Can Wild Rift become the next Honor of Kings?

Jeff "SuiJeneris" Chau dives into mobile esports and the genre's potential in the West.

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A mobile 5v5 multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game called Honor of Kings is one of the world’s biggest games with 100M DAUs (daily active users), 200M MAUs (monthly active users) and makes close to $2 billion or more USD per year. Photo: TiMi

Did you know that League of Legends—the world’s largest PC game — is not the largest or most profitable multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game in the world? That title belongs to a smartphone MOBA game known as Honor of Kings.

However, a smartphone game called League of Legends: Wild Rift launching later in 2020 is looking to potentially become the next HoK.

League of Legends: Wild Rift gameplay screenshot. Source: Wild Rift

Wild Rift seeks to bring the amazing League of Legends MOBA gameplay to the smartphone. However, can it replicate the success of Honor of Kings? I certainly hope so, because if it does, Wild Rift will significantly grow the Western gaming and esports market.

Let’s take a look at the history of HoK and go back to 2014, during a time when the MOBA genre was dominated by PC games such as League of Legends to get a better understanding of how HoK became a blockbuster hit.

Here’s my pitch for a mobile MOBA game:

  • I’m building a multiplayer game that would be a simpler but similar version of the world’s most popular PC MOBA game — it’ll be an action packed 10–15 min 5v5 game sessions vs the typical 30–45+ minutes on PC

  • This game has a much easier learning curve that combines MOBA core gameplay and casual pick up nature — the game can be downloaded in a few minutes, launch in seconds, and you’ll be able to find a match in less than 30 seconds

  • This game can be played anywhere with your friends — all you need to have is your smartphone

  • The TAM (total addressable market) is 2+ billion users

  • It can attract significantly younger and higher numbers of female players who have never played MOBAs before

  • Here’s an example art of one of our heroes in the game

Honor of Kings hero 大乔 “Da Qiao”. Source This game makes around $2 billion USD per year and has been around since 2015.

History of Honor of Kings

In February 2019, HoK made a record breaking $1 billion USD in just one month. However, the story of HoK wasn’t an overnight blockbuster. When HoK launched in 2015, it was initially a 3v3 mobile MOBA and struggled to gain traction since 5v5 PC MOBA’s like League and DOTA 2 were so popular. TiMi — now one of Tencent’s most profitable and famous game studios behind HoK — struggled in its early days because the game was performing so poorly.

Honor of Kings gameplay. Source: Futunn

Tencent saw the potential of multiplayer smartphone gaming early and reportedly asked Riot (which it owns) to consider making a League of Legends for mobile. At the time, people were apprehensive a version of “League” for smartphones would be a good enough experience on mobile. Which proved to be accurate with HoK’s 3v3 early failure since smartphone hardware at the time was not able to smoothly run a 5v5 multiplayer experience.

Things got better when it re-launched as a 5v5 MOBA game while smartphones were getting better with larger screen sizes. HoK has now become one of the world’s most profitable game, achieving 100M DAUs in 2020, which supposedly means that the daily active players of HoK is more than the total active player base of League of Legends (Riot reported a peak active player base of 100M MAUs back in 2016).

A National Phenomenon is Born

From December 2016 to May 2017, HoK saw its DAUs and MAUs double in less than half a year to 54M DAUs and 163M MAUs.

Honor of Kings Valentine’s hero art during Chinese New Year. Source: ArtStation

By 2017, media reported Honor of Kings hit 80M DAUs during February 2017 Chinese New Year and it went on to became the world’s top grossing game that year.

HoK clogged social media feeds and brought people together during the holidays. And China’s younger generation showed less and less interest in repetitive and over-the-top TV galas as families increasingly choose hóngbāo (red envelopes) and mobile games.

By the end of 2017, it amassed 200M MAUs where one out of seven Chinese person played it.

Early Criticism of Honor of Kings

In China back in 2015, HoK faced similar criticism the West is experiencing now regarding mobile gaming and female gamers:

  • Who wants a “watered-down” version of a PC game?: when HoK first launched as a 3v3 game, it was rejected, failing to gain traction — people made fun of the game’s joystick touch controls, lower quality graphics, and how not many “real gamers” would want to play a “watered-down” version on a tiny smartphone screen.

