The ever-evolving global eSport community has had its focus fixed on Chongqing over the weekend as the southwest Chinese metropolis played host to the 3rd World Electronic Sports Games (WESG).
More than 550 players came to China to represent 58 countries and regions after an arduous regional qualifying schedule that started mid-2018.
“The coverage and the reach of this event is rapidly growing, even after just three years,” said Liu Yang, vice-president of strategic cooperation at event organisers Alisports.
“Each year we grow, and we learn. At times this week the live [streaming] rooms have played to audiences of over three million so that is an indication of the global reach of eSports.”
Games represented included well-established titles such as Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) and Defense of the Ancients 2 (DOTA2), the military/science fiction themed StarCraft II and Hearthstone, which is based on a mystical card-turning game.
There was also for the first time the combat-themed Vainglory and football’s Pro Evolution Soccer 2019, the latter’s inclusion an indication of how eSports event organisers are exploring online adaptations of more traditional sports.
To be included at traditional international multi-sports events, eSports games must not be “negative”, suggested Wei Jizhong, honorary vice-president of the Olympic Council of Asia, and a long-time supporter of eSports in Asia.
“Over the past few years we have seen eSports grow but we are still working out just how they can fit in when it comes to major multi-sport events,” he said. “This week WESG has been showing us what is possible. eSports are growing by themselves and maybe it is time to stop comparing them to other more traditional sports.”
There was plenty of star power on show at the vast Chongqing Olympic Sports Centre, with hundreds of fans lining up for the chance of an autograph and a selfie with global eSports stars such as Chinese CS:Go champion Wu “Sakula” RunBo and Canadian StarCraft II hero Sasha « Scarlett » Hostyn, as well as the wildly popular Chinese players-turned-commentators Huang Xudong and Sun Yifeng.
Champion Finnish gamer Joona “Serral” Sotala was also in town for the StarCraft II competition.
“Things have improved each time,” said Serral, who has competed at all three WESG editions. “We don’t get much of a chance to meet our Chinese fans so that is always a great opportunity. It’s very different to what we are used to and I guess it is showing us some of the future of eSports.”
Chongqing – which took over this year as host of WESG from the southern Chinese island of Hainan – has positioned itself as China’s eSports capital thanks to a supportive local government. There has also been the by event organisers Alisports – the sports unit of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd – to establish their eSports division in this city of some 15 million people.
“We decided to hold the next 10 WESG events in Chongqing and that shows a long-term cooperation with the city,” said Liu
“We think the future here is very exciting. More and more titles will be added to what we are doing, including more games based on traditional sports.”
The organisers of eSports events – like the players – are constantly searching for new territories to explore and China has been at the forefront of its expansion over the past decade.
The figures, for those still uninitiated of eSports, are staggering, with leading gaming industry researcher Newzoo predicting the global industry will generate revenues of USD 1.1 billion in 2019, a year-on-year rise of 26.7 per cent, stemming from a global online gaming community of around 2.3 billion people.
China has an online gaming community that numbers an estimated where 620 million players and the prediction is that the country will account for 19 per cent – or around USD 201 million – of that global turnover this year.
There was a debut for eSports as an exhibition event at last year’s Asian Games in Jakarta and they will debut as medal event at the 2022 Games in Hangzhou, China. Alisports are the OCA’s official eSports partner for the next Asian Games and are an official sponsor of the International Olympic Committee.
High-profile stars from traditional sports have been adding their weight to eSports’ rise.
Outside the main arena in the fan zone in Chongqing there are huge images of National Basketball Association (NBA) players Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers and Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics heralding their sponsorship deals with game accessory brand HyperX.
eSports teams are now being sponsored by athletes and by major sporting franchises as diverse as French football’s Paris Saint-Germain and the Adelaide Crows, who ply their trade in the Australian Football League.
The fittingly futuristic American space rock outfit Starset performed at a glittering ceremony on Saturday night that featured an Olympics-style parade of gamers and national flags before the gamers returned to their consoles – and to action.
“We are only just getting started,” said Liu.