Geeks seek recognition for e-sports

Source:Global Times Published: 2011-4-1 8:20:00

Champion Li Xiaofeng competes at a national e-sports event in Wuhan in 2008. Photo: CFP

By Shen Weihuang

He smashed his keyboard and screamed maternal abuse into the smoky Shanghai Internet bar air after losing his second straight match to an American opponent.

Just a couple of months earlier, Li Xiaofeng had been declared the first world Warcraft champion at the 2005 World Cyber Games (WCG), an annual international electronic sports - e-sports - event.

"After I lost two games, the American sent me a message saying 'Are you really the world champion?' and that's when I lost my cool," said Li, 26.

"The next day I said to myself that I would never lose another game."

This year's WCG China preliminary rounds finished last month and Li successfully made the second round.

In the game, Li's name is Sky.

"The name 'Sky' is a flagship, a symbol, a goal, a dream for many young people in China," said 22-year-old student Wang Fengqi. "I'm not exaggerating anything here."

Li has been a professional player for more than six years, but he started out more than 10 years ago.

"My parents, like many others, didn't like me playing computer games," Li said. "At first they beat me, but later they found out it was useless and finally decided to let me go."

"Now I'm not that serious about winning or losing," Li said. "Maybe it's a sign of some so-called 'maturity.'

"I have learned to enjoy the game, but the more important thing I think that changed me is that I shifted focus onto how to make the e-sports industry grow better in China."

The China Sports Federation and the Chinese Olympic Committee on November 28, 2003, jointly declared e-sports as the 99th sports event granted and supervised by the General Administration of Sport of China.

The event is regarded as a kind of intellectual sport played among people using high technology.

It demands intensive teamwork, strong willpower and improves thinking ability, the administration said.


Parents object

Over the last seven years, the development of e-sports in China has remained slow and still faces criticism from wider society.

"Parents are worried or even hate us," Li said. "Many players abandon their education to play without seeing any bright future in this profession."

The game requires extreme concentration and so the life of a professional player lasts no more than 10 years, according to figures from WCG organizers.

"That puts forward two realistic questions: How much can you earn during this golden period of time in your life and what to do next after you can't be a professional player anymore?" Li said.

As a top player, Li earns the most in China. His monthly salary is over 20,000 yuan ($2,976), plus money from his sponsors.

That makes Li richer than most urban white-collar workers, but he's not satisfied with that.

"I shoulder great pressure earning this money," Li said. "I fly city to city every month doing promotions for my sponsors and at the same time I practice up to 16 hours a day to keep myself at the top level.

"I'm still wondering what I will do when my competitive status declines."


E-sports not the same as online gaming

Li is luckier than most.

Thousands of professional players in China earn about 1,000 yuan ($148) a month, without medical care, housing fund or a pension. A few bad results and not only the salary plummets but also free membership of exclusive gaming clubs can expire.

There are dozens of such professional clubs for gamers in China and the biggest need millions of yuan investment a year. The club provides accommodation for players but their income is low.

"I don't suggest this for people whose families are still fighting for a living," Li said. "It's even worse if they turn professional and they will only suffer more."

A professional gamer named "Vulture" who failed at the WCG found he had insufficient money to support his seriously ill mother.

He posted his painful experiences on a forum saying that although he had hoped to earn pride and glory from e-sports, the cruel reality was hard to take. Some people donated money toward his mother's medical treatment.

Pei Le became the boss of Li's club this year after the former boss withdrew his investment. Most of the clubs in China are losing money, he said. 

"In terms of people who are playing one sport, e-sports is ranked top of all sports," Pei said, "but it doesn't have wide media coverage like other sports simply because the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television bans gaming programs from being promoted saying they exert a bad influence on youth."

That ban places e-sports in an embarrassing situation: On the one hand, they can't attract sponsors and money; on the other, the General Administration of Sport expects China to compete in global e-sports.

E-sports is very different from online gaming, explained Zhao Li, director of the information center of the sports administration, but people always tend to see them as the same thing.

"The great competitiveness which requires sophisticated strategies and quick reactions within a certain period of time makes e-sports worth watching just like other sports events," Zhao said, "but online gaming is only self-indulgent and time consuming."


Youth gaming crime wave

Cases of youth crime by online gamers are all over the media: In 2010, a 15-year-old teenager from Tianjin killed his mother with a steel bar after she kept nagging him for playing. In 2006, a Gansu Province teenager resumed playing online games using the money he had found on his parents' bodies after he had murdered them.

"Electronic heroin" is what Wang Dawei, a professor at Chinese People's Public Security University in Beijing, called it. He urged the society to take the problem seriously.

These headline-grabbing stories have little or no connection to e-sports, Li said.

"Ironically, we can see online game advertising all over the place, but there is no space permitted for promoting healthy e-sports."

The gap is even more obvious when compared to neighboring South Korea.

The annual income of the e-sports industry in South Korea hit $20 billion last year, but in China, it was less than $100 million.

"Middle-aged people or even government officials' attitudes towards e-sports in South Korea are totally different to China," Li said.

When the WCG final was held in Seoul in 2003, then-South Korean president Lee Myung-bak challenged the world champion and lost within five minutes. That gesture impressed Li.

"Although there's a big gap, at the same time we also see a huge potential market," Pei said.

"I will always believe the e-sports industry will be a long-term profitable business in the future."

A professional domestic e-sports league is under discussion, according to Li, and despite South Korea failing to get e-sports listed for the 2014 Incheon Asia Games, hopes remain for recognition by the 2013 Asia Indoor Games.

"E-sports have the effect of improving intellectual development, which is beneficial to children as well as youth," said Olympic Council of Asia President Prince  Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah.

"It's a good exercise which both educates and entertains children."


World Cyber Games

The first World Cyber Games (WCG) was held in 2001. This annual festival is influenced by the Olympics with an "athletes village" for competitors and a different host city every year since 2004. It was held in Chengdu, Sichuan Province in 2009.

WCG is the world's largest gaming festival, claiming more than 1 million visitors come to watch every year.

Each participating country conducts preliminary rounds before sending the best gamers to represent them.

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