosted Blizzard's Battle.net World Championship StarCraft 2 tournament last year. Clearly these companies see the importance of China to PC gaming.

PC Baangs are the perfect place for a competitive scene to be born. Young people continue to congregate here to practice, compete, and discuss favorite games such as StarCraft and League of Legends (which enjoy huge mainstream popularity in South Korea.)

“For the past several decades, China has established a rather large base of PC gamers,” says Lewis Ward, a gaming analyst at International Data Corporation. “So the reality is that PC Baangs are still the norm there. That’s why you’ve got freemium games there like League of Legends that are very popular.”

Online free-to-play PC games are particularly popular in these countries because incomes in this part of the world are still much lower than in North America and Europe. In China, for instance, the average annual income per capita is still only about $6000. So it’s easy to understand why even the most enthusiastic gamer may be reluctant to pay $60 (or much more, depending on local import taxes) for a video game. It also explains why software piracy is a huge problem across most of Asia.

Online games are much more difficult to play illegally compared to offline games. The free-to-play business model has successfully circumvented both piracy and poverty by enticing gamers with a totally free product that charges only for extras like new clothing for characters.

“Gaining mass appeal in a place like China is very difficult to do with a full-price game,” says Ward. “So the flexible business models of the PC have provided an opportunity for lower-income gamers to still have fun with free-to-play games.”

While full-price competitive PC games like Counter-Strike and Starcraft have enjoyed broad success worldwide, the massive success of the free-to-play game League of Legends is what catapulted eSports to new heights.

Thousands of fans showed up in Los Angeles to cheer their favorite teams to victory during the League of Legends Season 2 World Championships. Here the soon-to-be champions face off against runner-up Azubu Frost in the finals.

Roughly a quarter of the 8.2 million viewers who tuned in to the League of Legends Season 2 World Championship did so from Asia. Having easy access to a worldwide fanbase is a huge boon to the professional scene, and it could never have happened on consoles. The PC is a global platform that allows players to watch and play the same games around the world. What’s more, services like GOMTV in South Korea and Twitch.tv in the United States can stream the world’s best action right to hungry customers on the very same platform they’re already using to play the game and to communicate with their teammates/opponents/friends in forums and social media—something that consoles simply can’t do.

The best possible news for eSports is the fact that the East Asian and Southeast Asian markets are still growing economically. As more wealth continues to flow into those regions, eSports stand to gain.

But while Asia represents a significant portion of the eSports market, it didn’t single-handedly save professional gaming on the PC. Without a strong base of dedicated fans in the United States and Europe, the professional PC gaming community would have withered in the face of popular competitive console games like Street Fighter and Call of Duty.

Fighting for relevance

The PC’s contemporary dominance of eSports owes as much to console gaming’s failures as it does to the strengths of the PC as a platform. Only one significant console-based eSport has thrived over the years: fighting games. Big communities of professional players have sprouted up for shooters like Halo and Call of Duty, but they tend to lack staying power (the recent popularity of Call of Duty: Black Ops could change that very soon, however). Still, the competitive fighting game scene has grown steadily for 20 years—and to understand the long-running popularity of games like Street Fighter, you have to understand their roots in the arcades of the 1990s.

Arcades in the ’90s offer a striking parallel to modern PC Baangs: Both foster a fierce competitive/collaborative environment that cements their territory’s dominance in the sport. So what went wrong with console fighting games?

Despite the great potential of fighting games and the community that emerged around them, the fighting game scene has long been marred by a complete lack of leadership. Whereas Blizzard Entertainment and Riot Games aggressively encourage fan engagement with competitive PC games like StarCraft and League of Legends, the company that owns all three of the top fighting game franchises—Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and Street Fighter X Tekken—has shown no such initiative.

“Compared to Blizzard or Riot, the support that Capcom gives [to its competitive community] is nowhere near as inclusive,” said Ryan Gutierrez, a competitive fighting-game veteran and CEO of Cross Counter TV, a fighting-game enthusiast network. “For the longest time, they didn’t care at all about what was going on in the fighting-game community.”

Fighting-game fans may be less numerous than their PC gaming counterparts, but they're extremely dedicated. Thousands of players and fans descend on Las Vegas for Evolution, the biggest tournament of the year.

Inexplicably, in the past Capcom never seemed to care that tens of thousands of people in the United States and Japan were so in love with Capcom’s games that they would spontaneously gather for huge tournaments and competitions. By failing to encourage or even acknowledge competitive fighting-game culture, Capcom let the opportunity to dominate eSports slip from its grasp.

These days, Capcom does a better job of acknowledging the value of the competitive gaming community, but the company still fails to funnel resources into promoting competitive play and hosting international fighting game tournaments the way Blizzard and Riot do for PC games.

That’s partly because Capcom isn’t as wealthy as it once was—console games are a tough business—but it’s also because Capcom just doesn’t understand the international competitive scene.

Constraints on gambling in Japan hamper competitive gaming

“Ultimately, [Capcom’s USA branch] is subservient to Capcom Japan, and they don’t really understand,” said Gutierrez. “There’s a difference in culture. The major difference in the way that it’s evolved [in America as opposed to Japan] is that in Japan they can’t really play for money.”

In Japan, strict gambling laws outlaw many forms of competition for monetary gain. The government has carved out exceptions for major sports like baseball, but fighting games haven’t reached that stature yet. This poses a problem for fighting-game fans, as Japan has been at the epicenter of the fighting-game scene. All of the best fighting games are made there, and most of the best players are Japanese. But with top talent unable to advertise and promote itself—and with little or no support from the game’s creator—the financial growth of the competitive fighting-game business has been slow over the years, enabling the PC to dominate the professional gaming market.

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