"We play here so you don't have to embarrass yourself." - The new era of Chinese esports

Massive streaming contracts for as much as $0.8 million are driving up players salaries and signing bonuses in Chinese eSports.


This article was originally published on GameSpot's sister site onGamers.com, which was dedicated to esports coverage.

The following is an adaptation of Portrait magazine's original Chinese article about the revolution that is happening in Chinese esports. It has been translated into English and adapted for Western audiences with permission from Portrait Magazine

On July 22nd, DotA 2’s biggest tournament, The International 4, was held in Seattle. The winners, Newbee from China, received a million dollars each.
On July 22nd, DotA 2’s biggest tournament, The International 4, was held in Seattle. The winners, Newbee from China, received a million dollars each.

Chinese version credits: Content: Chuhan Chen, Da Wu / Editor: Da Wu / Photography: Bo-Wen Yu, Jun-Ru Huang

English adaptation credits: Translation: Reazony / Content: Nilu Kulasingham, Kelsey Moser / Editing: Thomas Watts

Just Stream

Wei "CaoMei" Han-Dong's mother remembers each time her son's monthly salary increased: November, 2011, trainee, 3,000 RMB ($491); March 2012, official member, 4,000 RMB ($654); November, same year, the IPL 5 Champions, 7,000 RMB ($1,145); May 2014, 10,000 RMB ($1,636); June, 20,000 RMB ($3,271). Now retired, he streams with an annual salary of five million RMB ($817,863).

CaoMei is a former professional gamer whose team, World Elite, won one of most celebrated tournaments in League of Legends history, IPL 5, in 2012. League of Legends is the hottest online video game right now, published by Riot Games in 2009 and plays similarly to Defense of the Ancients (DotA). The game has 10 players connected to the same server, split into two teams of five players. Players control a single hero, use that hero’s abilities, craft items, and destroy the enemy base together with their teammates.

According to statistics from January 2014, League of Legends has 7.5 million players online at peak hours, and 27 million people play the game daily. That is enough players online at peak hours to fill Berlin, Germany two times over, and enough daily players to pack Shanghai, the largest city in China.

If there was no League of Legends, CaoMei would be the owner of a shoe store in Wuhan, China. Starting from junior high, he played DotA for five years before switching to League of Legends after high school. Following three months of play where he paid six RMB per night at a PC Cafe, CaoMei hit number one on the Chinese ladder and was invited to join World Elite Club with the title of "Solo Queue King." Initially, CaoMei's mother was against him playing games; she was working part-time in a breakfast restaurant, and the first thing she did every day after work was take her son home from the PC Cafe. When CaoMei started to make money from eSports, she finally realized it's a serious business.

Progamers feel pressured to train all day without breaks. They could be gone any day if they have a poor performance, as well as the pressure they get from the community after a loss. Korea has always been China's strongest competitor in esports. Over the past two years in League of Legends, Chinese players were almost always beaten by Koreans. A 0-3 clean sweep was a common thing, which has become the focal point for toxicity. Many Chinese forum members lashed out after such a loss, and stated that "Since it's a clean sweep, I think I can do it as well," or "Even a dog fight would have the same result.” All of these attacks only add to the stress of being a professional gamer.

At the end of August 2014, CaoMei announced his retirement. He had been working for the most famous esports club in China, World Elite, for the past three years. When he was at his prime, he could get 4,000 RMB ($654) every month. After winning IPL 5, he negotiated hard to increase his salary to 7,500 RMB ($1,227), plus prize money. The price of this money is to train whenever he's not dining or sleeping. During the toughest two months, he only slept 4 hours a day. "The training was so much that I could only say goodnight to my girlfriend everyday," said CaoMei.

Streaming is comparably more relaxed. During streaming hours, CaoMei can play the game while commentating including joke about himself whenever he loses a game; there is no psychological pressure at all. Every time he streams, he gets at least 100,000 viewers. When talking about the reason why the community favors him, CaoMei said confidently, "It may not be good to say this, but maybe some of the progamers don't have my looks." He often gets "I want to have a baby with you" from female fans.

