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From Masked Warriors to a Livestreaming Boom: China’s Gaming Industry in the Age of Covid-19

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The first few months of 2020 has been a turbulent time for culture industries in China. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 earlier this year, musicians, artists and gamers have been using the internet as a way to offset the widescale cancellation of live events throughout the country.

While music and art are very deeply rooted in the physical offline experience, gaming has only recently experienced an explosion in live events. As such, it seems to follow that the video game industry was better placed to weather the effects of Covid-19.

As an example of how gaming has largely risen above the damaging impact of the outbreak on other sectors, mega tech company Tencent saw a downturn in a number of its functions, such as digital payments system WeChat Pay, but saw its gaming sector trend upwards.

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Speaking to the general increase in numbers of online gaming, Daniel Ahmad, senior analyst with Niko Partners, a market and research consulting firm covering Asia games, says that the combination of the Spring Festival holiday and numerous city-wide lockdowns helped boost gaming numbers. “Gaming is a safe form of entertainment that can help pass the time,” he says, “and we attribute the recent increase in engagement and spend to the impact of Covid-19 as well as new lunar new year in game events.”

Below we discuss some of the more prominent stories that emerged over the past couple of months in gaming following the outbreak.

Online Gaming Boom

Chinese games started strong in 2020, with the surprise success of Sands of Salzaar on online gaming platform Steam in January. The platform has enjoyed a bumper first quarter. Since the outbreak of Covid-19 at the beginning of the year, Steam has broken records for the number of concurrent users (users playing at the same time) on numerous occasions, while the number of daily users has also exceeded the previous record of 18.5 million users (set in January 2018) several times.

These record breaking numbers have been directly tied by a number of experts to the fact that more Chinese users have been confined to their homes over the first few months of 2020.

Gaming Events Go Online

The League of Legends Pro League (LPL), which is run by Tencent, was forced to go online only, while the Overwatch League, which was set to take place in four cities throughout China, was forced to pull the plug in the wake of the novel coronavirus outbreak.

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While the cancellation of these live events has caused some consternation, Ahmad tells us, “most of these tournaments have been able to shift to an online format whilst maintaining competitive integrity. Digital video games are able to adapt to an online format much easier than most traditional sports.”

Livestreaming Streams Upwards

In a related trend, as live events were cancelled, views on gaming livestreams have increased over the past few months. Video platform Bilibili streamed coverage of the League of Legends Professional Spring Split in the League of Legends Championship Series, which is run by Riot Games, beginning on March 9. That series was streamed virtually as esport venues shut in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak. As such, views of the games increased dramatically, with a 173% increase over the same period of time in 2019.

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While livestreams of professional gaming series’ saw a significant increase, individual livestreamers noticed a smaller, less recognizable bump. Huya TV (one of China’s biggest game streaming platforms along with Douyu) streaming commentator Zhang Yu told us, “The audience for live broadcasts was a little more than before, but the overall situation has not changed much. There have been more people playing games, but after returning to work in March, it has returned to the previous state.”

Rise and Demise of Plague Inc.

Just as films such as Contagion and The Flu received a shot in the arm on the Chinese internet in the wake of self-quarantining measures around the country, one old online game, Plague Inc. saw its popularity rise massively within the country, becoming the bestselling app in China in January, before being banned in the country at the end of February.

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Speaking to that ban, the game’s creators Ndemic Creations came out to say in a statement, “We have some very sad news to share with our China-based players. We’ve just been informed that Plague Inc. ‘includes content that is illegal in China as determined by the Cyberspace Administration of China’ and has been removed from the China App Store […] Plague Inc.‘s educational importance has been repeatedly recognised by organisations like the CDC [Centre for Disease Control and Prevention] and we are currently working with major global health organisations to determine how we can best support their efforts to contain and control Covid-19.”

Ndemic recently made a 250,000USD split donation to the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) and the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The company also has plans to add a new game mode to Plague Inc., which will see gamers trying to contain the spread of a deadly disease outbreak, using methods such as triaging, quarantining, social distancing and closing of public services, with help from global experts.

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A Russian knock-off of that game, called Virus Antidote: Pandemic Doom made its way onto the Chinese iOS app store at the beginning of March, before being slated online by Chinese users for being a copycat of the original.

Covid-19-Themed Games Spread

A series of edutainment games were developed in China addressing themes surrounding Covid-19. One of those, named 病原体大作战 or Battle of Pathogens, has been circulating on social media as the game, which resembles Fruit Ninja, sees players slashing characters that resemble viruses. As noted in a Twitter post from Ahmad, games that were released during the outbreak included titles that integrated various educational components, such as the correct procedure for wearing safety equipment and staying healthy.

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Another quirky new game came via a group of four students from Jinan University’s School of Media and Communications in northeastern China, who dropped their rumor-busting effort on NetEase. The enemy in the game, called 真相战纪 (which loosely translates to The War for Truth), are rumors, as the characters aim to ensure the existence of clear and honest information.

Covid-19 Imagery Populates Popular Games

As Covid-19 hit the headlines in China, gamers took to Minecraft to construct makeshift hospitals in the image of Huoshenshan and Leishenshan, the temporary hospitals that were being built in Wuhan, with a video of that process available on Bilibili.

Image via @叫我石宝贝/Weibo

Similarly, with the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons worldwide on March 20, gamers in China have been flooding the game, with many characters sporting facemasks. One gamer, pictured above, erected a sign that reads 测温 or “Measure temperature,” in an echo of the numerous checkpoints sighted around Chinese cities at present.

Wanba Warriors Mask On Feature, via Zodiac Interactive/Twitter

Elsewhere, the makers of Wanba Warriors, which launched on Nintendo Switch and Steam on March 26, added a “mask on” feature, where characters can add facemasks to their warriors.

Bryan Grogan
    Bryan is RADII's Culture Editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He can be found at a music show, usually with pint in hand.