China’s betting big on e-sports, but its tight grip on youth gaming could thwart its ambitions

Local governments across the country have in recent months unveiled plans to develop the e-sports industry, worth US$1.72 billion (S$2.3 billion) globally.

Aw Cheng Wei

Aw Cheng Wei

The Straits Times


China revealing its e-sports athletes who will be representing the country in the upcoming Asian Games in Hangzhou. ST PHOTO: AW CHENG WEI

August 10, 2023

SHENZHEN – Chinese cities from Shenzhen to Beijing are vying to become e-sports hubs in a billion-dollar industry, despite China’s continuing bids to regulate youngsters’ Internet use to curb online gaming addiction.

Local governments across the country have in recent months unveiled plans to develop the e-sports industry worth US$1.72 billion (S$2.3 billion) globally.

But concerns have arisen over how Beijing’s moves to fight gaming addiction among minors will affect the future of e-sports athletes in China, which has the world’s largest e-sports industry.

Tech hub Shenzhen recently pledged 10 million yuan (S$1.9 million) to develop game content and professional teams, as well as build tournament arenas and organise international competitions.

The south-eastern city, home to more than 4,000 video-gaming companies including global leader Tencent, will “go all out to develop itself into an international e-sports capital” in three years, said its culture, sports and tourism bureau deputy director Chen Shaohua at a global e-sports summit in July.

In Hangzhou, eastern Zhejiang province, e-sports will – for the first time – be an official medal event at the upcoming Asian Games, where athletes will compete in seven video games, such as PUBG: Mobile Asian Games version, League of Legends and Fifa Online 4.

Beijing opened its first e-sports centre in May, complete with a broadcast hall that can accommodate up to 2,000 spectators, an 852 sq m 3D screen and training rooms for professional teams.

Shanghai, too, is setting up an e-sports research institute in a deal signed in February, after Hangzhou in November 2022 pledged 100 million yuan in annual funding to support video gaming and e-sports.

Associate Professor Kenneth Goh at the Singapore Management University, who specialises in strategy and entrepreneurship, said the Chinese cities’ initiatives “are certainly an indication that the Chinese government recognises the economic potential of e-sports”.

Research firm Niko Partners, which focuses on the video game industry in Asia, Middle East and North Africa, said in a 2022 report that China’s revenue from the e-sports industry in 2021 grew 14 per cent from a year ago to hit US$403.1 million.

But questions remain about how China’s Internet and gaming guidelines for the youth will affect the future of the country’s e-sports athletes.

Last Wednesday, China’s cyberspace regulator said it wanted smart device providers to set time limits on their gadgets that would allow users aged 16 to 18 Internet access for only two hours a day. Those below 16 would get access for between eight minutes to an hour. It said, however, that service providers should allow parents to opt out of the time limits for their children.

Already in 2021, Beijing had imposed curbs restricting minors to three hours of gaming a week after a state-affiliated newspaper called online gaming “spiritual opium”. Beijing also said then that e-sports athletes should be at least 18 years old, effectively ending professional clubs’ practice of recruiting minors.

The Niko Partners report found that there were 40 million fewer players between the ages of six and 17 following Beijing’s 2021 ban, based on the firm’s survey of 250 teenagers and 1,000 parents of minors.

That same year, Beijing also froze the approvals of game releases, and resumed them only in April 2022, in a sign that the government’s crackdown on video games could be ending.

An industry insider who works for a professional e-sports club told The Straits Times that clubs often recruited players who are below 18 before China issued regulations on the e-sports industry in 2021. He declined to be named for fear of being seen as offending the current rules.

“But clubs don’t do that any more, for fear of running afoul of the law, but many are worried that this means Chinese players will not be as competitive as their South Korean counterparts,” he said, referring to how South Korea and China athletes are often neck-and-neck during e-sports competitions.

In 2022, China’s JD Gaming team, backed by tech giant, lost to South Korea’s T1 team and failed to reach the finals of the League of Legends World Championship, the e-sports industry’s biggest tournament, for the first time since 2018.

“The impact of the 2021 ban is not fully felt by the industry yet, given that many of the current players have been training before they turned 18. But clubs are very worried that the newer batches of players will not be as good as the current ones,” he added.

In a sharp contrast to Beijing, Seoul said in August 2020 that its authorities will abolish a decade-old law that banned under-16s from playing online games on computers from midnight to 6am, given that minors have been gaming on their mobile phones. But a system for parents and those under 18 to set specific time limits for gaming is still in place.

E-sports athletes are considered old at 18 because most players would retire in their early 20s. The average age of China’s national team for the 2018 Asian Games was about 20, according to state news agency Xinhua. The team’s top player, Jian “Uzi” Zihao, started his e-sports career at 15 and retired at 23 in 2020.

Nonetheless, professional e-sports athlete Jiang Jiaqi, 19, said she is encouraged by China’s latest moves to grow the e-sports industry.

Ms Jiang was the only female athlete to make it to the shortlist for the national team to represent China in the upcoming Asian Games for her game, but she did not make the final cut.

Local governments’ promises to hold more international competitions and tournaments will mean more opportunities for e-sports athletes like her to showcase her skills on a bigger platform.

“Now, with all the different initiatives to grow the e-sports industry, I will have more opportunities to try and represent my country, and make China proud,” she said.

Prof Goh said that China’s moves to regulate the online gaming industry can be a positive turn for e-sports in the long run, as the authorities are seeking to minimise the problems arising from excessive gaming.

Local media has reported about how gamers have died after days of non-stop gaming at Internet cafes in China.

One primary school student threatened his father with a cleaver after being banned from playing games on his mobile phone, in a video that went viral in China in February.

The industry insider said: “Now that the crackdown on online gaming addiction seems to be over, the e-sports clubs feel that they have more breathing space.

“Authorities also seem to be drawing a distinction between online gaming addiction and e-sports, but it is still not clear where the line is.

“The biggest problem remains that under-18s are not allowed to train professionally, but clubs are hoping that exemptions can be made, once authorities feel that online gaming addiction is even less of a problem in society.”

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