A remote, impoverished township aspires to become China’s ‘e-sports’ hub

By Jiemian.com Source:Global Times Published: 2017/10/24 19:06:20

Boom in online gaming industry is changing China’s hinterland


Rural Zhongxian county is investing 5 billion yuan in the construction of China's very first gaming town

Doubters wonder if the poor town are in way over their heads

Hundreds of towns and counties have been pursuing the status of "characteristic town" to seize opportunities for development

An overview of part of Zhongxian county. Photo: VCG

In a small, drowsy county in Southwest China barely heard of by most people, rows of giant steel structures are currently under construction within the tree-covered mountains.

It is part of a national electric sports competition that will soon open in Zhongxian county, Chongqing Municipality.

Named China Mobile E-Sports Games (CMEG), the event will be jointly held by the General Administration of Sports and a telecom company. To host the event, an emerging, 5 billion yuan ($754 million) "e-sports town" covering 3.2 square kilometers is being constructed to provide space for e-sports venues, an e-sports college and an industrial incubator that will form a complete industrial chain of e-sports.

The earliest phase of this plan will cost 1.4 billion yuan, and reach 5 billion yuan upon completion. So it is no surprise that, when the county first announced its plan in April, it was met with torrential waves of questions and concerns.

Like other small counties in Chongqing and Sichuan Province along the banks of the Yangtze River, besides the fact that half of the county had been submerged underwater due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, Zhongxian is not known for anything particularly special, especially not e-sports programs.

The county had only lifted itself out of the municipal-level poverty list in 2016. Without even a train station, visitors to Zhongxian first must arrive in Chongqing city, then take a three-and-a-half-hour bus along rural roads.

Although many wonder if this massive plan is within the county's financial capability, advocates for the program say Zhongxian will greatly benefit from CMEG and its new e-sports town.

Visitors play the Winning Eleven 2018 video game at the Tokyo Game Show on September 23 in Chiba, Japan. Photo: VCG

Setting the standard

Divided by the Yangtze River, Zhongxian is mostly undeveloped green areas to the south and populated areas to the north. Its south bank is the key to its progress. Fuxing township along the southern bank, where the e-sports town will be located, is expected to develop quickly.

The concept of an e-sports town is not fresh, but Zhongxian is the first to make it happen, and in such a short period of time. It could very well become the first e-sports town in China to be put into actual use.

A single e-sports stadium is not enough, however, to be officially called an e-sports town. So the town will also include a digital assets verification center and trade center, an e-sports college, a software detection center and other supporting facilities.

Each facility has the potential to attract social capital, which will constitute the industrial chain it demands. As the plan goes, the stadium (built by the government at 1.4 billion yuan) was only a starting point for the new town. Social capital and capable enterprises will fill up the remaining 3.6 billion yuan investment.

To Yi Hui, cultural commission chief for the county, the starting point does not mean only building China's first e-sports stadium. Moreover, it is exploring a model that can be copied nationwide. "There is no example as to what the town should look like. We are setting the standard."

In recent years, many e-sports stadiums have emerged in Beijing and Shanghai. But Yi does not regard them as "stadiums," because they are "small, mostly only thousands of square meters. There is no big stadium like ours yet."

Realizing its dreams


Yi said that the new town's digital assets verification center and trade center, as well as the software detection center, have already signed cooperation contracts with relevant authorities at the Ministry of Public Security and China Academy of Information and Communications Technology.

The e-sports college is expected to cooperate with Chongqing University of Posts and Telecommunications. The town will also set aside commercial and residential areas. "Many big real estate developers are interested, but the specific proportion has yet to be decided," Yi told jiemian.com.

But the virtual road, like those leading to the county itself, has been bumpy, as many doubt whether this impoverished, sleepy county has the ability to realize its big dreams.

Zhongxian's GDP in 2016 was 24.07 billion yuan, ranking 24th among 38 counties in Chongqing, which is impressive. But the e-sports town has cost it nearly one-fifth of its total GDP, which stirred doubts and worries among officials and prospective investors.