  • Women aren’t real or good gamers: Once Honor of Kings became more popular, Chinese netizens made fun of female mobile gamers as being horrible at video games to even labeling any player who plays poorly in the game as “女大学生” (female college students).

MOBAs are one of the most difficult and complex game genres with a high learning curve that was exclusively played on a PC with mouse and keyboard controls. Honor of Kings and Arena of Valor successfully ported the fun 5v5 MOBA gameplay to smartphones and significantly reduced the barriers to entry. Further, HoK was highly addictive and engaging game based on 2017 data — players average 47.2 minutes of daily playing time and played 2.33 times/day per user.

Honor of Kings surprised the video game industry regarding two assumptions:

  1. A MOBA game on a smartphone can be a full featured and fun esports game that would smash record revenues for any MOBA game.

  2. Young women became the majority 54% player-base for a non-casual, core multiplayer game in an industry and genre (MOBAs) that is historically ~90% male dominant—quite a stunning achievement.

In addition, HoK introduced more new players to MOBAs than any other MOBA game in history — I recently wrote an article sharing that 80.6% of female and 54% of male Honor of Kings players are first time MOBA players.

HoK has been the biggest reason for the continued rapid growth of China’s esports market since 2017 where 36% of female and 50% of male Honor of Kings players watch esports.

HoK’s engaged female player-base is driving massive growth and innovative, exciting collaborations

The HoK + MAC mash-up was an overwhelming success. Consumers placed over 14,000 pre-orders across the three platforms, and all five lipstick styles sold out across all sales channels within 24 hours of the launch, demonstrating HoK’s cultural impact. Source: SohuJing Daily

Can Wild Rift replicate HoK’s success?

If we want to look at how Wild Rift can potentially succeed in the West and other countries, we can start by looking for a pattern that has been repeated country after country. For example, PC esports in countries like South Korea gained significant traction about a decade earlier than Western countries. PC esports grew virally and went mainstream in Korea then China then the US and the rest is history.

Today we no longer question PC esports potential in the West but many Westerners constantly question mobile esports.

China has been the world’s largest PC esports market for the past decade but five years ago, Chinese gamers questioned mobile esports as well. Today, Chinese no longer question mobile esports due to the success of games like HoK — they see PC and smartphone gamers as all gamers who are part of the same community.

HoK is no longer just a unique China success story. Smartphone games like Arena of Valor (200M downloads and the international version of HoK) to Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (500M downloads) have significantly grown the gaming and esports markets in Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, etc. where, just like HoK, mobile gaming and esports has grown larger in player-base, revenue, and viewers than the traditionally dominate PC esports there.

The growth of PC and mobile esports is primarily due to the younger, under-served internet populations of the world

Popular PC esports titles like StarCraft, League of Legends, to CS:GO took off with younger and under-served populations across Korea, China, Brazil, etc. For Honor of Kings, by May 2017, 90% of their 163M MAUs came from China’s Tier 2 and 3 cities.

In the late 2000s, Brazil opened thousands of subsidized PC cafés and brought internet access to 60% of poor neighborhoods. Like in Korea and China, PC cafes were a huge success — because young people used them to watch movies, play computer games, and hang out together.

Juliano Spyer, an anthropologist who studies Brazilians’ internet use, found that the reason underserved communities in the northeastern state of Bahia pay for connectivity is that they see it as a form of social mobility — they use it to be more connected.

Korean PC cafe. Source

In 2011, there were more than 350,000 Internet cafes across Asia, estimated to generate more than $19 billion in revenues. The past decade, PC internet cafes have been in steady decline due to smartphones becoming a cheaper internet entertainment alternative.

The Internet is the Leisure Economy of the World’s Underserved

Today, an entry-level smartphone packs multiple times more power than the first iPhone in 2007, at a tenth or less of the price. But the underserved are not coming online because another core in the processor or megapixel in the camera matters to them. It is services that help them connect to others is what drives demand — consumers want messaging, video and storytelling, all of which the mobile internet is far better at providing than it was a decade ago.

Within the past few years, the mobile internet has become far better at providing online multiplayer core gaming services —at more accessible, faster, easier, simpler, and cheaper ways than PC or consoles.

