Meet The Gamers Who Turned A Failed School Project Into A Multimillion-Dollar E-Sports Empire
“Team East is surrounded. It’s three versus five and Insec’s assist comes a bit too late. Wait—oh my God—they just fought back with a triple kill,” the commentator gasped.
Some 5,000 spectators inside Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre cheered. Ten players, mostly in their 20s, sat in professional gaming chairs on stage. Their eyes fixated on their monitors, fingers rapidly dancing on mice and keyboards. It was “League of Legends – Return of The Legends Invitational,” an e-sports tournament featuring retired all-star gamers, at last year’s E-sports and Music Festival in Hong Kong, the biggest e-sports event in Hong Kong.
The three-day festival attracted more than 150 gamers worldwide, 80,000 visitors and an estimated online viewership of 12 million worldwide. “It was the second year we organised the tournament and the festival zone for the Hong Kong Tourism Board,” says Kurt Li, the 32-year-old co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Cyber Games Arena. “When we debuted ‘Return of the Legends’ in 2017, it immediately became a hot topic [in the e-sports community] as it was the first of its kind in the world.” The ticketed tournament ended five hours later with a final score 3:2. All three tournaments during the festival were sold-out.
Founded in 2013, Cyber Games Arena is now one of the biggest e-sports event organisers in Hong Kong and Taiwan—but it started as a failed school project.
“Ryan Chow, Sam Wan and I were fanatic gamers when we were young. It wasn’t coined as e-sports then. We’d go to one internet café after another to compete with everyone—and we would always win,” says Li. In 2003, the trio won Rainbow Six’s Asia Championship. “The prize was only about $20k for the entire team but it meant the world to us. My mother, who was very against gaming, said to me, ‘Don’t do anything illegal, son.’ She couldn’t believe I could make money from playing games.”
They then moved to study in different countries, but online games had kept them together. While e-meeting in one of the online gaming sessions, Wan asked his two friends to help brainstorm a business idea for his final-year project. An 80-page e-sports business proposal was born at the end of the night. “The professor failed Sam, saying he couldn’t see it as a solid business. He said it was child’s play,” laughs Li.
Upon returning to Hong Kong in 2010, the trio founded a digital marketing company. But wasn’t until Kurtis “Toyz” Lau, a pro-gamer in Hong Kong, surprised the city by winning the League of Legends World Champion Season 2—and US$1 million prize money—with his Taipei Assasins teammates that they remembered their dusty final-year project.
“Our marketing company was running quite steadily then and we were looking for new challenges. So we thought ‘Why not?’,” says Li. And so Cyber Games Arena—an 80-seater studio with live streaming facilities, a gaming stage and a commentator’s booth in an industrial building—was born.
“We spent a lot of the money we made from the last few years. It was hard to find sponsors as no one knew what e-sports was. They thought it was just another internet café. It was risky but you wouldn’t know if it works until you try it,” says Li.
The team—and Hong Kong’s e-sports scene—has come a long way since 2013. After raising HK$50 million (US$6.3 million) in Series A funding, Cyber Games Arena opened a brand-new HK$30 million e-sports stadium in Hong Kong's Mong Kok district. The opening ceremony was officiated by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor. Spanning 25,000 square feet over two floors, it’s currently the biggest e-sports complex in Asia.
In addition to a 200-spectator stadium, it features an e-sports zone boasting top-notch gaming facilities, a VR e-sports area, a mobile and console zone, an F&B area, five live streaming rooms and a few e-sports stores including a PlayStation premium store and a Nintendo store. “We have studied e-sports stadiums around the world before building the new complex. We want to offer the widest array of e-sports services to gamers – which is not common in other e-sports arenas,” says Li.
The global e-sports economy will reach US$1.1 billion in 2019, an impressive 27 percent year-on-year growth, according to Newzoo. Asia, home to the over half of the world’s e-sports viewers and enthusiasts, is expected to play a key role in the future of the movement. “The e-sports trend in Asia is growing tremendously, especially China’s mobile gaming industry. Mobile games like PUBG and Clash Royale have significantly lowered the entry bar for gaming, making e-sports more appealing to the masses. Anyone with a smartphone nowadays can join the game,” says Li.
“Hong Kong, for example, is a latecomer in e-sports but the people’s willingness to accept new things and to innovate have helped bridge the gap swiftly,” he continues. The company will be looking into VR e-sports and expanding into South East Asia in the coming years. “There is a huge potential in Southeast Asia. We hosted a PUBG tournament in Thailand once. There were so many passionate gamers and the atmosphere was extremely vibrant,” says Li.
The Asian Games 2018 in Jakarta was the first major sporting event to make e-sports a "demonstrative event". Being a demonstrative event means that the competition results won’t affect the overall medal count, but the Olympic Council of Asia has announced that e-sports will become a medal event at the next incarnation, the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou.
“I definitely think e-sports is a real sport,” says Li. “There are other respectable sports that don’t require a lot of physical movements. It’s about the mental strength and sportsmanship demonstrated in e-sport. There is a whole ecosystem that is similar to a traditional sports event like the UEFA Champions League. There are the teams, the audience, the international tournaments, the broadcasting channels, even the merchandise and the sponsored mice and keyboards.”
“I hope that one day, e-sports will be included in the Olympics. That’ll bring the industry to the top.”