Yi said that such financial concerns were a "misinterpretation" of the project, as the government only spent 1.4 billion yuan to build an e-sports venue. "The money isn't a burden to us," he said. For the remaining construction, he said the government will depend on social capital investments.


Abandoned projects

Other non-monetary obstacles have also appeared. The Zhongxian government allotted only 173 days for the completion of the e-sports venue. To meet this extremely tight deadline, workers are forced to work two shifts, including in the dark of night. It is uncertain if they will be able to finish the project before the deadline.

Ominously contrasting with this buzzing construction scene, a nearby commercial property named Singapore Ecological City has become dilapidated after its developers, suffering financial strain, abandoned the construction site. A small shop owner near Singapore Ecological City said the site has just been sitting there for the past three years without any sign of completion.

According to records, the developer of the forsaken Sino-Singaporean joint venture is now involved in 29 different lawsuits, many of which are directly related to its inability to complete the construction of the "city."

Yi said that, in the near future, the Zhongxian government will redesign the exterior walls of the crumbling Singapore Ecological City with modern and technological elements so that they will blend in with the design style of the adjacent e-sports town.

National trend

Zhongxian is not the only Chinese county currently embracing the e-sports town development concept.

On April 20, the city of Taicang in East China's Jiangsu Province announced plans to build an e-sports town with a 2.5 billion yuan investment within the next five years. One month later, the government of Wuhu, a city in Anhui Province, followed suit, saying it will collaborate with Chinese Internet giant Tencent on an e-sports city. On June 1, Mengzhou, a city in Henan Province, announced that it, too, will invest 2 billion yuan to develop a tax-free e-sports town.

Yi emphasizes that these towns are all "followers" of trend-setting Zhongxian. "We were the first to announce an e-sports town blueprint. We held a press conference in Chongqing on April 12," he said.

Even so, when so many cities are constructing e-sports towns all at the same time, many experts are concerned that the idea will no longer be unique, thus turning off prospective investors. But Yi said this is not a concern for Zhongxian, as he is confident the county has the authority and "official background" that none of its followers have.

His confidence mainly comes from the China Mobile E-Sports Game (CMEG) 2017, which will be held in Zhongxian this year. Hosted by the Sports Information Center of the General Administration of Sport of China, the competition is the first official e-sports competition in China.

"We're not merely entertaining ourselves. The game is recognized by the General Administration of Sport. One of a kind in the entire country," Yi exclaimed.

Characteristic towns

Different from previous online gaming competitions, most of which are held online and played on a personal computer, CMEG 2017 will feature mobile games such as King of Glory, the hottest mobile game in China with 200 million players.

Even so, compared with Taicang, where over 249 e-sports companies are registered, Zhongxian has had little to do with e-sports in the past. The determination to build an e-sports town is the outcome of the "unique vision and foresight of our county officials," Yi said proudly.

"Zhongxian officials saw that gaming competitions will become the next momentum of the online gaming industry, so we want to grab this opportunity."

According to the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development, 403 Chinese towns have been given the status of "characteristic towns," meaning their industries will be supported by the central government.

Zhongxian hopes to be one of them. "We plan to wait one more year, then apply for the status after all the infrastructure is ready," Yi said.

Although being a characteristic town has also become a national trend, Wang Chen, head of the consulting division at Cushman & Wakefield North China, is pessimistic about the future of Zhongxian.

"No town can be built from scratch. Without the support of industry, venues and talents, the difficulty of building such a town is big," he said.

This was echoed by Duan Qinglin, vice dean of Ningxia Academy of Social Sciences. "Whether the local economy can be driven successfully will depend on how local resources are effectively connected to the e-sports industry," he said.

Li Xiaojun, director of Zhongxian county's information office, is baffled by all the criticism from the outside. "So should we do nothing and go on being poor? The poorer we are, the more we need development," he said.

Jiemian.com


Newspaper headline: Town of games


Posted in: IN-DEPTH,CHINA FOCUS

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