Baseball may be Taiwan’s century-old pastime, but there’s a new game in town. An eSports league organized by Activision Blizzard, an interactive entertainment company with nearly 500 million monthly active users, kicks off this weekend in Taipei as eight professional teams prepare to go head-to-head over a combined prize pool valued at NT$8.3 million (US$272,700).
This marks the inaugural tournament in Blizzard eStadium, the company’s first permanent eSports arena, which opened last month.
It seats up to 250 fans and joins 120-seat Garena e-sports Stadium, opened in 2014, as dedicated sites built to host multiplayer video game competitions in the island’s capital. Fans are also watching the action on their computers or mobile devices. Garena said a tournament last summer attracted 1.5 million online viewers.
With ever-growing fan bases, gamers are shedding the image of hobbyists idling time at a computer and instead gaining recognition as brand icons. Signaling eSports’ growing mainstream appeal, President Tsai Ing-wen last month visited with Flash Wolves, one of Taiwan’s most successful teams, and affirmed gaming as a professional sport.
Flash Wolves put Taiwan on the global eSports radar in February this year by winning the Intel Extreme Masters Season XI World Championship for League of Legends. League of Legends is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game played by a reported 100 million people each month.
The new investment from Blizzard should help Taiwan build on its eSports successes abroad and raise the standard of its competitions at home.
“Blizzard is a big brand and well known among the Taiwan eSports community,” said Will Chiou, a former competitive gamer in Taipei. “It gives an instant boost in credibility and faith in eSports.”
Blizzard’s new league in Taiwan will stretch over 11 weeks from April 8 and features a combined eight teams from Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia and the island itself.
Known as the Overwatch Pacific Championship, teams will compete in weekly matches playing Overwatch, the company’s popular first-person shooter game. The winning squad will be awarded NT$3 million and the others are guaranteed a portion of the total prize pool.
Elsewhere in the region, South Korea and China remain the key cogs powering growth in competitive gaming. Eight of the world’s top 15 earning eSports players come from China, with highest ranked Chinese Li Peng who uses the ID “iceice” taking in a career total of US$2 million in prize money, according to the website e-Sports Earnings. Meanwhile, South Korean teams have won the past four League of Legends World Championships.
ESports is fast on its way to becoming a billion dollar industry. In 2016, it generated revenues of US$900 million, with about one-third coming from the Asia-Pacific region, and should produce US$1.4 billion in 2019, according to SuperData.
Going forward, this region stands to be a key focal point for the industry. Newzoo, a gaming market intelligence provider, said one out of every two eSports fans this year will be based in the Asia-Pacific region and that followers in Southeast Asia would double by 2019.
“ESports is not only growing exponentially as a new independent business and industry, it is also accelerating the convergence of various established industries,” said Peter Warman, chief executive at Newzoo. “Gaming has entered the realm of broadcasters and media that can now apply their advertising business model to a market previously out of reach for them.”
Amazon paid nearly US$1 billion in 2014 to acquire Twitch, a live-streaming video site often used to broadcast gaming competitions. In response, Google created YouTube Gaming in 2015 to provide a portal of relevant videos for more than 25,000 games.
In Asia, Alibaba pledged to invest US$150 million in eSports initiatives as part of its exclusive partnership with the International e-Sports Federation announced in July 2016. It disclosed plans to create eSports stadiums in China and also advocate for including gaming in the Olympics.
Start-ups have also found opportunities to benefit from the rise in eSports. Kek.tv in Hong Kong secured US$2.5 million in seed financing last year for an app that consolidates gaming video and news content from around the world.
It’s not just private companies who are vying for a seat at the table either. The Hong Kong Tourism Board said it was considering hosting eSports events to increase visitor arrivals, according to the South China Morning Post. Japan signaled its support to eSports last year by granting work visas for the first time to gamers. Meanwhile in China, eSports has been an official sport since 2003 and was approved as an educational major since last year.