Han-Dong "CaoMei" Wei, 22 year old, League of Legends IPL 5 Champion, he had 5 million votes, ranking number one, for the All-Star event that was held in Paris this year.

When Portrait Magazine’s Dong Lin Jun came to CaoMei's duplex in Boashn district, Shanghai, CaoMei had already started working. His daily job is playing an online game, League of Legends, and streaming the whole thing through ZhanQi TV to online viewers. After one and a half hours, CaoMei finished streaming and told the journalist "There were about 160,000 total viewers."

According to the contract, as long as CaoMei streams a full 90 hours of League of Legends a month, this 22 year old young man would have a 5 million RMB ($817,863) annual salary from ZhanQi TV.

While streaming, viewers use a chat room to comment on the screen, interacting with the streamer and other viewers. For example, when the streamer is playing from behind during a game, some viewers will joke "Fall of reputation incoming!" Whenever the streamer advertises their Taobao store, the chat will be filled with comments like "Buy! Buy! Buy!" or "How can one not buy!". A Taobao store is a personal shop where a user can sell branded products to their audience. [Editor’s note: Unlike Twitch or Azubu, Chinese streams will have the comments scrolling across the screen via text, so people watching the stream will still be reading the chat. There is an option to turn it off]

Streaming is the world's newest trend in entertainment. Today, the global gaming industry has a revenue of $66 billion. Esports is a shining star in the industry. A majority of the market is male, working, 18-35 years old, rarely moved by traditional TV commercials, but easily swayed by gaming companies and streaming platforms.

This past August, Amazon spent $970 million to acquire Twitch, a California-based streaming platform. Prior to the acquisition, Twitch was already the fourth largest site (in terms of peak traffic) in the United States, surpassing Amazon itself. This news represented hope for all Chinese streaming platforms including ZhanQi, Douyu, YY, and Tencent Gaming. The four streaming platforms are spending a fortune signing prospects. The war for streamers is on.

At the start of the year, BienFeng from Hangzhou founded ZhanQi TV, spending millions of RMB to sign star streamers. BienFeng’s vice president said it's because the company felt that Chinese esport's springtime is here and told us a story to supplement his views. In the beginning of 2013, China Post partnered with League of Legends to sell desk calendars. 3-4 million calenders were produced. One person sold 1.5 million on his own, and later they found that it was a streamer who accomplished the feat.

Following the conclusion of DotA’s The International 4 and the League of Legends Season 4 World Championship, at least 10 top players like CaoMei retired from professional gaming in order to take streaming jobs. They were all drawn to streaming thanks to the enormous salary, and significantly less stressful working environment.

The notion of an easier life through streaming is deeply rooted in people's hearts, making it even harder for esports clubs to retain their players. The manager of World Elite, Pei "King" Le said, "Some streamers are not even that good at the game, but they still can make more than ten thousand RMB ($1,636) per month. This makes other players uneasy” King stated that as a result, costs have tripled over the past year.

Players are My Papa

The streaming industry forces teams to continuously raise a player’s' salary. One top retired player from League of Legends or DotA could have a contract for millions of RMB (>$163,573) with streaming platforms, while most clubs could only afford 20,000 to 30,000 RMB ($3271 to $4907). Some League of Legends players even told King they could make way more money by streaming, and that "we play here so you don't have to embarrass yourself."

Progamers on top of the pyramid are even rarer than pandas. King feels that there are only about 20 people who are actually good enough to compete for tournament prizes. Many players inflate their worth, asking for more than they should, but clubs don't have any choice but to follow, or they are out of the game. A top club's manager said with grief, "Maybe you haven't heard this before, but players are my Papa." [Editor’s note: Papa is a bit hard to convey in English but essentially has a similar meaning to ‘Boss’]

The manager of the oldest DotA team in China, LGD’s Pan “Ruru” Jie, recently echoed the other managers comments when she said, "For example, one streamer earns ten million RMB ($1.6 million) for the whole year. One player might say, '500,000 RMB is nothing,' then the other might say 'you see that retired guy who got that much money? You have to give me at least that much for me to play on your team."

