Last week Tencent announced it will be rolling out a global version of its hugely popular mobile game Honor of Kings by the end of this year. The game has been described as a mobile adaptation of League of Legends (designed by Riot Games, now majority-owned by the Chinese internet giant) and is the most popular mobile title in China. Tencent claims that as of November 2020, there were 100 million daily active users of the game, in which players have to work in teams to battle against each other.
The game is hugely lucrative. Players purchase special weapons and powers to enhance their characters to compete with their opponents. By 2021, Honor of Kings had accumulated $10 billion in revenue worldwide since its launch, making it the highest-grossing mobile game on Google’s Play Store and Apple’s App Store, according to market analytics provider Sensor Tower.
Last week, Tencent launched a new reality TV series to further raise the profile of the game. We are the Champions follows a group of celebrities – most of whom are themselves genuinely avid gamers – as they train with professional players to give them a taste of the life led by the eSports stars. They are split into groups of five and for the show’s finale they have to compete in an eSports competition.
To make sure the show appeals to non-gamers, many of the celebrities are household names. There’s A-lister actress Yang Mi, 35, who has endorsed many mobile games in the past and is an experienced gamer, as well as starlet Song Zu’er and model He Sui. Heartthrobs Zhang Han and Gong Jun, too, are among the aspiring eSports stars. Mario Ho, son of the late Stanley Ho and an owner of an eSports team, is another celeb trainee.
Meanwhile, in order to boost interest levels from more hard-core gamers, producers have also lured popular eSports teams in the King Pro League (the highest league tournament of Honor of Kings) like Wuhan eStarPro, Nanjing Hero JiuJ, and Chongqing Wolves eSports Club. Famous eSports stars such as Yi Nuo, Fly, Gemini, Huahai (all of whom are local celebrities in their own right) have been hired as coaches on the show as well.
Before We are the Champions was released, expectations were high. Prior to the first episode airing, topics surrounding the show surpassed more than three million discussions on Sina Weibo, generating as many as 370 million views.
Judging from the first episode, Yang’s performance proves that the movie star does indeed take her video game endorsements seriously. Not only is she one of the most experienced gamers on the show, she is also a strong communicator, constantly giving verbal cues to her teammates.
Former girl band member Lai Meiyun, 23, also turns out to be a big surprise. Though she is not the strongest gamer, she is calm and collected when facing formidable rivals. At the end of the practice round, she is crowned the best solo player.
So what does it take to be a professional player? Rule number one: never be late. On his first day of training, actor Xu Weizhou is tardy and right away, his coach Jiu Zhe makes the whole team do 20 squats as punishment. When Xu flippantly cracks a joke about his timekeeping, Jiu makes him do 50 more.
“People who don’t understand eSports always think that the daily training of players is just to play games online. But that is not the case. In order to maintain their physical fitness, the players have to undergo a lot of high-intensity physical training every day. Also in the club, being late is not allowed. As Tan Yulin, the former Nanjing Hero Jiujing team leader in the show says, ‘If you’re late, you won’t be able to train with other people. And how can you improve if you don’t practice together?’” one netizen explained.
Audiences say the show is fun to watch thanks to the diversity of the cast and their different strengths and weaknesses.
For instance, comedian Zhang Dada, who is put into a team with Yang, routinely goes off on his own while ignoring his teammates. When his team loses in the practice round, Zhang refuses to be held accountable, shrugging that he was a lousy player to begin with.
“When I watch the scene, seeing Yang Mi on the brink of collapse and not being able to utter a word, it’s like seeing myself when I am stuck with a teammate like Zhang Dada, who is not only a terrible player but also an arrogant bastard,” a gamer fan commented.
The success of Champions shows how mainstream eSports are becoming in China. “The show reveals the growth of eSports newcomers as they encounter challenges and how they manage to overcome them. From entertainment to competition, from individual to team transformation, the show follows the tenacious spirit of the celebrities as they train to become professional athletes. They don’t gloat when they win, they also don’t give up when they lose. This is the biggest attraction of the show,” Phoenix News wrote.
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