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China's esports ambitions

Collage illustration of Jack Ma, Alibaba, and Ma Huateng, Tenecent, over a historical image of basketball players from China.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

China's tech giants have invested aggressively to expand esports in ways that U.S. tech platforms, like Amazon's Twitch and Google's YouTube, have not.

Why it matters: Those investments are what could drive the Chinese gaming community ahead of some international rivals, despite being smaller in reported revenue.. for now. (The Chinese esports market is expected to double to $1.5 billion by 2020.)

Be smart: Chinese tech giants bill the majority of its revenue as "value-added services" (like free games and chat features), not ad revenue.

  • Even though this is done mostly to avoid regulatory scrutiny around mobile gaming, it incentivizes those firms to grow broader cultures and lifestyles that bolster esports engagement beyond video views.

The big picture: Alibaba and Tencent use unparalleled reach across e-commerce, logistics, entertainment and tech to change the way its users consume, interact with and participate in sports.

  • This allows them to collect an enormous amount of user data to use for cross-platform promotions for games.

Chinese esports have taken off for a couple of reasons:

  1. Culturally, esports allows users to express individuality, through customized "skins" or digital costumes, that is often repressed by Chinese society.
  2. Economically, esports are mostly mobile in China, so users are loyal to gaming franchises, like "Army of Valor," or "Clash of Kings" instead of hardware platforms like PlayStations or X-boxes. Because of this, "gaming in China is for everybody," says Humphrey Ho, managing partner at Hylink, China's largest independent ad agency.

Between the lines: Ho notes that because Chinese gamers are mostly mobile, they tend to play different games throughout the day with different friends. U.S. gamers tend to binge game, and thus spend less money incrementally.

Go deeper: Twitch's rise brings trouble and opportunity for Amazon