This most recent transfer period, Ruru spent three million RMB ($490,718) to sign three DotA players, each with a 500,000 RMB ($81,786) signing bonus, and 500,000 RMB ($81,786) transfer fee. A signing bonus is not included in the salary and independently given to the poached player. The transfer fee is given to the player's former club. "It seems chaotic right now, but to survive in this chaos, you have to do it," said Ruru.

Zeng-rong "MMY" Lei (aka X!!) is one of the three newly signed players. He feels that in the beginning, esports is just for dreams, but as the prize pool, salary, signing bonus, and transfer fee have risen, his thoughts have changed to "Many others are doing it, I'd (MMY) be really dumb not to do the same."

Regulating a Growing Industry

World Elite’s King is also the President of the Association of Chinese Esports (ACE) which is responsible for keeping the industry regulated. One day prior to the meeting with the Portrait Magazine, he announced a ban to be given to four League of Legends players. These 17 year old kids belonged to one club, but competed for another club to get more prize money, which is against the rules. One of the players painfully told King, "I have difficulty at home. My parents are sick."

King said the real reason why these players left their club is that other clubs have higher bids. "I said I have no choice, I hope you can understand, and you surely will be banned."

As the manager of World Elite, King benched four players last season. The situation is often the same: players suddenly "don't have the mood to play" and refuse to train. In reality, these players refuse to train because they have higher bids outside the club, but the clubs don't want to pay the transfer fee, so the players try their best to be kicked off the team. King froze these players as opposed to terminating their contracts. He chose to protect the rules.

This rule was created due to the player poaching that destoryed the industry's best club. In 2010, Beijing's DotA team EHOME won 10 championships within a year, including one of the biggest, Electronic Sports World Cup 2010, which was held in Paris. Former EHOME manager Tang "71" Wen-Yi said "Our tradition was to never take any cups home unless it's the championship cup. Others, we threw out at the airport."

In the beginning of 2011, Yunnan province esports club DK, founded by a second-generation wealthy individual, poached EHOME's two main players, Xu "BurNing" Zhi-Lei and Zhou "KINGJ" Yang. Each of them were provided with an annual salry of 50,000 RMB ($8,179), which was more than their past year’s prize winnings. Suddenly, the EHOME that everybody once knew was gone. Even today, 71 still can't find relief from this betrayal, and answers EHOME questions with, "Don't talk about it, it's gone."

Yi Zhou, the Chief Editor of China Electronic Athletics surmised, "The key point is, you will think about why the hell am I doing this? Right? There's no reason to! Just because some nobody gave players 50,000 RMB ($8,179), the club is gone. Who would still want to make a team together?" He then followed up by reciting what he remembers from an interview he did when EHOME was just founded: "Because they (EHOME) had no money, 5 players slept in the same motel room with mattresses on the ground."

Three and a half years later, BurNing cautiously explained to Portarit Magazine the reasons why he decided to leave. These included: confidence after 10 championships, not adapting to Beijing's lifestyle and DK's determination This player, who looks just like the actor Leslie Cheung, sees leaving EHOME as the "saddest and most guilty thing over the past seven years."

Today, BurNing doesn't have to worry about money. He has won 36 championships over the past 7 years, and is known as the "World's Best DotA Player." Now, streaming on ZhanQi can bring him millions of RMB ( >$163,573) annually.

At the age of 22, BurNing faced the temptation of merely 50,000 RMB ($8,179). Now, a new 18 year old talent would need to make a decision between hundreds of thousands of RMB (>$16,357) or even millions of RMB (>$163,573). In the beginning of 2014, LGD's general manager met 19 year old Zi-Liang "Styz" Qu, at a PC Cafe. Following the meeting, Ruru recommended that Styz test in the club. Thanks to veteran leadership, Styz slowly became the club's main player.

