ESport a booming industry for Shanghai

Video games offering more opportunities for men and women to make participation a lifelong career.

Video games have been an essential part of Wang Hailei’s life since he first encountered a game called “The Legend of Sword and Fairy 3” in 1996. Now, 22 years later, he has grown from a casual player to a professional gamer and eventually a co-founder of an electronic sports club that is active in domestic and international tournaments.

Wang, in his mid-30s, believes eSport will be a long-term — even lifelong — career, not only because it is where his passion lies, but also that Shanghai is expected to be the next world center for eSport.

“It is a fortunate era for eSport practitioners, as the society has developed a higher acceptance toward eSport,” Wang says. “Both the government and capitals are optimistic about the prospect of the market.”

In 1998, when Wang first took part in tournaments, eSport was still a niche subcultural activity, at least in China. For the next few years, the most popular competitive game was “Starcraft” and “Warcraft 3,” both released by Blizzard Entertainment.

“‘Warcraft 3: The Frozen Zone’ was my favorite game and I believe I was really good at it,” Wang says. “I could compete with the best players in the country. And now I think I’m too old for this. Now I lead a bunch of kids half my age to the tournament battleground, and I lay my hopes and dreams on them.”

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Gamer-turned-owner Wang Hailei is now a co-founder of an electronic sports club.

Wang still chose “proper jobs” after graduation. But as a senior project manager and then CEO of a PC components company, he still had opportunities to support the eSport industry. When he and friends founded the Family Club in 2016, he felt his long-time wish had been fulfilled.

Preferring to be defined by her screen name, Huniu-Sherry had a similar experience to Wang’s. Starting as an eSport player, she is now a coach and manager for eSport teams in Shanghai. As a woman, Huniu meets with more pressure from both family and society, but she believes that everything will change with the industry expected to give women more opportunities in the future.

Born in Huangshi, Hubei Province, Huniu has been a hardcore video player since childhood, or in her words, “a black sheep in the family.” In 2007, she participated in a “Crazyracing Kartrider” tournament and won the Hubei Province championship, which allowed her to compete in the national finals.

“Two years later, I joined a women’s team for the game ‘Defense of the Ancients’ (DotA),” she says. “That was my official start in eSport.”

Her family, however, thought professional gaming was not a proper job, and tried to stop her whenever they could.

“I told my father that it was the path I chose and even if there was a ditch on the way I was willing to give it a try,” she says. “And I had also ‘threatened’ him that he had to let me go if he didn’t want me to be a NEET (not in education, employment or training) that lives entirely on them.”

Professional gaming training is more difficult than leisure game-playing but Huniu never felt it was too hard for women to deal with. She and her teammates trained for at least 12 hours for a session and they didn’t have a coach and had to discuss all the strategies and skills themselves.

Compared with male gamers, women are said to meet more challenges and face more stereotypes in the eSport industry. Many coaches, players and even audiences believe women players can’t compete with men because women “don’t understand games as good as men do.” But Huniu doesn’t believe that.

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Huniu-Sherry (right) instructs a team from Taiwan in a competition.

“I have met several women players that can defeat their men counterparts,” she says. “Sometimes women might be more emotional than men and sometimes might tend to make mistakes, but they can definitely understand gameplay as good as men.”

But at present there are not many professional competitions for women, and that’s part of the reason why Huniu chose to go behind the scene. She hopes that with the development of eSport in Shanghai in the future, the situation can change for the better.

“Besides, it is true that now many audiences focus more on women players’ appearance than their techniques, I believe eventually the situation would change as well,” Huniu says. “For example, people now wouldn’t pay much attention to how the players look in women’s soccer or volleyball matches, because it’s their performances that truly shine.”

Huniu’s optimism is not groundless. In recent years many women clubs have formed and they seize every opportunity to prove themselves in competitions, even if many are small commercial events.

The KA Women’s eSport Club is one of them. It has four departments that compete in four different games, such as “League of Legends” (LOL) and “Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG).

“I don’t think many casual game players even know that women’s eSport is a thing,” says Xiaoyue’er, an 18-year-old KA member. “But we will make it known how much we have devoted to take on our professional career.”

Whether they are players or other practitioners, eSport professionals have found their places in the district in Shanghai, and this is no accident. Shanghai has always been an e-Sport holyland for Chinese players as most professional clubs are formed or headquartered in the city.

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A member of the KA Women's eSport Club competes in a game.

Lingshi Road in Jing’an District is a meme in eSport fandom as several top eSport clubs in China have gathered here. Three clubs, IMay, EDG and Snake, are “the big three” for their outstanding performances in the LOL tournaments. Fans joke that in many LOL tournaments it is always the Lingshi Road “civil war.”

Now the Pudong New Area is expected to join the road to become a new “pilgrimage site.” Being expected to develop into a core zone for eSport, Pudong will create friendly environment to attract first-class eSport clubs, competitions and game developers. The first step is that Steam, the world’s biggest game distribution platform, would settle in the area, cooperating with Chinese game developer Perfect World.

At present, numerous favorite games, such as PUBG and “Defense of the Ancients 2,” are available at reasonable prices on Steam, so the platform will indirectly cultivate eSport talent with potential. It is expected to play a similar role in China.

Wang says despite eSport being a fairly young industry that has much space of improvement, it also creates opportunities for people from all walks of life.

“With eSport operated more professionally, there are many needs in the industry other than players,” he says. “Professionals are much needed for coaching, management, nutrition management, mental healthcare to competition operation, broadcasting and promotion. We are still at the cash-burning period of the industry and still need support from the entire society, including the government, enterprises and even families.”

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