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Tencent: Mobile Esports Is the Next Big Thing

Professional gaming on the smartphone is set to explode in popularity. The question isn’t if, Tencent America’s director of esports Ramon Hermann told Variety, it’s when.

“It’s going to get huge,” he said during a meeting at E3. “If you travel to Asia, gaming has migrated to mobile. It’s crazy.

“Part of that is based on culture and habits. My generation and people in their early 20s and older have grown up on PC and console, but you look at the younger generation and they may not have a PC or console. For them it feels entirely naturally for play exclusively on mobile.”

As those younger generations grow up, Tencent believes that we’ll start to see a much larger adoption of gaming on smartphones.

At least that’s the bet Tencent seems to be making with its first major foray into the North American market.

Tencent’s “Kings of Glory” released in China in 2015, by 2016 the game had more than 50 million daily active users and 200 million registered users. In early 2017, the game became the high-grossest mobile game in the world, with 160 million active users. By one estimate, the game was making nearly half a billion dollars a month by that summer.

In 2017, Tencet rebranded the game for North America and Europe as Arena of Valor and relaunched. On the heels of that relaunch came an initiative to build up an esports following and competitions for the game outside of China. That’s where Hermann comes in.

Hermann spent the past 15 years working on building up esports, first at Blizzard and then at Riot Games and now at Tencent America.

“I’ve always worked in esports trying to pioneer,” he told Variety. “ I got excited about Tencent because they are focused on mobile. Mobile is going to get huge in the west, but we’re still trying to figure out the right format.”

Hermann said he believes that Arena of Valor is one of the first games that really speaks to the mobile esports experience.

“It got me very excited,” he said. “We have this new platform that’s so much more accessible. We’ve seen how crazy it’s gotten in Asia and China. They fill huge stadiums around mobile games around this game. And that’s what we’ve seen in the west around traditional esport titles. The opportunity I have is to bring that interest in mobile esports to the west and help Tencent lead the way.”

CREDIT: Brian Crecente

The work involves examining some of the leaders in the traditional esports space, games like “Dota 2” and “League of Legends,” and then figuring out what elements used in those titles and their tournaments would work well for a mobile esport.

“Arena of Valor’s first season was Tencent’s first attempt at creating that sort of experience. The hope is to “double down and improve on it for the next season.”

E3 wasn’t just a place for Tencent America to take interviews, it also played host to “Arena of Valor’s esports playoffs. Four teams came out for the playoffs, with one advancing to the world cup in LA in July. The prize pool is $550,000. The set-up looked like many other esports tournaments with at least one key differences: The players were gaming on Razer Phones tethered to the desk in front of them for power and capture, instead of consoles or computers.

A commentary team sat at a stage on the other side of the audience with a camera facing them, and the competitors in the background. Behind the stages, a massive production studio bustled with a video team capturing streams from the phones, mixing in shots, and keeping an eye on the final product as it streamed out onto the internet.

Hermann said that those teams competing in the finals were the byproduct of a system designed to find the best new teams. Because the game just launched in December, Tencent America needed to make sure they would end the season with strong teams. So a system was developed that had the flexibility to let the strong players surface.

CREDIT: Brian Crecente

“We saw a lot of movement in the first two weeks but toward the end it really solidified,” he said. “For the next season we’re more confident knowing these are the strong teams.”

As the mobile esports continues to grow under the work of Tencent America and others, the company also continues to evaluate what other sort of titles it might bring out of China for a global audience.

“We have a couple of other games in China that we’re actively looking at whether they are a good fit in the U.S.,” Hermann said.

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