Before LPL started, a club offerd Styz 500,000 RMB ($81,786) as a signing bonus. He later refused to train, wishing to be kicked in order to avoid paying the transfer fee. "He was extremely toxic to his teammates, calling them dumb shits. When he practiced, if he died once, he would rage quit instantly," said Ruru.

Ruru had a chat with Styz and offered him 200,000 RMB ($32,715) to have stay on the team, but the offer was refused. Later, Styz never replied to any calls or Weibo messages, so Ruru could only provide materials and match VODs to ACE. ACE decided to ban Styz for one whole year, which, due to most progamer's short careers, means Styz is destroyed. A few days after, Styz provided the name of the club that poached him, ACFUN, for a reduction of the ban to six months. ACFUN was fined for 400,000 RMB ($65,429), and the manager who violated the rule was banned from the industry. [Editor’s Note: Weibo/TencentQQ is the most popular social media application in China, it functions similarly to Twitter]

"They (Owners of other clubs) invited players to brothels and Karaoke everyday. These kids don't have any social experience, so they are easily swayed by this approach," Ruru said, "Even adults would lose themselves to big offers, and they are just kids."

The Influx of Second Generation Investors

LGD's gaming house in Shanghai Xuhui District, a duplex filled with 40 administrators, agents, tournament directors, business operators, and managers in service of 20 players.
LGD's gaming house in Shanghai Xuhui District, a duplex filled with 40 administrators, agents, tournament directors, business operators, and managers in service of 20 players.

Most professional gamers were once rebellious teenagers. They come from small towns, with normal family backgrounds, and dreams of being progamers. They are not interested in schooling after highschool and went to esports instead. They were questioned by their parents about how to make a living off gaming. Some parents would even break off their relationship until the players would win the prize, and receive it all: family support, media attention, and proof to society.

The cruel reality of esports, however, is that the average career length for progamers is about five years, and the golden age for a progamer happens to match the time others would spend in university. If they can't make it, the future of of a player’s life is dark.

Feng Ling is one of the many average players in esports. In 2004, he fell in love with Warcraft 3 and joined a second-rate club after graduating from high school. He was paid 2,000 RMB ($327) per month and spent two years in progaming without any accomplishments. After realizing that there was no future for him in the industry, he chose to retire. After retirement, he went to night school, then started to work at a women’s clothing store. He spends time at night bars and karoake, just like a normal person. All his friends, who won national championships back in the day, are now insurance brokers, poker players, APP designers, or behind the eSports scene.

Since 2011, a huge wave of second-generation rich have poured themselves into eSports, invested in eSports clubs, become owners, and started giving players higher salaries. The slush fund has steered the industry into a chaotic era. Clubs with enormous financial backing are competing with each other, so players' salaries have expanded as well. The average salary of players went from 2,000-3,000 RMB ($327 - $491) to 10,000-20,000 RMB ($1,636-$3,271) coupled with hundreds of thousands of RMB in signing and transfer fees. King surmised, "even if you play the match today, you still can't be sure the team would still exist half a year later. Even the organizers are having a headache, teams can just dissolve somehow."

As a journalist, Yi Zhou has witnessed the progress of this growing bubble. He always hears people stating "My owner has the money," or "XYZ is a dumb shit." He has seen too many second-generation owners who had ambition to enter the business start out with confidence, but quietly backoff after numorous defeats. A majority of the clubs lack the infastructure to sustain themselves, so the owners have to cover all the costs from their pocket, which is the main reason why clubs just dissolve after these rich owners back off.

It's hard to say who the more mature ones are between the owners and players. LGD’s former owner was a second-generation affluent Australian, born in 1986. One time he was so drunk, that he represented the team himself in a match which later the community called the "Trashiest Carry of the Universe.” By 2011, he sold the club to a web-game company without the club knowing it because one of the players refused to play DotA with him and blacklisted him. "He sold the club because he was mad" Ruru said, "he was acting like a kid."

