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Why is China So Dominant in Esports?

Nikhil Kalro

A famous cricketer, a two-time World Cup winner with Australia, was once in China to conduct a short coaching camp to attract school kids. It was part of the International Cricket Council’s efforts to popularise the sport at the grassroots in the country. As the speaker introduced the cricketer, he tried to use the “World Cup winner” tag generously to elicit the “wow factor” to the interaction until a hand popped up among the audience. A young boy proceeded to ask, “How many gold medals have you won.” It was a very revealing query by an innocent mind that gave you a peek into the “Chinese mindset” when it comes to sport. At a young age, kids aspiring to play sport are taught how gold medals are the zenith of sporting glory. And how nothing less than gold cuts it. That thought is almost ingrained into every kid as they start young. For some, it can be pressure. For others, the final goal. This philosophy could be true for esports too. And it’s perhaps a reason why Chinese teams are so dominant at world events, like at League of Legends. Since its inception in 2013, the Chinese Pro League has charted its own unique path with how the game should be played on Summoner’s Rift. There has been a history, clubs that aggressively tug into the hearts and minds of fans and professionals alike. There’s been a massive spike in interest ever since they decided to tap into young talent by offering them scholarships and apprenticeship programs that help to develop and fine-tune skills. By the time kids turn 16-17, they’re at such an advanced stage of gameplay that it almost seems as if turning pro is merely a formality. Fundamentally, this is among the biggest contributing factor towards the country’s dominance. This spike was initially a response to the video game explosion a decade ago, with more than one million estimated simultaneous players in World of Warcraft. This success was then carried forward as League of Legends set up shop in 2013.

jdg missing

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 20: Lou "Missing" Yunfeng of JD Gaming competes at the League of Legends World Championship Quarterfinals on October 20, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Lance Skundrich/Riot Games)

China’s Steady Rise

The rise had been organic, not meteoric, which has given organisers the hope and promise of a staggering ascent. So far, this hope and promise hasn’t been displaced. Much of this spike has come in from viewership, obviously. And for League of Legends, this number from China is massive.

Just imagine this. Without the Chinese viewers, the Mid-Season Invitational’s peak dropped from a few million to 940,000. The viewership for Worlds 2017 final dropped from several million to just about 2 million. These numbers aren’t bad by any means; it’s just a mere reiteration of how huge esports is for China as compared to the rest of the world. So while it’s easy to look at every season’s championship winners and liken their success to the Chinese revolution, this rise has taken a while.

Another reason for LPL’s massive rise, and in turn China’s, has been their quest for excellence. Even when they burst onto the scene with the LPL making ground quickly to be among the most watched and most-popular leagues, it was clear they were on a collision course with Korea and the LCK for the No. 1 tag. This could’ve made a few leagues cautious, but China embraced this wholeheartedly and left no stone unturned in trying to upstage them.

It was no coincidence that when SK Telecom and Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok handed the Chinese team a 3-0 sweep in the World’s final all those years ago, it was a stepping stone for the LPL to become what it is today. They soon rose through the ranks to beat the Europeans, North Americans and the lower-tier Korean outfits comfortably. Yet, their inability to beat top-tier Korean outfits for long stuck like an albatross around their necks.

Prior to his role in T1’s undefeated run in the LCK with a mind-blowing 20-0 record, Faker’s contract was up for renewal. And some Chinese outfits made a beeline for him, offering up to $20 million a year. That they were ready to break the bank told you of their financial power and the might of their contracts that can bring in the best of talent. That Faker decided to stay on with T1 is another story.

In a sense, the LPL’s inability to have the wood over Korean teams brought about a slight shift in approach. The new mantra became, “if you can’t beat them, get them.” And so in 2014-15, Samsung Galaxy, the 2014 World Champions, made the jump from the Korean League to the LPL.

Players were given significant pay bumps, and another massive component through incentives, sponsorships and retainers. That was a revolutionary move; since then every big LPL team has had some kind of Korean influence, either among the playing group or the coaching staff.

This has further contributed intangibly by raising the profile and competitive nature of the Chinese league. But this move hasn’t seen instant success. For example, in 2015, despite a sizeable Korean presence, no Chinese team qualified for even the semi-finals of Worlds.

The culture shift has taken a while, and it hasn’t brought with it a focus on instant results, but sustained excellence over long periods and setting a base for long-term rewards. So teams haven’t been swayed by momentary losses.

The rise of superstar players with cult followings, like Jian “Uzi” Zi-Hao, have further contributed to the craze in the country. The next generation are inspired by his exploits on Summoner’s Rift. The mushrooming of several academies and training centres to simulate match-like environments further reinforce the growing popularity of LoL, and the drive among youth to realise a dream they didn’t think was possible.

Now, they’re closer to that dream, and have a platform to fuel their imaginations and goals. What else but this craze and fanaticism can explain multiple finals averaging over 90 million viewers, numbers that rival the Super Bowl?

A Difference in Philosophy

Right, we’ve discussed the intangibles. Now, let’s look at the tangibles. One of the biggest reasons not just for the cult following but the success Chinese teams have had in LoL, and thereby making the LPL one of the most dominating leagues across the world, is perhaps the style of play and the hours teams and players have scoured through to develop it.

LPL teams have long given up on slower, methodical team play that had somewhat become a hallmark of the Korean outfits. Teams are gung-ho aggressive, and are willing to take chances early on, even if it pushes them back a bit.

The upside to this can be downright dominance when the stars align. This playstyle has more or less become imbibed into youngsters at different levels, and by the time they make the cut at the highest level, it’s almost muscle memory.

Whether it’s a game-ending buff or a singular lane minion, LPL players want to cash in and crack down on any inkling of an advantage they may have on the map, and not just sit on such moments. So what was once seen as a sure shot way of being exposed earlier, with the Koreans out-thinking them, is a surefire card for success.

This has contributed to an approach that makes LPL teams blockbuster material. As an opponent, you’re always second-guessing every move, unsure if they’ll open up Plan A or surprise you with Plan B. This positive unpredictability has lent a dimension that has been hard for the others to match. It perhaps explains why they’ve dictated teams in the last five recent MSI and Worlds.

If a documentary or book is to be written on Chinese dominance in League of Legends, especially at big tournaments, a separate chapter can perhaps be dedicated to 2018, and how the year marked a massive turning point of sorts. It was the dawn of a new era as such, with Invictus Gaming setting stone for a change in trends, where instead of buying established Korean veterans, they tried to nurture young talent and giving them the best of facilities and stipends to ensure they weren’t lost to the sport when they got to a stage where they had to take a call on their professional roadmap forward.

Example: Kang “TheShy” Seung-lok, who was nurtured to be a champion in solo queue. Invictus nurtured a raw talent into an MVP at the 2018 Worlds. He has gone on to win three of the four MSIs since, and is seen as one of the trendsetters.

Today, there are so many like TheShy who have made a name in the academy setup, which is bursting at the seams with talent that can potentially fill up rosters of several teams around the world. The set up below the top level is suffocatingly good in terms of the talent they produce. The onus is now on teams in the region to take a cue from what China has done right. After all, it’s the gold standard of nurturing talent and developing a culture that breeds competence and quality. Can the rest of the world catch up?