With eyes focused on bright computer screens with daily training extending past midnight, esports are becoming mainstream. In 2021, millions of fans around the world celebrated China’s third largest esports win: the League of Legends World Championship finals held in Reykjavik, Iceland. Many fans in China rooted for Edward Gaming (EDG), an esports team based in China, who pooled in a grand prize of $2.225 million dollars USD after winning the tournament. It would be an understatement to say that esports are popular in China – esports are extremely popular in China. Niko Partners, a provider of games market intelligence in both Asia and the Middle East, has estimated that there are more esports fans in China than there are people in the United States.

In fact, some scholars have studied the emergence of esports and their rise in China. Hogna Zhao, in the Department of Cultural Media at Shanxi University describes “network nationalism” as a new concept surrounding the gaming industry. Most are familiar with the patriotism surrounding sports, but this usually pertains to physical sports. Esports are now gaining traction with large fan bases rooting for their home countries. With recent wins, there have been intense efforts to destigmatize esports and embrace them.

Yet, with the League of Legends World Championship monumental win, gamers and tech industries are concerned with China’s intense regulations on the gaming industry. In fact, China regulates the extent to how long an individual can play a video game. Children under 18 are only granted three hours of gaming time a week which many have argued against and there are game curfews in place to prevent children from spending too much time gaming. Unlike in the United States, gamers in China have to sign up with their real name and unique identification number prior to playing. Although some advocates believe that this is beneficial for children, many others have pushed against these regulations.

As many esports competitors compete in their teen years – with some retiring in their early-20’s – advocates on behalf of the gaming industry have stated the importance of allowing children to play games for longer periods of time: how else would China be able to craft esports champions?

Despite tough regulatory environments, China’s esports industry seems to be growing exponentially. US-China Today interviewed Niko Partners to hear their analysis on the issue.

Alexander Champlin, Senior Analyst at Niko Partners, stated that “China regulates all media industries, including gaming, as [China] believes they have distinct cultural and ideological attributes that can have both positive and negative impacts.” When asked about the aims of these regulations, Champlin said, “The government aims to strike a balance between the regulation of the video games industry and its economic growth, both domestically and as an export overseas.” 

Obviously, some of these regulations are contested. However, this isn’t a surprise as China rigorously regulates all forms of media – especially media that children consume. This is not to assume that China is solely against esports. Champlin continues by saying that “the ministry of education has supported esports education and esports majors. Cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, (…) have adopted policies to subsidize and encourage the growth of esports.” For us Americans, it may come as a surprise to some that “esports professionals are recognized by the Ministry of Labor” as our culture tends to view education in opposition to gaming.

China’s restrictions and regulations seem to be a result of alleviating tension between cultural and economic concerns in China. However, it would be erroneous to conclude that these restrictions do not affect global growth of the esports market. With less competition, there are arguments to be made that the esports industry suffers from a lack of Chinese players. Yet, China’s specific restrictions and effort to mediate cultural and economic concerns may legitimize the esports industry as a whole, so there are positive and negative consequences of these intense regulations.

Economically, esports have brought a large economic boom to China. According to the International Journal of Esports in 2020, “a record-breaking 145,000 employees have entered esports related jobs in China, while the total number of jobs in China’s esports industry is 450,000.” One may argue that comparing the sports to the esports industry is a false equivalency as sports have been around longer and have a cultural backing along with a large economic output. However, as China’s regulations are partly economic (such as restricting venues and rules for specific esports games), China finds the economic output to be of high importance. The International Journal of Esports in 2020 states that “new job opportunities in the esports industry seem to be mainly linked to city growth, with our data suggesting that 2.7 out of every 100 new jobs related to the sports industry whereas the esports industry creates jobs for 2.12 people for every 100 people.” The International Journal of Esports in 2020 admits that the scale of esports is definitively smaller than sports, but argues that esports’ ability to create and sustain jobs is comparable.

As the 2021 League of Legends World Championship shows, gaming culture is global. However, Niko Partners says that “Chinese players tend to approach competitive gaming more seriously than US gamers.” This is even true for tech companies who have a stake in the gaming industry.

In terms of the tech industry, China has implemented regulations governing the rules of esports and how tournaments are run. Junyi Lv, a Ph.D. Candidate at USC Annenberg explained that “regulation and recognition do not conflict with each other. The government is embracing the fact that China is winning.”

It is easy to assume that tech companies are pushing for deregulation, as companies usually would rather not be constrained by the government. However, Lv believes that the tech companies are doing the opposite. 

“[Tech companies] are working with the government to find their ways. To understand this dynamic, Haiqing Yu discussed the “money-power alliance” in China’s esports,” Lv explains. The central argument surrounding Yu’s claim in their article Game On: The Rise of eSports Middle Kingdom is that digital capitalism is operative between tech companies and governments for the purpose of accruing capital. In Yu’s article, Yu states that “the Chinese digital money-power alliance has aimed to make eSports a national obsession and China the new mecca of eSports.”

Regardless of the intense regulations, Champlin even argues that “Tech companies, game operators, players and fans are finding ways to adjust to the current regulatory environment and adapt to the new normal. Most firms are shifting to a global approach regarding games publishing, and we expect to see this reflected in esports operations too.” As China is winning, the government finds this as a way to grow their economy. Champlin states that “China’s government has taken a more active role in supporting the creation of esports industry groups to manage and drive the growth of the sector. We expect increased standardization of the industry and believe esports will continue to play a key role in the video games industry going forward.”

Amidst the politics and regulations of the gaming industry, “video game and competitive gaming industries are growing,” Lv explains. No matter how many regulations are put on the industry, kids will still find ways to play games – it’s in their nature. As Asia has historically been an important player in the gaming industry, there is no question that esports will continue to thrive. 

The next event that esports fans are eager to see is the 2022 Asian Games, which will feature various esports tournaments including League of Legends, Dota 2 and Hearthstone. The continental sport carnival was moved to 2023 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but this does not mean that people are any less excited. 

Champlin says that “esports will be included as a medal event for the first time.” So, maybe instead of tuning into the Super Bowl, you could check out esports.