by Ai Yunhao
Looking across to other geographies, the esports’ league of nations seems to be only just heating up. Outside of China, Korea is perhaps the most important North Asian player. In fact, a saying is that if China provides the soil, America the products, it was Korea who invented the business models of esports. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, on the back of an unstoppable rise of K-pop, Korean gamers and sponsors combined to turn video game-play into a massive, organized, spectator game/sport with the infusion of professionalism and commercialism.
From K-pop to K-esports
In fact, a saying is that if China provides the soil, America makes the products, it was Korea who invented the business models of esports. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, on the back of an unstoppable rise of K-pop, Korean gamers and sponsors combined to turn video game-play into a massive, organized, spectator game/sport with the infusion of professionalism and commercialism.
Within this Korean-led craze, perhaps no one would better epitomize the ethos of the era than Samsung. Hot on the heels of the Asian crisis, Samsung, hungry for growth, turned to display as one of the potential blockbuster products, alongside with semiconductors and others. To showcase its LCD panels, the foray into esports took the route of sponsoring an Olympic-lookalike. The World Cyber Game (WCG) was organized in 2001 with different games contesting in the same arena, just like different sports are hosted in an Olympic. Later, along with other chaebols like CJ and SK, it began sponsoring and owning professional esports teams under its “Galaxy” flagship, a famous franchise for its smartphone and tablet products. As if a shadow of corporate fortune, several surprising set-backs of the Galaxy teams, together the shift of focus from display to smartphones, resulted in Samsung walking out from the court. Today, its involvement is marginal, although the country’s esports teams are still tournament and league favourites.
Across the Pacific, North America is naturally a key constituent to esports because it is the region which houses many legendary contents and IP rights. Many hardcore games, such as StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Counter-Strike and FIFA have dominated their respective genres for many years (some still going strong). Fundamental to the development of all these games is the existence of a pool of talents and engineers, start-ups and public companies, and an ecosystem that foster the making of wild-opened, enjoyable, exciting products and tournaments, which combine ingenious game settings with state-of-art visual, programming, and lately internet/cloud technologies.
The latest addition to this ecosystem is the depth of the American capital market. The beauty of this was vividly demonstrated by the successful listing in Nasdaq of the world’s first (and so far, the only) esports club, Astralis from Denmark. The club’s November 2019 listing netted US$22m before fees, valuing the loss-making company at around US$75m. Of course, this is still miles apart from established titans like Activision Blizzard (US$55bn) and EA (US$35bn).
This global game of esports has only just heard the kick-off whistle. It is not yet certain whether the final score line will look like one of football or basketball. A lot are to be played out.