League of Legends: Wild Rift gameplay screenshot. Source: Wild Rift

Gaming is interactive content that drives higher demand — it combines all previous services of messaging, video, interactive gameplay, and storytelling into a social multiplayer experience.

This same pattern happened with PCs decades ago except now it’s happening for a PC that’s in your pocket.

“People want to stay in touch with each other, to be entertained and to express themselves, whatever their income and wherever they call home. This is true in the rich word and in China. It will be true everywhere else, too. And the poorer people are, the more a smartphone outperforms all the other options they can afford as a way of fulfilling these needs. For many people the smartphone offers an unsurpassed opportunity for turning otherwise empty time into something enjoyable.”

— The Economist: How the pursuit of leisure drives internet use

This could also have been said of PC gaming and how internet cafes over the past two decades have fueled the growth of young, underserved populations engaging in online multiplayer gaming.

The World’s Rich and Poor Spend the Same Amount of Time Smartphone Gaming

Between developed and developing countries, the behaviors around smartphone gaming are very similar.

India is where gaming continues to be one of the most preferred online leisure activities. About 50% of smartphone users in India play mobile games and 40% of PUBG Mobile players use the game as a social communication channel.

Although the world’s poor cannot afford to purchase a gaming PC, many of them do have access to PC gaming via inexpensive PC internet cafes.

However, smartphones deliver that same social multiplayer gaming that PC cafes did but in more accessible, faster, easier, simpler, and cheaper ways.

Social mobility is a big reason why multiplayer mobile smartphone has exploded.

For more on StarCraft’s history as “Cheap Entertainment for the Masses”, read my 2 part series here

Game products don’t go viral because ‘poor people’ — they go viral primarily due to social, technology (low cost ‘cheap’ entertainment), and product quality reasons.

Wild Rift must introduce a massive number of non-players into the League community

Although they’ll become a sizable user base, existing League of Legends PC players won’t be the key to Wild Rift’s success — instead, it will be introducing many more new, younger players to MOBAs, especially women. This pattern played out for StarCraft in Korea (1998) and Honor of Kings in China (2015) where previously, women were nowhere close to a major percentage of players or esports fans.

From the book Gaming Cultures and Place in Asia-Pacific, Korean female gaming “culture” did not exist prior to online games. When StarCraft rapidly grew in South Korea, women made up 76% of esports fans resulting in StarCraft pros constantly surrounded by females wherever they traveled. This fueled the social mobility of StarCraft in Korea and exploded the game’s growth even further, catapulting StarCraft into a national phenomenon. If you look at Honor of Kings, not only is 54% of its player-base female, but at HoK esports events hosted in stadiums of 15,000+ seats, 60–70%+ of those in attendance are female fans.

Left: Scarlett — the nom du guerre of Canadian “StarCraft II” pro Sasha Hostyn — is from rural Ontario and in her prime was widely recognized as one of the best players in the world. Right: HoK’s King Pro League (KPL) esports events regularly have 60% and sometimes even up to 90% female fans in attendance at stadiums with 10,000+ seats.

League of Legends: Wild Rift must succeed with the younger generation — and ideally, become much more popular with women than PC MOBAs currently are. For example, Honor of Kings took off with young Chinese teenagers: by 2017, the game boasted a player-base where 52% were under 24.

Will Wild Rift be able to accomplish this in the West? We’re already seeing existing mobile MOBAs in the West having a promising 33% female player-base and majority player-base younger than 30. This is compared to the 10% female player-base in the West for PC MOBAs. I’m optimistic.

For me, the biggest question is what catalytic event(s) will propel Wild Rift’s viral adoption among the West’s young generation of gamers?

All it takes is one game to make mobile esports a success in the West. Wild Rift, like StarCraft and Honor of Kings might accomplish just that.

Jeff is the Founder/CEO of GameGether. On the business side, Jeff has been at ground zero for mobile esports at GM Apple; GM/Head of Mobile Immortals Gaming Club; Mobile Esports Consultant to TSM; Team Liquid; Analyst Commentator for the 18th Asia Games Jakarta-Palembang, World Cyber Games Xi'an 2019, Tencent Games, Supercell, Red Bull Esports, Super League Gaming, and Super Evil Megacorp,

He was also a former professional esports player, head coach, esports org founder/owner, Twitch Partnered Streamer, and mobile game tournament & league owner/administrator.

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