When talking about the biggest game developers, TiMi Studios (TiMi) is a name that many Western people might not be familiar with. However, this Chinese studio is behind some of the most played games on the planet, including Honor of Kings (HoK), Arena of Valor (AoV), and Call of Duty: Mobile.
TiMi Studios is already a household name in China’s gaming industry, known as a leading development team within Tencent Games. TiMi has been around since 2008 but its current iteration was created in 2014 when Tencent merged three of its game studios together to focus on developing mobile games.
Today, it has become the biggest game studio group within Tencent Games: It houses seven independent development teams, coded TiMi J1, J2, J3, J5, J6, T1, and L1, with each having a deep specialization in different genres. Honor of Kings, one of the most profitable games in the world, was developed by TiMi-L1 Studio, for example.
Honor of Kings is one of the most influential mobile games in China. However, apart from HoK and AoV, TiMi also developed QQ Speed Mobile (one of the most profitable mobile racing games), as well as numerous smaller yet successful casual games on WeChat. Before TiMi partnered with Activision Blizzard to develop Call of Duty: Mobile, its J3 team worked with Smilegate to develop CrossFire Legends, a mobile version of the biggest first-person shooter game in China.
Lightspeed & Quantium Studios, which developed PUBG MOBILE and Peacekeeper Elite (PUBG MOBILE’s Chinese version), makes up the other major-revenue generating development team within Tencent Games.
When it comes to the multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) and Battle Royale mobile genre, there are always a two releases: a Chinese version and an international version. In some cases this is to appease censors; Peacekeeper Elite changed various gameplay elements from PUBG MOBILE to get approval by the Chinese government.
Instead of creating two versions of the same game, TiMi wanted to assure it could account for different tastes and marketing needs internationally, so while HoK was growing into its own in China, it deployed a second team to develop AoV as an independent title for international audiences.
“While both are mobile MOBA games, the core gameplay is not widely different. AoV offers a much broader fantasy,” Ray Ning, executive producer of Arena of Valor, told The Esports Observer. “HoK is based on Chinese folklore and mythology so the heroes are different from those in AoV. We’ve also tried to account for different tastes internationally and in China, so our systems in the two games for socializing and in-game spending are different as well.”
For example, TiMi adopted multiple custom skins in AoV that would be more familiar to gamers in other regions, such as KFC’s Colonel Sanders, or a Muay Thai boxer skin for Raz. Several DC Comics superheroes, including Batman, Flash, and Wonder Woman, were also added for the western release. Ning also confirmed with The Esports Observer that KFC is also a sponsor for the AoV esports system through the distributor of the game, Garena.
On April 16, TiMi expanded AoV to Russia, the Middle East, and North Africa, looking to add to the game’s 200M registered players.
In terms of global marketing, HoK targets the domestic Chinese player base, while AoV is aimed at international markets. Ray emphasized that AoV and HoK are two different games.
In China, HoK became the first mobile esports to develop a franchised league – the King Pro League (KPL). It also has international tournaments, such as the King Pro League Global Tour (KPLGT), Honor of Kings World Champion Cup, and Honor of Kings Winter Champion Cup.
With HoK looking further afield than its core player base in China, will overseas HoK tournaments start competing with AoV’s esports scene, rather than complimenting it?
“It’s inevitable that AoV esports will continue to distance itself from HoK esports, whether it’s the core gameplay or top design of external events around the games,” Ray said. “Globally speaking, as Chinese domestic gamers are quite different from their peers in Europe, the U.S., and Southeast Asia, we developed tournaments for AoV with a special focus on overseas markets and the demands of their players.”
Compared to HoK’s mature esports ecosystem, Ray mentioned that TiMi and its publishing partners have put up more than $3M USD total prize money for AoV esports tournaments, and will continue to invest in its esports endeavor. From 2018 to 2019, sanctioned esports tournaments of AoV had doubled from 23 to 46.
“An important goal for our team is to create a full ecosystem for competitive play, regardless of your region. We’ve built first-tier, pro scenes as well as second and third-tier competitive scenes so players can find relevant competition. We want to ensure each region has a full ecosystem before launching a professional league,” he said.
In the Southeast Asia (SEA) esports market, AoV has become one of the most popular esports titles. Jeff Chau, the founder and CEO of GameGether, has described his experiences on Medium of going to Thailand and seeing that people were playing and watching AoV competitions at restaurants, cafes, bars, street markets, and even in the lines of people waiting for cabs.
In 2018, AoV was featured in the Jakarta Aisa Games esports demonstrated event, and later as a full medal sport in the 2019 SEA Games in the Philippines.
This is despite the fact that there are plenty of competing MOBA mobile game titles in SEA and the western market, Mobile Legends: Bang Bang by Moonton, and Riot Games’ upcoming League of Legends: Wild Rift in the future. Ning said that TiMi is not concerned with how competitors approach their esports strategies, and is focusing on excelling at its own.
“We are more committed than ever to better serve our users and operate our esports strategies as best we can,” Ray explained. “We’ve spent years paving the way for professional leagues to prosper in Southeast Asia, whether the regions such as Taiwan or countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. We’re seeing promising results in terms of viewership and overall market penetration.”
To face future challenges and competitors, Ray showed confidence in TiMi’s products, and expressed his understanding of esports.
“We see esports as a way to support and engage loyal players and enthusiasts,” Ning said. “Esports is a long-term engagement – and with mobile esports being so new – we know this will only grow over time. It isn’t easy. There’s going to be struggles along the way.”
Now, the world is experiencing a tough time due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, and the esports industry is no exception. Plenty of major esports tournaments have been suspended or canceled, such as Dota 2’s The International (suspended until at least 2021) and The League of Legends Mid-Season Invitational (canceled). TiMi thinks the pandemic is a boost for indoor gaming, but is taking its toll on esports.
TiMi confirmed to The Esports Observer that the company has canceled the 2020 Arena of Valor World Championship, which was scheduled for June.
“The gaming industry somewhat benefited when the number of active hourly users grew,” said Ray, “But the pandemic has rightly taken a toll on the esports industry, especially for TiMi’s global esports events.”
On May 13, Tencent reported its Q1 2020 financial results, and saw its quarterly revenues from online games increase by 31% year-over-year to ￥37.3B RMB ($5.26B), which primarily contributed to by TiMi’s Honor of Kings, and Lightspeed & Quantium Studios’ Peacekeeper Elite.
In-person esports events are not viable during the global pandemic; though major tournaments like the League of Legends Pro League (LPL) and KPL have shifted to online remote play, without offline live audiences. That strategy was based on a unified country with an effective internet environment. However, hosting online international tournaments even with nearby countries like Thailand or Vietnam becomes almost impossible, given the huge speed limitations of cross-border internet connections.
“Running competitive online esports tournaments requires demanding internet speed and a stable environment,” said Ray. “We can’t compromise our competitive integrity and the standard we’ve set for AoV esports. Hosting all professional players in one spot is not an option we felt comfortable taking during this time, and existing global travel restrictions.”
While TiMi Studios’ most successful games have clearly targeted competitive players who are active esports fans, the developer is also expanding its global audience. In July of 2019, Tencent Games announced TiMi Studios signed a partnership with The Pokemon Company (TPC) to create a new Pokemon game. TiMi confirmed to The Esports Observer, it is still working on this partnership with TPC and will share more details in the future.
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