Earlier this year, in parallel with its push to become an international events destination, Hong Kong spent $5 million on a three-day esports festival celebrating the vast and varied gaming cultures of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), League of Legends and Counter-Strike: Gobal Offensive. Nearly $13 million of the city’s 2018–19 budget is devoted to promoting the sport this year. In addition to the festival, the promotion includes mass-scale “venue innovation,” aka building new arenas and repurposing facilities to focus on gaming
The goal of all this money and promotional effort is to make Hong Kong the gaming and esports capital of the world. But further than tourism and extracurriculars, Hong Kong’s largest youth nongovernmental organization, the Federation of Youth Groups (FYG), hopes to frame gaming as a viable career for the region’s youth. And the effort is not based merely on the belief that are awesome. Rather, as Hong Kong’s government looks to diversify its growing economy, creating new jobs in gaming will help capitalize on the near-billion-dollar global industry. But according to a 2018 study by the FYG:
80 percent of Hong Kong youth have no interest in a career in esports.
The respondents, ages 15 to 29, cited peer and parental pressure, the lack of career prospects and the stigma associated with video games as reasons holding them back. Comparatively, a recent study by Staffordshire University, in conjunction with the UK Interactive Entertainment Association, showed that a whopping 88 percent of students, ages 12 to 18, were more interested in gaming careers following the London Games Festival last April.
But if you thought the opinions of a bunch of teenagers would stop Hong Kong from pursuing its destiny as an esports mecca, think again. In response to this apparent disinterest, the FYG is asking China’s government for an assist. To boost the domestic image of esports, the federation is pushing for investment that treats gaming like any other sport or high-income professional opportunity. Much like a graduate school or major European soccer system, that means building a complex that houses an arena, training facilities and player lodging to aid long-term development. The federation is also calling on China to formally designate gaming as an official sport.
“We don’t have world-class talents. That’s the reality,” Roy Kwong, founder of Hong Kong’s Kowloon E-stadium, told Abacus News in September. “But what we can do is to provide quality service for tournaments and such. And we need people to understand that and be part of the industry.”
Hong Kong is confronted with a harsh reality: China’s rabid gaming fans are just that — fans. Perhaps it’s Hong Kong’s lack of sporting identity — in naming its first-ever commissioner for sports in 2016, Hong Kong only recently turned attention to promoting sports as a necessary pillar of culture. Perhaps the industry’s perceived lack of job security conflicts with China’s cultural ideals. Whatever the root cause, Hong Kong’s kids are treating careers in esports just like they do those in traditional sports: with indifference. A 2016 study showed that Hong Kong’s prisoners get more exercise than its schoolchildren, and that professional interests in health and sports are waning.
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“The key is building more local live events so that kids see esports welcoming everyone,” says Drew “Hashtag” Crowder, a professional gamer and event manager who specializes in producing regional esports events. “The giant mega tournaments are exciting and so fun to be around, but the kids just feel like fans. In a way, they’re a step removed.”
But while grass-roots enthusiasm is a proven strategy for building rabid interest in any entertainment genre — just look at the And1 streetball tour that took over America in the early to mid-aughts — that fandom is difficult to convert into aspiring players. The And1 Tour fans who dropped out of school, convinced that they could be the next “Professor” or “Spyda,” weren’t enough to keep streetball on top (thankfully). The true challenge for Hong Kong will be educating its young people — and, in the case of its elder population, re-educating — about esports’ moneymaking potential.
On a macro level, the push to embrace gaming gels with the moment in Hong Kong, where the government is hellbent on diversifying an economy dependent on banking and the service industry. That diversification has birthed new opportunities for business focused on technology and innovation. In other words, industries like gaming.
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“There is massive potential in China,” says Allied eSports founder Jud Hannigan. Along with arenas in North America and Europe, Allied operates two event locations in China, one in Beijing and one in Shenzhen. “The goal is creating these ripe communities where you can distribute content to the next generation of gamers. You’re already seeing it catch on in certain regions,” Hannigan says.
While the unofficial sport experiences growing pains in Hong Kong, that’s not the case in Shanghai, which in August was named the venue for next year’s International Dota 2 tournament — aka the richest tournament in esports. For the first time ever, the ID2 will take place off North American soil. If all goes well and Hong Kong follows through with its developmental plans, perhaps the tournament will return to China. Like Hannigan and the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups, accounting firm PwC sees potential in Hong Kong. By 2021, PwC predicts annual revenues of $1 billion in Hong Kong’s video game industry alone. Or, you know, equal to the global market in 2018.
A noob for now, Hong Kong might just pick up its overshield.