Ben Wu's hard work in college led to a degree in biomedical engineering and a well-paid job at a Chicago trading firm. But in spite of being the envy of many of his peers, he quit after just three years to become a professional PC online game player. Going by the name Merlini, he was able to earn more money playing games, like Defense of the Ancients, and working as a commentator for eSports tournaments than he ever did as a trader.
Wu's career trajectory is emblematic of the growth of eSports, which are booming globally, but particularly in Asia where champions and commentators have achieved cult-like status. And people like Wu are playing digital games and earning more money than the majority of us make at our 9-5 jobs.
eSports can be played on PCs or mobile devices, the latter segment is predictably experiencing a huge boom, especially in China. Massive live tournaments, such as the League of Legends World Championships, with millions of dollars up for grabs, are held every year and Chinese teams are a force to be reckoned with. Chinese Web giant Alibaba recently launched AliSports World Electronic Sports Games, with 1,200 events planned this year across 15 Chinese cities and total planned payout of $5.5 million.
Today, eSports gamers like Wu are professionals leaving coveted jobs in finance to earn more money playing video games. These gamers have fans; Wu in particular has thousands of followers watching his online gaming tutorials on YouTube and Twitch, the streaming service that Amazon bought for nearly $1 billion. We estimate there are 100 million eSports fans in China now. They watch professional competitions on many video sites that are China's answer to Twitch.
And, while eSports typically comprises PC online games today, there is already growth in the mobile eSports segment, too, where gamers play competitive eSports on mobile devices such as tablets or smartphones.
Much of the confusion over eSports and the MOBA genre stem from their relatively infant roots – both have only risen to significance only over the past five years, whereas the other genres have been around for much longer.
MOBA games have had a direct impact on turning eSports into a place for amateurs having fun into revenue-driving professional events. That demand for MOBA games is driving a resurgence in demand for Internet cafés across China and Asia, as gamers prefer to play face-to-face and to socialize with their 5-person teams and 5-person opponents. The use of Internet cafés bottomed out in 2013, and in 2014 and 2015 we saw an increase in the use of Internet cafés for competitive gaming and viewing eSports.
Market estimates are that the total global market for eSports was nearly $750 million in 2015, nearly half of that from Asia led by China and South Korea. Some analysts predict eSports will generate nearly $2 billion by 2018.