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Right now, when people think of the biggest esports tournaments, what might come to mind is the League of Legends World Championship, Dota 2’s The International, or a CS:GO Major.
In its short but fast-paced history, esports has seen a transformation from multi-game tournaments hosted solely by third-party companies, to more individual game tournaments hosted by game publishers or third-party partners like ESL, FACEIT, etc.
The World Cyber Games (WCG) 2019 was the comeback of one of the industry’s oldest multi-game tournament brands. Held between July 18-21, the event was a partnership between WCG Ltd., production company Banana Culture, and the host city of Xi’an. A total of 144 esports players from 34 different countries took part in this tournament, and competed in 16 esports titles, including Dota 2, Warcraft III, Honor of Kings, Hearthstone, CrossFire, and Clash Royale.
While the WCG is still important for China’s esports industry, the challenges of hosting an Olympic-style tournament in this day and age, as well as the reasons why we still need multi-game tournaments in the esports ecosystem, remains up for debate.
Why is WCG So Important to the Chinese Esports Industry?
At present, China has largely recognized esports as a sport, with both local and central governments providing a significant amount of support to the industry in a variety of ways. Ten years ago, esports was still a controversial topic in Chinese society; most people didn’t understand the difference between esports and videogames, and most professional players didn’t have a basic salary for living expenses.
“Most of the time, we didn’t know how to explain to our parents, friends, and even ourselves – what is esports?,” Wu “Dido” Jingjing, CEO of Dido Esports, told The Esports Observer. Jingjing was also the official host for the WCG 2009 in Chengdu. “We just believed we were doing something different from videogaming, something like sports. But we couldn’t imagine it properly until Li “SKY” Xiaofeng won the championship of WCG Warcraft III in 2005 and 2006.”
After Li was crowned champion of WCG Warcraft III 2005 and 2006, photos of him raising the Chinese national flag and standing on stage went viral in China, providing evidence of what esports could look like, and proving that these events were not just about videogames. Even China Central Television (CCTV – the national state-run television broadcaster in Mainland China) regarded Li as a symbol of the Chinese esports industry.
“WCG was one of the biggest esports tournaments,” Li told The Esports Observer. “Winning the 2005 and 2006 WCG championship changed my life. Even now, winning a WCG Warcraft III competition is still the highest honor for any Warcraft III player, I believe.”
In many ways, the old WCG events contributed to the positive image of both Li among the Chinese people, as well as the identity of esports in China. In 2009, WCG was held in Chengdu, and brought in over 82,000 attendees (according to China News Radio). It comes as no surprise that the final two WCG events before its discontinuation in 2014 were held back-to-back in Kunshan. Prior to this, no WCG had been held in the same city two years in a row, and only Seoul, South Korea, had held more than one event.
Challenges of Hosting a Multi-Game Tournament Like WCG
The WCG is considered a classic example of an Olympic inspired esports event. The competition focuses not on players in one single game title, but on the players’ performance as a country across multiple games. A tournament organizer typically has the right to choose which esports titles will be in their event, though when involving nationalism, there may be restrictions on choosing games that are deemed too violent, from a government’s perspective. A model like WCG’s allows both amateurs and professional players to represent their country and compete together.
In the early stages of esports’ history, the WCG developed a positive reputation for itself, and made the players and audiences alike a source of pride for their country. But with more investment and money injected into the scene, world-class professional players and teams now have a choice: compete for honor or money. This change largely started with Valve’s The International for Dota 2. The first event in 2011 offered a breakthrough $1.6M USD total prize pool. In that same year, the WCG awarded just $300K in prize money, across 10 game titles and with over 600 players competing.
The WCG was originally a Samsung-backed international competition series, which ran from 2000-2013, before its closure in 2014. In 2017, the WCG brand was acquired by Korean game publisher Smilegate, creator of the first-person shooter title CrossFire. In 2018, it was announced that the WCG would be reborn in Xi’an, after a six-year break, with Samsung returning this time as an external sponsor. The 2019 WCG’s total prize pool was just $612.5K.
The reboot of the WCG is also the fourth time the event has been held in China, and for two of its official esports titles, CrossFire and Honor of Kings, the vast majority of players come from that country. It is understandable that Smilegate added its own game, CrossFire, to the mix but Honor of Kings is still barely played by Western gamers. On the other hand, Honor of Kings’ inclusion ensured that a large number of the Chinese audience would attend.
Unsurprisingly, two of China’s four gold medals were won in CrossFire and Honor of Kings, pushing the country to the top of the medals ranking table in the WCG.
During the time that WCG ceased operations from 2014-2019, the esports industry has skyrocketed. The League of Legends World Champion grand final, hosted in Beijing Bird’s Nest Arena, reached a 40,000 full seat capacity in 2017. The Fortnite World Cup featured a $30M total prize pool. Dota 2’s ninth edition of The International competition, to be hosted in Shanghai, has a crowdfunded prize pool higher than $30M.