The most famous second-generation affluent in the industry is Si-Cong Wang, son of the Jian-lin Wang, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group Corporation Limited. In 2011, he founded Invictus Gaming (iG), saying "We're going to start out strong, and reign in esports.” In the beginning, he gave Invictus’ members the highest salary in the industry and watched many games live.

He then became even crazier. For example, WCG's champion would recieve 30,000 RMB ($4,907) in prize money but he also would give the players a 150,000 RMB ($24,535) bonus. King later advised Wang that "no matter how much you give to your players, they will never think you give too much."

Febuary, 2012, Invictus, World Elite and other top clubs formed ACE to fight against the unregulated poaching happening in the industry. They used the Korean eSports Association’s (KeSPA) rules: If players leave the club without consent, they will be banned; if clubs are poached without consent, they will be fined; however, its had a limited effect overall.

As second-generation affluents that are willing to invest more money are coming into the industry, progamers salaries skyrocket and their desires grow endlessly. Some club owners use words such as "holding a hedgehog" to describe their current situation. If you give your players 50,000 RMB ($8,179) a month, they will still ask for a raise non-stop which leads to players threatening that “if you don't give me a raise, I won't play." [Editor’s note: Holding a hedgehog means that the players can be great, but if angered can leave an owner hurting thanks to their metaphorical spikes]

Exponential growth in income is evident with BurNing's experience. When he was poached by DK in January 2011, 50,000 RMB ($8,179) was likely the highest salary possible. That same year in August, when iG was formed, Si-Cong Wang gave BurNing more than 100,000 RMB ($16,357) as a signing bonus. In August 2014, before BurNing announced his retirement, clubs who approached him offered signing bonuses in excess of a million RMB ($163,573).

"Now Invictus’ players are complaining about the Principal (Si-Cong Wang, the owner), saying the Principal is not trying hard enough, paying no money at all. The club is dead, we can't work anymore," said Ruru. Today, Invictus Gaming’s salary is no longer on top of the industry. The young owner who was so passionate has stopped coming to the club. [Editor’s Note: Rumours are circulating at Wang Si-Cong is re-invigorated after watching the Season 4 World Championships live and looking to re-invest heavily.]

Ruru also stated that "players don't care about how much salary you pay them. They want the hundreds of thousands of RMB in a signing bonus. For example, if the player signs a two year contract, he will contend that he was scammed since he might not get a signing bonus the next year. You can give up on talking to the old players; they will think you just don't want to pay and are fooling around with them."

EHOME’s former manager 71 said, "Many players nowadays play with hands face up, not using the mouse and play the game with hands face down. Hands face up, you know, beg for money. They are playing the game with their hands instead of their brain now."

This chaos has even spread to Korea. Xing Liu (pseudonym) is a Chinese student who is currenty studying his third year in Korea. He is also a part-time China Electronic Athletics journalist.

Since the beginning of April, he has received more than 20 cases where he helped Douyu and other streaming platforms contact Korean star League of Legends players and ask them to come stream in China. Monthly payment would depend on a player's fame, ranging from 30,000 ($4,907) to a 1,000,000 RMB ($163,573), which is at least 50% higher than a Korean salary. "When I talked to those retired players about the salary, they were shocked by the numbers," Liu said. [Editor’s note: Yes, the passage is asserting that the minimum number stated (30,000 RMB) is 50% higher than the average Korean salary per month.]

"The real crisis that Korea is facing right now is that once players start realize how big the market is here [in China], the Korean esports scene may shake," said Liu. KeSPA’s recent announcement that Korean League of Legends players can stream online is evidence of such a shake.

Esports is on a different scale in Korea compared to the rest of the world. Seoul has often been described as the Mecca of esports and the Korean government has demonstarted significant support for competitive video gaming. The former president of Korea, Moo-hyun Roh, was the Honorary President of World Cyber Games (WCG), the tournament once considered to be the esports Olympics. He also invited Starcraft progamers to compete one on one at the Blue House.

