Is there value in mobile esports?

Yes. But it is of regional value and to get into mobile as a team brand or tournament organization would depend more on if it aligns with your brand or not. For tournament organizers, the desire to move towards mobile and the SEA/China market means further income sources through production work for publishers. For teams, it would widen your audience reach but may not align with your core target fanbase or sponsors’ interest as mobile games esports’ popularity has not hit North America (yet).

That said, as publishers make moves to bring their PC-centric games to the mobile market such as Riot Games’ Teamfight Tactics, Epic Games’ Fortnite, Valve’s Dota Underlords, Activision’s Call of Duty: Mobile and PUBG Mobile (published by Tencent), a two-way bridge is formed: converting North-American audiences to mobile and introducing Eastern mobile players to western franchises.

As 5G starts to roll-out across the United States and Europe, mobile gaming will be more embraced. For this piece, we will skim over the landscape of mobile esports as well as making note of worthy titles and scenes to consider and how they compare to other competitive titles.

The Free Fire World Series was among the most watched esports title on YouTube.

*if you’re interested in following the mobile scene, consider Jeff Chau’s twitter for interesting insight as well as his valuable medium post

The Mobile Viewership Landscape

As of right now, the largest mobile esports regions are South-East Asia, China, South Korea. We say South East Asia as depending on the game, different countries pop up ranging from Vietnam, Indonesia, India and more. Additionally, LATAM also shows an immense popularity for the genre as we saw Free Fire World Series in Rio garner 2+ million peak viewers and over 7.5 million hours watched. Regarding which games are popular, Battle Royales and MOBAs have the longest staying power. Games like Free Fire, PUBG Mobile, Mobile Legends and Arena of Valor have millions in players that trickle down to an esports audience in the hundreds of thousands to millions.

While Twitch and Mixer are maintaining their strength and targeting to Western markets. YouTube has exploded with mobile game event streaming. Mobile Legends is the mobile imitation of League of Legends.

While these numbers are incredible (and they really are), be wary that this is the start of esports interest on Western streaming platforms. Going back to October will highlight that viewership and interest in mobile games from a creators’ standpoint has much more realistic numbers. Similarly, if we check out Mobile Legends Esports VODs statistics on YouTube, this viewership is also much lower (where YouTube is watched mostly in the West). The popularity of these mobile games has definitely triggered interest in Eastern streaming platforms, content-creators and viewership but it has not moved towards Western European and North-American platforms nor content-creators on Twitch/YouTube (yet). The lack of viewership outside of esports events may highlight that the playerbase has not translated to valuable viewership (yet) akin to WarGaming’s massive popular World of Tanks not translating to a popular esports scene beyond Eastern-Europe brands and viewers.

or some of these events include item drops with viewership. This heightens the numbers of viewers but leads to botting and an unengaged audience (“set-and-forget”).

Its Esports Presence

PUBG Mobile has made a presence Europe with events hosted by ESL and StarLadder but these were through contract with Tencent. It will be interesting to see how they will further push the PUBG Mobile scene in cooperation with tournament organizers.

The excitement about mobile esports is due to the immediate involvement of Eastern game publishers for their mobile gaming competitions. Tencent already dipping their toes with recent work into PUBG Mobile and now announcing a 5 Million prize-pool for 2020. However, when it comes to tournament org. involvement, it can be a mixed bag as there are proposals circulating from Tencent to certain tournament organizations seeking co-investment where Tencent aims to reduce their own spending in exchange for a co-invested partner from tournament organizations (who typically are looking for contractual work with publishers, not to increase their annual costs).

The latest mobile esports event, Free Fire, boomed with 2 million peak viewers and 7.5+ million hours watched.

To add, prize-pool on games is varied. For the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, it boasted a prize-pool of only $250,000. The Free Fire World Series: $400,000. Compared to Western esports, the prize-pools pale in comparison. Teams, as well, mostly feature organizations not involved in mainstream esports titles we see in the West. In the past, Arena of Valor featured squads from Team Vitality, SK Gaming, Alliance, Team Liquid, Immortals and more. For Free Fire, there are no notable major teams actively playing as you can see here.

That said, as we saw with PUBG Mobile, new money is being injected with every new iteration of esports. Honor of Kings’ 2019 Champions Cup featured 4.5Million dollar prize-pool for their month-long league (crowd-funded from 2million to 4.5).

Conclusion

To summarize some concerns, Mobile Esports:

  • can garner a lot of attendance, especially if attendance to the event is free (Free Fire World Cup 2019 (not World Series in Rio))
  • can garner a lot of viewership, especially if there are free item drops for watching – leading to potentially inactive viewers/lower engagement (Free Fire World Series Rio)
  • does not garner a lot of viewership on Western platforms outside of these esports events
  • receives strong game developer support and prize-pool injection
  • has game developer support but they also seek co-investment from tournament brand.
Depending on which photo you find, arena attendance will be mixed depending on the game, year of its lifespan, price of ticket and location of the venue. (2018 Honor of Kings Champion Cup Winter Season)

There is a common misconception that player-base = possible esports reach or value for brands but the reality is that esports is always a trickle of viewership interest depending on the competitive perception of its audience. How serious are players taking their mobile games if it’s on mobile and these users are always in a setting not ideal for competitive focus (playing while riding the train, between classes at school, during lunch at work, etc.). There is more to the sociocultural consideration regarding if a popular multiplayer game equates to the esports-focused label.

This is the Mobile Legends World Championship Grand Finals. In November 2019, this event has 6.5 Million hours watched but nearly as much in attendance.

Secondly, publisher involvement does not always mean endorsement as they also seek investment from tournament organizers who have yet to fully dive into the mobile market (ESL, Vodafone, StarLadder have dipped their toes with work in contract with PUBG Mobile).

Thirdly, Eastern-Asia/SEA growth does not translate into western popularity, different cultures emphasize different gaming platforms and thus different focus and directions.

Despite my skepticism, I do believe this is the start of the mobile esports scene for both Asia and Western markets. My intro regarding the coming of 5G, the growing audience (new generations) of gamers growing up with games on phones and how traditional PC-centric games like Fortnite, League of Legends and Call of Duty can bridge users from moving from their PC to the mobile but also skew their view of competition of their favourite games regardless of the platform.

That said, there are some people in the scene who are trying to sell mobile esports as an underrated opportunity. I firmly believe they are relying on FOMO (fear of missing out) to get brands to invest instead of determining if mobile esports is a sound, long-term investment.

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