eSports' growing popularity results in mega home arenas for Chinese teams

LGD Gaming's multimillion-dollar eSports home venue in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou packs in pumped-up fans several times a month for LGD's matches in the League of Legends Pro League. PHOTO: AFP

HANGZHOU, CHINA (AFP) - Tucked away in a nondescript furniture mall, LGD Gaming's multimillion-dollar eSports home venue may not bring to mind Old Trafford or Yankee Stadium, but it could represent the future of sport.

The 400-seat arena in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou packs in pumped-up fans several times a month for LGD's matches in the League of Legends Pro League (LPL), a 14-club professional eSports competition that this year began playing in purpose-built home venues.

eSports is booming in China, driven by popular games such as League of Legends and Dota2, raising hopes of eventual Olympic inclusion and turning young players into rich celebrities.

Specially designed eSports arenas are appearing in the United States and China to accommodate growing crowds attending multi-team tournaments.

But the LPL's "home stadiums" put China ahead of the curve, industry insiders said.

"Home venues let the club localise its fan base," said Mr Yang Shunhua, LGD's general manager. "It gives fans more opportunity to meet the athletes and clubs. It's the future of eSports."

Beginning play in 2013, LPL matches were staged in Shanghai, Mr Yang said.

But Chinese Internet giant Tencent, the league's owner, is encouraging teams to lay down local roots.

Three clubs now have home arenas - the others are in the southwestern cities of Chongqing and Chengdu - and more are planned, Mr Yang said.

Whether the strategy proves successful remains to be seen, but there is no shortage of ambition at LGD's flashy facility, which Mr Yang said cost 30 million yuan (S$6 million).

Occupying 2,200 sq m, it features press conference venues, fan zones, practice spaces, a bar, gift shop and high-tech control rooms where squads of young technicians coordinate Web broadcasts to millions of spectators.

On stage, LGD's five-man squad sit like astronauts at futuristic consoles, controlling avatars who battle a team from the city of Nanjing on a 7m wide screen above them. Announcers breathlessly call the action, play-by-play.

In the stands, around 400 fans, sitting in chairs with massage functions, bang thundersticks and roar whenever the on-screen action - a frantic brawl in a fantasy world - heats up.

Mr Yao Jian, 23, used to stock up on snacks and binge-watch eSports on his phone or computer at home in the city of Wuxi. Now he regularly makes the several-hour trip to Hangzhou.

"The atmosphere at the stadium is explosive," he said, adding that even an introvert like him ends up cheering. "Home stadiums give us a sense of belonging."

Chinese eSports is increasingly resembling big-time sports in other ways as well.

LGD's full squad is mostly Chinese but includes two Korean imports and Mr Yang says transfer fees for top LPL players have reached several million dollars.

The global professional eSports industry will grow 38 per cent in 2018 to US$906 million (S$1.1 billion) in revenue, industry analyst Newzoo has forecast, with China representing 18 per cent of that, third behind the US and Europe.

Around 380 million fans worldwide will watch professional eSports events this year, Newzoo said.

US-based Allied Esports has built several venues in the United States, Europe and China, where it also organises competitions.

Chief executive Jud Hannigan said Allied Esports, a consortium of Chinese sports and entertainment companies, is talking with several other cities in China, hoping to add to its arenas in Beijing and Shenzhen.

"Previously you had to find space to rent, plus equipment and people. You could spend millions of dollars to set up a space over five days, only to rip it down. It's not very efficient," he said.

"We are having a lot of interesting conversations with cities that recognise this is where the future is and they are saying, 'how do we bring this to our town?'"

Top Chinese LPL players earn as much as US$1.5 million per year, Mr Yang said.

"It gives our youths more choices. It's not like before when all you could do was study. Now there are other roads," he said.

LGD's 23-year-old captain Chen Bo admits he was a truant, blowing off school to play computer games - to his parents' dismay.

But mum and dad feel better now that his growing earnings bought them a previously out-of-reach house and car.

A home stadium brings committed, adoring fans.

But Mr Chen, whose player handle is "Pyl", eschews the female supporters who send gifts and dating requests.

At LGD's match, several of them held illuminated screens with messages of support for their heroes.

Mr Chen admits fan-player romances are common, but says the pro game's high-stakes pressure, in which one weak performance can cripple a career, leaves him little time for that.

"When playing professionally it can be pretty hard on the woman because there is so little time to spend with them," he said.

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