In the history of third-party multi-game tournaments, the highest prize pool event was the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG) in 2018-2019, with a $ 2.5M total prize pool for its grand finals. Like the WCG, this competition is heavily modeled after the Olympics, with teams based on national identity, though WESG organizer Alisports has publicly stated that the event brand so far has resulted in a loss in investment for the company.
“From a prize money perspective, third-party multi-game tournaments do not have the advantages of individual game publisher tournaments, like The International or Fortnite World Cup,” a board member of one of the biggest Chinese esports organizers (who asked not to be identified) told The Esports Observer. “Running a third party multi-game tournament in China is harder than you think.”
Some of the issues in running these kinds of events in China include:
- Public safety and fire control. China has the largest population of any country in the world. A tournament organizer needs to partner with the event’s local government to check every part of the venue, and provide a number of safeguards regarding public safety and fire control if there is a massive crowd. These tournaments normally use the same venues as sports games or concerts, which are easier to use in regards to health and safety.
- High risks of using public game servers. Tournaments like WCG have multiple game titles, which means it’s difficult for every game publisher to provide exclusive game servers for the players to compete. If there is a bad internet connection in a public server, the tournament organizer can only wait for the issue to be fixed.
- Internet capacity issues. Right now, most mobile esports titles are played using wireless internet connections. It’s hard to imagine how much internet capacity is needed when thousands of audience members and fans stand in a venue, also all using their phones. Normally, tournament organizers will set up multiple stations, carrying massive internet capacity equipment around the venue. But, it’s still hard to maintain a stable internet connection.
Esports: Weighing the Value of Honor Versus Gold
On July 21, the final day of the 2019 WCG Xi’an, Dota 2’s The International prize pool surpassed $30M. In comparison, the total prize pool money of the 2019 WCG Xi’an was only $612.5K, and that’s across all game titles.
Despite the challenges (smaller prize pools, for example) and high risks in hosting a multi-game tournament (for both organizers and local governments), events like the WCG are still important to show how many competitive game titles are played throughout the industry at any given time. With more game titles released every year, it’s difficult to identify which game should be an esport or not. If successful, the WCG, and tournaments like it, could showcase to those who want to work in esports that a single game cannot represent the whole industry.
Pi Jie, a seasoned Chinese esports journalist who writes content for People Esports (a division of China Daily), posted a personal statement on the Chinese social media platform Weibo: “An event like WCG is more like a free communication platform for multiple esports professions. But in events like individual tournaments, hosted by game publishers, it’s really hard to get the real information and dig deep into insights and opinions [as an esports journalist]. Your voice has been controlled, and you have to show your devotion to the game publisher, and also the game.”
Another benefit of a multi-game tournament vs. a publisher-run event is there is room for side-events that are not only unrelated to the games played, but even esports as a whole. For years, the WCG slogan has been “Beyond the Game,” but this year added the second line: “More Than Sports.” James Park, business development director of WCG Inc. told The Esports Observer that this slogan reflects the future expectations of the competition and its marquee events, which this year included several atypical gaming competitions in the fields of VR and AI programming.
“We do not just want to host a tournament for professional players, but also a platform for amateur players and professional players,’ said Park. “We want to go beyond the game, so we hosted the WCG esports conference and brought the first TED talk to the country.”
“Win the trophy, and no one will remember the second place” is a phrase widely used in China’s esports industry. Au Hiu Fung Angus, who won the bronze medal of AI Masters (one of the esports titles of WCG, which is essentially a programming competition), told The Esports Observer: “I’m not a professional player and maybe never want to become a professional esports player. Programming is my hobby and I’m honored to compete with good players.”
The WCG will take place again in 2020, Lee Jung Jun, the CEO of WCG, confirmed at the WCG closing ceremony. “We are one of the world’s longest-running esports competitions,” he said. “The WCG opened an exciting new chapter for our future. We fostered participation and harmony and used the spirit of competition to point the way forward for everyone.”
Whether esports is a sport remains a heated topic. In some ways, esports has surpassed traditional sports; for example, the $30M awarded in the Fortnite World Cup and The International exceeding the $29.8M prize pool of Wimbledon. But in comparing esports and games in general, esports is a marketing tool for game publishers, especially those who own both the game and the tournament or league property.
On a larger scale, most of the more popular esports titles in China are either owned or controlled by Tencent, as the Chinese conglomerate owns or has stakes in almost every esports game publisher. If esports is a phenomenon “beyond the game or sport,” as the WCG 2019 slogan suggests, then esports will continue to develop its own distinct culture. Multi-game tournaments, run independently, remain the best way for the community at large to identify key esports titles, rather than leaving it up to the game publishers to tighten the market.
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