China Electronic Athletics Chief Editor Yi Zhou said Korean players generally are not willing to say "please support me" on stream because they feel embarrassed, even though the so-called "support" is actually asking fans to buy products the streamer sells. On the other hand, Chinese players are aggressive advertisers. They ask for clicks all day, and a viewer can feel they are watching a professional salesman. “Click me, subscribe me, just click it like this, come, it's easy. Click it, click! You really can't do anything about this.” In China, everything is about money.

Waiting for Someone Like David Stern

Esports is the 99th recognized sport by General Administration of Sports of China. In Yi Zhou's eyes, esports should be a "sport" where it needs independent organization to host tournaments and events. However, gaming companies that have risen up in recent years are only hosting their own tournaments. Before this year, the most famous tournament, WCG, was organized by a third party, but now tournaments of largest scale and biggest prize pool are all held by publishers of DotA2 and League of Legends, Valve and Riot/Tencent.

"Everybody can make some money, but I don't think this is the right direction for esports to grow... the society is not as tight anymore." Yi Zhou is worried that tournaments held by gaming companies would rise quick and die quick. "What's the worst thing that could happen? Someday, when this game is not popular anymore, it'll die fast."

"When you play League of Legends, DotA2 people call you Tencent's dog, while if you play DotA2, League people would call you DotA's dog. You have lost your independence." For a man who has been around esport for so many years, Yi Zhou doesn't feel accomplished in journalism anymore, he even harbors doubts that "esports is just a marketing tool for gaming companies, and all of what we did before was just a misunderstanding."

Even today, Yi Zhou still remembers the exact moment when he started out in the industry 7 years ago. Back then he was ambitious, but that heart doesn't exist anymore. "I'm trying to survive on my own here for now. I can only wait for someone like David Stern to show up," he explained, "when this industry starts taking off, the media will also take off."

David Stern is the former commissioner of the National Basketball Association. He spent 30 years to grow a league worth $400 million to a $19 billion global sports empire. Every NBA owner made a fortune, and they had one of the greatest players in sports history, Michael Jordan.

"There was this man called Man-Jiang Wang, who in our eyes (the insiders), was the esports hope," Yi Zhou recalled. In 2006, Man-Jiang Wang and his team founded Pro Gamer League. At the time, PGL was very unique and comparable to WCG. For the first year of PGL's Warcraft tournament, a record 14 million viewers tuned into watch during the first six days and almost caught up to Super Girl in China. [Editor’s note: Super Girl was a singing contest for girls organised by Hunan State Television]

The 2300-square meter venue was filled, so the organizer had to give a special ticket to those people who didn't have a seat and have them to stand on pillar stairs to watch the games. Another time when PGL was streaming Starcraft online, the match wasn't even finished by 11 p.m., so the commentators decided to hype the crowd up by saying, "If we can get the thread to 10,000 replies, we will stream overnight!" In a blink of an eye, the 10,000 replies were made, and 50,000 people were watching the streamed match.

Man-Jiang Wang seemed to be proud when he was telling Portrait Magazine about those glorious days. He said he remembered “there were progamers who took the PGL flag to Mount Everest for pictures, proving this brand was well recognized." This 48 year-old man who worked in Nike China, Dalian Shide F.C., and Bejing Guoan F.C., graduated from the University of Liverpool, with double-MBA in Football Industries and Marketing had a vision for esports.

His vision of the industry 8 years ago would still seem advanced today. He wanted to create the finest esports premier league, with the highest prize pool, summoning the top Warcraft and Starcraft in the world to battle against each other throughout the year. He created a gaming video website called Gamebank to collect all the VODs for all matches. He also created a gaming community, which had over 100,000 people registered and a daily traffic of 600,000.

By 2007, PGL was sponsored by companies like Intel and Kappa, with an annual income of 4 million RMB ($654,557). The cashflow also stablized and Man-Jiang Wang's next plan was to acquire a VS battle platform and to merge with Replays.net, a leading esports company, to create derivatives. He also wanted to create a tournament with an even higher prize pool.

