The Rise of eFootball in China – Andrew Collins, Mailman Group

As esports have exploded in China over the past decade, eFootball, now a category itself, is undergoing a meteoric rise in the mainland. The youth are spoilt for options when it comes to gaming, with major titles League of Legends, King of Honor and Dota having a major share of the gaming pie. Yet in just three years, eFootball has seen major growth with new teams, leagues, prize money and international clubs pouring in. Chinese technology giant Tencent, the game producer for EA’s Fifa Online, rank it the third most-played game on the platform. But where is the growth coming from and what does the future hold?

The World Cup inspires

There’s no doubt the interest in the Fifa World Cup drives direct growth for the online game. In 2018, following the World Cup in Russia, we saw a flurry of new gamers to Fifa Online, played almost exclusively on the Tencent platform. Official numbers report the Fifa Online Pro league in China garnered over 800 million views in 2018, a 40 per cent increase on 2017. Many gamers adopt the personas of their favorite stars, with the tournament fueling their desire to play.

Global Fifa sponsors, such as Vivo, are active partners within the Fifa online tournaments in China. The technology giant is eager to engage a younger audience to complement its total coverage across the World Cup partnership. At an average 25 years old, the attraction of Fifa’s online demographic is becoming a strong alternative proposition to the market leading game titles.

After a solid period of investment in Fifa’s owned digital channels across Chinese social media platform Weibo – and more recently partnering with Huya (a Twitch-like platform in China) – viewership of the Fifa eWorld Cup has increased 65 per cent from 20 million to 33 million in 2019. With Fifa eFootball’s dedicated channel now at over 500,000 followers on Weibo, the community is very active with a rich understanding of the eFootball culture.

Value of teams growing

eFootball teams are cheap, at least when compared to traditional sports or their bigger cousins in League of Legends. Business models in this category are still maturing. Fifa Online teams present inexpensive eSports ownership options, though we’ve seen 20-30 per cent growth in values over the past three years. Teams competing in the national Fifa Star League have been acquired for less than RMB 500,000 (€64,000/$70,000). Comparing these values to the market dominating League of Legends, where the EDG team was valued at roughly RMB 1bn, alludes to the high growth potential of eFootball team valuations in the long term.

New leagues, new teams

Before 2016, there was only the Fifa Star League, which at the time was the only national professional league, alongside the EA Champions Cup (Asian Cup), to be attended by pro Chinese eFootball clubs. In 2017, the league grew to 14 clubs, with French team Lyon starting a trend of international teams entering the league. They have since been followed by Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Nova eSports. By 2018, the Chinese Super League had established the ‘Chinese Electronic Football League’, featuring all 11 CSL teams.

World champions to arrive soon

In 2015, Team China was successful in the EA Champions Cup (Asia Cup). The all-star team featured players from teams Lyon and WE. But Chinese players are at a disadvantage in the FIFA eWorld Cup because Fifa is a console game. Most players in China are PC and mobile only – consoles aren’t sold in China, and though a few are purchased internationally and brought back to the mainland, it’s not at significant volume.

However, we nonetheless see some Chinese players competing at the top level. This year YuWen (of PSG, formerly team Flash) competed for the first time in the 2018 eWorld Cup console tournament after taking first place in the Champions Cup and the MVP award.

Prize money

Beginning in 2015, China’s national Pro Star League had a total prize pool of RMB 200,000, which then rose to RMB 1m across two seasons in a single year, representing an increase of 500 per cent in just 12 months. It has continued to increase, to a prize pool today of over RMB 2m, and is likely to climb higher still as sponsorship and broadcasting is fast evolving. The Asia Cup tournaments deliver players a total pool of over $600,000 each year.

The future of eFootball in China

The leagues will continue to gain traction. More international teams will participate, teams will act as marketing platforms and they will engage a younger audience who are increasingly opting to play football online. Prize money will continue to rise, edging close to the RMB 10m mark that we see with League of Legends. Player salaries will rise too. They now average RMB 10,000-15,000 per month, which is is still relatively low for a first-tier city. Sponsors will further drive interest in eFootball, wanting to grow their brands within a more mature gaming audience.