Esport events like Intel Extreme Masters Shanghai create a positive buzz for gaming in China, a nation once resistant to online games.
Zhou “iAsonu” Hang hoped to become a professional esport athlete, but his parents had different expectations. They wanted him to earn a degree in robotic automation at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, a public university hidden among the dense foliage of China’s Hubei province.
“I wrote them a long letter explaining what esports were and promising them that I wouldn’t abandon my studies forever,” said Hang.
Fortunately, his plea convinced them.
Hang, a professional StarCraft II player, was center stage when Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Shanghai kicked off on July 27. The event ran through July 30 at the Shanghai New International Expo Centre, where for the first time the tournament was held in its own 118,000-square-foot gaming hall.
The hall featured booths with partners Acer — the official desktop PC and notebook sponsor of IEM Shanghai — as well as HP, Dell, Lenovo and ASUS. Attendees also could experience virtual reality (VR) demos at the event.
“Intel is always pushing the boundary of innovation by delivering amazing experiences for our fans both online and offline worldwide,” said George Woo, Intel’s esports marketing manager.
As part of the gigantic ChinaJoy gaming conference, the festive atmosphere featured a big crowd of rowdy fans and cosplayers cheering the contestants on to victory. No matter who won or lost, the tournament stands out as a beacon of gaming positivity in China.
Shanghai hasn’t always been so smitten with the digital pastime of gaming. In 2004, the city launched a crusade against the blight of internet cafes.
In an effort to prevent young people from playing online games with potentially addictive elements, authorities barred minors under the age of 16 from these facilities, while placing firm restrictions on older teenagers. To enforce the rules, the city used security cameras and computer software, requiring young patrons to enter their identification card numbers to gain entrance to internet cafes.
But that didn’t stop pro gaming. Since then, esports arrived on the scene in a big way, with Chinese fans consuming more streams than any other nation. Along with a massive appetite for gaming, these fans inherited some of China’s old societal stigmas.
“Esport players contend with skepticism and doubt from parents and officials who think digital gaming is unhealthy,” said Marcella Szablewicz, an assistant professor of communication studies at Pace University in New York.
The fear of internet addiction may be driven by China’s school system. Youth must take a single college entrance exam to be admitted to college. Many parents and schools restrict extracurricular activities in order to prepare for this critical test.
Yet slowly but surely, perceptions are changing. By Szablewicz’s count, in 2009 the phrase “internet gaming” appeared in a negative context in 446 news headlines from the Chinese press. But by 2016, that number dwindled to just 38 headlines, implying that the nation’s gaming phobia is declining.
In the meantime, Shanghai has transitioned from a city where no internet cafe was safe into a haven for esports.
“I’ve been living here for three years,” said Hang, who moved to Shanghai after signing with the esport organization Invictus Gaming. “Shanghai is the center of Chinese esports now. I like the city’s modernization.”
One big sign of a shift is the frequency of events in the region. As a harbor town on the Yellow Sea, Shanghai has become a frequent destination for major esport events. The popular game Dota 2 held its Winter Major there last December, and the IEM event marked the second time the competition has been held in Shanghai in the past four seasons.
From a financial standpoint, these events bring an influx of money into the Chinese economy, with the esports industry generating $7 billion in 2016.
The cultural impact of games creates goodwill as well. Once a shunned activity in China, big communal events present gaming as a positive force for the community. For instance, the inclusion of esports in the 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games brings old and new generations of sports fans together.
At IEM Shanghai, one of the main attractions to the event was the rivalry between China and South Korea, with the two Chinese players attempting to dethrone superior Korean StarCraft II players in front of a home crowd. But instead of creating hostility, this tension promotes a sense of nationality and patriotism among the participants.
“I want to play my best for my country,” said Hang. The sport promotes many virtues, he said, including professionalism, growth and a sense of community — things that are appealing to Chinese millennials and government officials alike.
However, the players and fans may reap the biggest boost from the cultural affirmation of esports. According Intel’s Woo, large scale competitive events like IEM Shanghai lend a sense of legitimacy to those who love the hobby of gaming.
“It gives them joy. For the real fans, esports are a passion. So, from that standpoint, yes, they add value to people’s lives,” said Woo.
This holds true for esport athletes and fans not only in China, but around the world.