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Esports in China Hit the Mainstream with Movie Adaptations and Official Recognition

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Though for many Chinese parents — not to mention the Chinese government — online games are sometimes viewed as tantamount to an addictive substance, in recent years China’s exploding esports industry has gained ground in terms of cultural acceptability — especially when it brings in money.

Homegrown multi-platform esports club iG (Invictus Gaming) have been one of the driving forces behind esports’ push for mainstream respectability, sponsoring the winning team at The International Dota 2 tournament in 2012 and last year’s League of Legends World Championship. Their successes have helped prompt the authorities into action, with a raft of announcements in recent months aimed at professionalizing and popularizing esports in China.

On July 31, 85 players of Dota 2, FIFA Online 4, WarcraftⅢ: Frozen Throne, and four other major esports titles received registered athlete certificates from the Sports Bureau of Shanghai, Sports Federation of Shanghai, and Shanghai Electronic Sports Association. The registrations were also joined by proclamations of plans to turn Shanghai — which will host the Dota 2 International later this month — into a “global esports capital” and an announcement from NetEase that they would soon be starting construction on a new esports park in the eastern Chinese city.

And as stars in this field — such as esports team RNG’s leader, Uzi (proclaimed by many to be “the second best League of Legends player in history”) — make millions of dollars every year, it’s perhaps no surprise that a sudden burst of esports-themed entertainment has emerged this summer.

The King’s Avatar — a 6-million-character-long novel written by Wang Dong (who also goes by the pseudonym Butterfly Blue) and serialized on online literature site qidian.com — has become one of China’s most successful pieces of original intellectual property. The title, which began publishing in 2011, has been adapted into graphic novels, animated series, a stage play and a mobile game — and that’s not including countless unofficial fan creations.

The story might not seem so innovative at first glance. A legendary professional player, Ye Xiu, leads his team to three consecutive national championships for a multiplayer online battle arena game called “Glory”, but is marginalized by the team manager for his low-key and unprofitable lifestyle. Ye Xiu quits and becomes a worker at an internet café, where he meets different kinds of players, builds a new team, then fights his way back to the professional league.

Over millions of Chinese characters, the author Butterfly Blue — himself a big esports fan — depicts a professional league with dozens of teams and vivid portrayals of individual gamers’ lives. There isn’t really a villain in the storyline, but everyone is pursuing their own dreams and striving for the ultimate honor, a theme that has resonated with readers and gamers alike.

Animated versions of Ye Xiu — often called “Ye God” on social media — and his teammates are so beloved that they have been spotted online “endorsing” brands like CLEAR, Ponds, Rexona, Mirinda, and McDonald’s. A virtual Ye Xiu also also held a birthday party with fans on May 29, on which day over 1.5 millon Weibo posts were tagged “Happy Birthday Ye Xiu.”

Hoping to capitalize on this fandom, Tencent Video began airing a 40-episode net series adapted from The King’s Avatar on July 24, with Ye Xiu played by 27-year-old star Yang Yang. On the day of the live-action adaptation’s debut, almost all of the actresses and actors from the show changed their profile photos to that of the characters they play in the series, making the esports league look real for a day.

Gamers and general audiences have so far been impressed by the show’s delicate in-game scenes, created with a combination of motion capture technology and visuals made in Unreal Engine. According to The Paper, at least 300 minutes of the show (equivalent to 7 full episodes) takes place inside the game, making the gameplay a main thread of the series running in parallel with the real-life, offline story. Former esports commentators were also invited to the show to make the audio more realistic and professional.

The King’s Avatar live-action adaptation has been viewed over 960 million times as of this writing, less than halfway through its 40-episode run. The first season of the title’s animated adaptation on Bilibili, meanwhile, has been viewed 120 million times by 4.66 million unique Generation Z viewers.

And as if that wasn’t enough, an animated, feature-length film adaptation produced by entertainment powerhouse Wanda Pictures is scheduled to hit theaters on August 16. We’ll check in on that film — entitled For the Glory — later this month, though we expect it’ll have a hard time unseating current box office phenomenon Ne Zha for the title of this year’s highest-grossing Chinese animation.

Cover: Tencent’s King’s Avatar

Fan Shuhong
    Shuhong (aka Rita) is a language instructor, English/Chinese translator, writer, and proud bunny owner based in Beijing. She's previously worked in Washington D.C. and IUP at Tsinghua University. She loves Chinese language, Japanese arts, post-rock music and good English TV series. Instagram: rita_van