Zhou Hang is a new breed of professional athlete. The 23-year-old college graduate from Chongqing, China, trains up to 10 hours a day for his matches—without having to leave the comfort of his chair.
Zhou’s sport is a video game called Starcraft II. Though some might not consider sitting in front of a screen and waggling a joystick an athletic pursuit, Zhou is quick to differ. “Like other sports, I have to analyze my opponents, plan my game strategy, and stay calm under pressure with hundreds of thousands watching me,” he says.
Increasingly, millions agree with Zhou’s point of view. Professional video gaming, also known as eSports, is soaring in popularity with a growing fan base that considers a star like Zhou as legitimate a competitor as Stephen Curry or Russell Wilson. More than 1,200 eSports tournaments take place around the world each year with $40 million in prize money at stake. There’s even something of a farm system. About 10,000 varsity players compete in a U.S. college gaming league that includes Harvard and Florida State. A growing number of schools, like the University of California-Irvine, even offer academic scholarships for gamers.
Perhaps most surprising about the eSports phenomenon is its evolution into a spectator sport. In 2015, 36 million unique viewers streamed the world finals of the League of Legends live from Berlin. That’s more than watched the 2015 NBA championship finals between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. Overall, the worldwide audience for tournaments is estimated to be 1.4 billion.
With figures like that, it’s no surprise that Alisports, the new sports division of the world’s largest e-commerce company—Hangzhou, China-based Alibaba Group—is getting in the game in a big way. In March, Alisports announced the launch of the World Electronic Sports Games (WESG), a series of monthly tournaments to be held in 15 cities in China and 100 different countries and regions around the world.
The tournaments, which kicked off in April, feature regional and national elimination rounds through December when an international championship will take place in a Chinese city to be named later. Gamers will compete for $5.5 million in prize money in four games: Starcraft II, Dota 2, Heatherstone, and Counter Strike: Global Offensive.
With about 370 million gamers in China, plus another 100 million who call themselves eSports fans, the potential for growth is great, says Min Yunhao, vice president of Alisports in charge of e-games. “We set up the WESG like an Olympic competition to help establish the tournament’s legitimacy right away and to promote eSports like a sport, not just an entertainment.”
Alisports—which launched just last September—is reportedly investing $15.4 million in the WESG. As with the division’s other ventures, which include broadcasting deals with the FIFA Club World Cup and the National Football League, the stated goal of the WESG is to “transform China’s sports industry through Internet-enabled technologies.”
To that end, the WESG signed an agreement earlier this year with YuuZoo, a Singapore-based social networking site with a gaming platform, YuuGames, that already has a significant presence in China’s eSports market. YuuGames has staged major eSports events throughout the mainland and will manage and run the qualifying rounds of the WESG.
According to Min, the tournaments will take place at 30 “Alisports eSports stadiums” in China’s Tier 1 and 2 cities that feature seating for up to 200 viewers along with live streaming capabilities. Like the early video arcades where gamers once dropped quarters into Pac Man and Space Invaders machines, the stadiums will be open to the public at other times for leisure play. Plans call for the construction of as many as 10,000 such stadiums in the next three years, says Min.
Meanwhile, Alibaba will promote the WESG through its Mobile Taobao marketplace with regular updates appearing on the Taobao News and social networking sites. Min says there will be additional opportunities for product promotion and advertising in the stadiums.
Future plans from Alisports include a national tournament for college teams. Eventually, Min envisions a day when eSports become so big they have their own Olympics-style international tournaments complete with “opening ceremonies, national pride, and friendly competition,” he says.
If that sounds like an armchair athlete’s fantasy, or maybe a couch potato’s dream, don’t mention it to Zhou Hang.
“The reflexes you need to play eSports tests the limits of human physical ability,” he says. “And the ability to think on your feet challenges the limits of human mental ability. I love both challenges.”