To do this, he needed to raise 23 million RMB ($3,762,168). At the same time, PGL influenced Europe and Man-Jiang Wang's Swedish investor decided to merge with one of the European esports organizers to seek a chance to go public. Man-Jaing Wang, who was against the idea, unwillingly agreed to try for half a year.

Alas, it didn’t work out as expected and Man-Jiang Wang left PGL with a worn out heart in 2008 because he and the investors could not come to an agreement. He took a year long break, and half a year after his resignation, PGL was unable to adapt and had stopped hosting tournaments.

To Man-Jiang Wang, if PGL had one more year, everything would have been different. He could have gotten the venture capital needed, and he could have avoided the merger that destroyed the organization. "This is the power of capital, the project was started with capital and destroyed by capital," said Man-Jiang Wang.

Today, Man-Jiang Wang has a child safety seat business. The days of esport have long gone. "I'm still kind of disappointed, I guess, because the brand you created is gone in an instant. The brand that I thought of and handcrafted? Gone." From this incident, he learned to never give up control of the company for financing issues. He believes that he has “to stay in control."

During the interview with Portrait Magazine, King said "I don't know what to do anymore," about seven times. As the President of ACE, he has the responsibility and is willing to protect the industry, but he's starting to feel worn out. He admitted that he isn't the David Stern that everybody is waiting for. He “doesn't have the strong heart to do it."

"The players that want to leave must hate me. It might have been 10,000 - 50,000 RMB ($1,636 - $8,179) before, but now it's 1 or 2 million RMB ($163,573 to $327,145). I really don't want to have this responsibility. The price is getting higher and higher, and if I were the player myself, I might want to start killing people," said King, who now, is full of negativity. "Players would talk behind my back, saying it's all because of this stupid ACE. If it didn't exist, I would make more money, right?"

Le Pei, World Elites manager, full of negativity lately, said
Le Pei, World Elites manager, full of negativity lately, said "In the end, I'm probably the most cruel of the managers."

This is not the first time that King has been in conflict with money. Back in the glorious days of Warcraft, WE Club trained a group of Korean players, many who won the world's title. However, by 2007, when the game was at its peak, many of these trained players were poached, and some even had annual salaries of millions RMB (>$163,573). Nevertheless, half a year later, the bubble was popped.

He isn't sure about this time, though, “Maybe the bubble doesn't exist in Chinese esports? It's already been 4 to 5 years, and it's still inflating. Last year, we were still talking about signing a player with 50,000 or 100,000 RMB ($8,179 or $16,357) , now as I'm sitting here, we can even talk about millions RMB (>$163,573). When I have a good player, I have to sign them for 1 or 2 million RMB ($163,573 or $327,145), which means I have to start getting used to this. It also means I've been wrong."

King is a first-generation progamer, who has witnessed the birth and growth of Chinese eSports. He said, "When I started, there was no such thing as esports." In the year 2000, he went from Xi'An to Hangzhou, stood on the train for 28 hours, and competed in a tournament for the prize of 2,000 RMB ($327) worth of video cards. He didn't win, and needed his family to pay the return trip. He later founded World Elite and trained many players such as CaoMei.

King smiled, and told us about how they fought through all difficulties back then to the point where we could see in detail how people's heart changed over time. In the summer of 2003, World Elite’s Warcraft player Su "suhO" Hao wanted to compete in a tournament, but he couldn't afford the 30 RMB ($5) sign-up fee. King rushed through rain to send the money, and suhO won the national championship. They held the banner that said "WCG Chinese Regional Champion, Prize 30,000 RMB ($4,907),” and walked from the Olympic Sports Center Gymnasium to Beijing West Railway Station, and took the train that returned to Xi'An. People on the way always asked "What's this?" and they would proudly say "This is esports!" People were amazed as they never thought playing games could make money.

Adapted and translation from Portrait Magazine in China with permission. Special thanks to Reazony for translating and Thomas Watts for editing and rewriting.

The products discussed here were independently chosen by our editors. GameSpot may get a share of the revenue if you buy anything featured on our site.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

Join the conversation
There are no comments about this story