The First Mobile Esport With Home Venues: A Guide to Honor of Kings in 2020

When talking about franchising business models in esports, the go-to examples are the Overwatch League from Blizzard Entertainment, and Riot Games’ League of Legends. However, few game publishers have applied this model to mobile esports titles. We have discussed before whether franchising is the future for esports, that more investors in the west believe that franchising provides stability, and if esports teams will be the next NBA franchises

In the past two years, mobile esports has become a rapidly growing part of the space that cannot be ignored. Compared with PC and console, mobile esports titles may be simpler, but they are also more flexible—played anywhere and at anytime. According to Newzoo, mobile esports generated 50M live viewership hours from September to November 2019, ten times more than the same period in 2018. 

China boasts the most robust and developed mobile esports game to date: Wangzhe Rongyao (王者荣耀, known in English as Honor of Kings). On Jan. 5, game publisher Tencent unveiled a new esports plan for the Honor of Kings esports ecosystem, including six home venues, two new media rights partners, and more competitions for international teams and players. Below is a greater guide to Honor of Kings esports and where franchising will go in 2020, followed by five highlights from that conference. 

What is Honor of Kings, and What to Look out for in 2020?

Honor of Kings is a multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) mobile game developed by Tencent’s TIMI Studio, and is among the world’s most profitable gaming properties, having grossed $1.6B USD in 2019, according to China Daily. It also has an overseas version, Arena of Valor, which was released in 2017 in territories including Europe and the U.S. Though the original game remains unavailable to download in Western territories, a basic English language option was recently introduced. 

The King Pro League (KPL) is the top professional competition for Honor of Kings in mainland China, and started in 2016. After two-years of development, Tencent canceled the promotion and relegation system of the league, and turned it into a franchised competition, with 12 teams divided between Shanghai and Chengdu. 

In 2018, the league sponsors included M&M’s, Saic Volkswagen, McDonald’s, Vivo, and SPD Bank. In 2019, KPL added apparel brand HLA Jeans, sugar-free chewing gum 5, and tea drink Tongyi Ice Tea. Vivo and Saic Volkswagen continued to sponsor the league, though McDonald’s, SPD Bank, and M&M’s did not renew sponsorship. The commercial partners for 2020 have not yet been revealed.

The KPL league has similar sponsorship categories as the League of Legends Pro League (LPL), another Tencent franchised competition. The LPL has for several years had Mercedes-Benz as an auto sponsor, just as the KPL has Saic Volkswagen. In food brands, LPL has KFC, and KPL previously had McDonald’s; and the two share financial service sponsor SPD Bank. 

The tournament structure of both the LPL and KPL have development leagues to foster new player talent in terms of business value, but KPL still has a way to go to reach the level of the LPL. It does have some exclusive advantages by being based around a game on mobile devices. 

This year is significant for Honor of Kings esports. If 2019 was about preparation, then 2020 is about launching a full scale plan. It shows how Tencent, one of the biggest tech-companies in the world, will build a sustainable mobile esports ecosystem around a proven franchised esports strategy. On the other side, Chinese authorities have said that the country will firmly develop the expansion of 5G and seek to cover all prefecture-level cities with 5G network by late 2020. Honor of Kings esports is one of the games our readers should be observing in 2020.

Below are five important highlights from the Honor of Kings esports press conference held Jan. 5 by Tencent.

1.Tencent Reports: Competition Viewership Grows from 16B in 2018, to 24B in 2019

During the conference, Tencent highlighted its achievements for Honor of Kings esports in 2019. According to Yijia Zhang, brand head of Honor of Kings and managing director of Tencent Interactive Entertainment Mobile Esports, viewership for content from Honor of Kings’ official tournaments grew 41% YoY, from 17B in 2018 to 24B in 2019.

2. Korean King Pro League Rebrands to KPL Global Tour (KPLGT), Taking Place in Kuala Lumpur

During the conference, Zhang announced that the Korean King Pro League (KRKPL) will rebrand to the King Pro League Global Tour (KPLGT), and will take place in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The competition will include 10 teams from Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America.

The Korean King Pro League (KRKPL) was the first stage of Tencent’s international expansion. It opened up in South Korea, and was co-hosted by Korean tournament organizer OGN and Chinese organizer Fighting Esports Group (FEG).

3. A Hierarchy of Honor of Kings Tournament Structure 

As the above picture shows, the Honor of Kings World Champion Cup and Honor of Kings Winter Champion Cup will become the top Honor of Kings competitions, globally. Only teams from the KPL and KPLGT can qualify for these two competitions. In 2019, the Honor of Kings World Champion Cup featured a ¥32M RMB ($4.67M) total prize pool, and there was ¥3.6M ($520K) in prize money for the Honor of Kings Winter Champion Cup. 

A sustainable ecosystem can not exist without fresh talent and new teams. Since Tencent launched the developmental KPL G-League, its players have become important support for the KPL and KRKPL (now KPLGT) teams. As seen in our previous report, this competition was inspired by the NBA G-League. KGL is a path for semi-professional players to become full-fledged competitors.

The fourth and fifth-level tiers are national tournaments and public tournaments, respectively. Zhang said that the KGL will open six qualifying team slots for national tournaments and public tournaments. In addition, he mentioned that the total team number for the KPL will increase, and KGL teams will become the main candidates.

4. Six KPL Teams Set Up Home Venue in Chinese Cities

In 2020, six KPL teams will establish their own home venues across six cities including AG in Chengdu, Edward Gaming Mobile (EDG.M) in Shanghai, eStarPro in Wuhan, Hero in Nanjing, QG Happy in Chongqing, and XQ in Guangzhou. 

In addition, Tencent will add more city-features to improve local fan experiences. For example, players can use the “city-teleport” feature in the game, and fans can bind the accounts on their phones to their favorite teams and receive exclusive products.

5. Kuaishou and Tencent Video Join as Media Rights Partners for KPL and KPLGT

Tencent also released the list of KPL and KPLGT media partners for 2020, including Bilibili, DouYu, Huya, Tencent Penguin, Tencent Sport, Tencent Video, and Kuaishou. It should be noted that Tencent fully owns Tencent Penguin, Tencent Sport, and Tencent Video; and Bilibili, Douyu, Huya, Kuaishou have all received investments by Tencent Holdings.

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