The Esports Story of Wuhan: The City Before China’s Coronavirus Outbreak
“ During the DreamLeague Leipzig Dota 2 Major last month, Chinese esports team Vici Gaming finished the tournament in third place. “The result was not ideal,” commented coach Bai “Rotk” Fan on his Weibo, “We have four of five players [who] came from Hubei, the province of Wuhan city, and [concerns about] the coronavirus [were] potentially affecting players’ performance in the matches.”
It’s hard to imagine how those Chinese players felt as they played and worried about their families and hometown. That week, between Jan. 24-31 should have been a joyous reunion for Chinese families as they celebrated the Chinese New Year (CNY), the most important holiday in the country’s culture; equal in importance to Christmas in the west. Unfortunately, the Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia (or NCP, as it has officially been named by the World Health Organization) outbreak in Wuhan and every other city in China ruined this important national holiday, and brought all commerce in the region to a grinding halt.
In addition, a minority of callous people (likely motivated by fear) called Wuhan a “poisonous city,” and referred to the people from Wuhan, other Chinese citizens, and even people from other Asian countries as “coronavirus.” On Twitter, a new hashtag – #JeNeSuisPasUn virus (English: I’m not a virus) has been widely spread by the Asian community.
As a journalist from China, I think it is a good time to highlight that Wuhan is an important city for business, and explain how it has contributed players, teams, companies, and international events to the international esports ecosystem. In other words, Wuhan is more than just a dot on a map where a potential pandemic is currently occurring. Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither do we.
Wuhan Generates Esports Players for China’s Talent Pool
Pictured: former Wuhan LPL player Ming “Clearlove” Kai, a current coach from Edward Gaming, featured in the 2020 LPL Spring Split Trailer. Credit: TJ Sports
As highlighted in The Esports Observer’s retrospective on esports history, the success of an esport is defined by its community. About 20 years ago, many Chinese families could not afford to buy a personal computer for use at home. To meet demands, massive internet cafes cropped up in middle and western China. These cafes were important for developing early grassroots esports players and communities organically. Though we joke about how Shanghai has become the global center of esports, the Chinese esports industry was actually born from many western and central cities in China, including Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi’an, Hunan, and Wuhan.
In China’s League of Legends Pro League (LPL), there are many professional players who come from Wuhan, or its surrounding province [administrative division], Hubei. Ming “Clearlove” Kai, the first officially registered LPL player (player number: 001) and the current coach from Edward Gaming (EDG), was born in Wuhan. Ming is also the only coach featured in the 2020 LPL Spring Split Trailer.
Royal Never Give-Up (RNG) player Jian “Uzi” Zihao, one of the most influential League of Legends players in China currently, was born in Yichang, the second-largest city in the province next to Wuhan. Recently Zihao paid for 20,000 medical masks to be sent to Yichang Hospital.
Yu “Jackylove” Wenbo is a former Invictus Gaming player. He won the 2018 League of Legends World Championship and was born in Huanggang, also part of the Hubei province.
eStar Gaming: The First Home Venue for Mobile Esports
Sun “XiaOt” Liwei, is from Wuhan. He is a former StarCraft Brood War, StarCraft II, Warcraft III, Dota, and Heroes of The Storm professional player, former CEO of Invictus Gaming, and founder and CEO of Wuhan-based esports organization eStar Gaming.
Liwei is legendary in China. In 2000, Canadian StarCraft player Guillaume “Grrrr” Party was crowned StarCraft world champion at the 2000 Hanaro OSL. The OSL was the top StarCraft Brood War competition in South Korea, and during that time, Guillaume was one of the few non-South Korean competitors to win an OSL title. In 2001 Guillaume came to China and played a few matches with the top Chinese StarCraft players, losing only one game against a 14-year-old kid from Wuhan. That kid was Liwei.
This was the start of Liwei’s career as a professional player. In 2007, he represented Chinese WarCraft III players in the World Cyber Games in Seattle, the biggest esports competition of that era. In 2011, Chinese businessman Sicong Wang bought Chinese esports organization CCM, rebranded it to Invictus Gaming (IG), and named Liwei as the CEO. Even while acting as the CEO, Liwei still continued his career as a professional player, and competed in Dota, StarCraft II, and Heroes of The Storm.
In 2014, Liwei left IG and established his own esports team brand, called eStar Gaming, in his hometown of Wuhan. The organization initially competed in Heroes of The Storm, with Liwei serving not only as the founder, but also a player on the team. In 2016, Liwei and his team finished in the top four of the DreamHack Summer 2017 Heroes of The Storm event, his last international esports competition, taking home $10K USD.
In the same year, Tencent launched a mobile esports tournament in China called the King Pro League (KPL), based on its popular mobile game Honor of Kings. Liwei established an Honor of Kings division called eStarPro, which became one of the best-performing KPL teams in China, having won the first Honor of Kings World Champion Cup in 2019, taking home the equivalent of $1.9M in prize money. This victory alone made it the 7th team in TEO’s top esports teams by prize money in Q3 2019.
During Tencent’s Global Esports Annual Summit in 2019, it was announced that eStarPro would have its own home venue in Wuhan, the first offline home venue for mobile esports. In December of 2019, eStar also joined the LPL, China’s top professional League of Legends competition, as its 17th team. The team received investment from former LPL player Liu “pdd” Mou as well as the Wuhan Tourism Development Investment Group, with over ¥100M ($14.3M) in funding.
Liwei contributed heavily to esports and Wuhan, both as a professional player and as the founder of the city’s biggest esports organization. At the time of writing, Liwei has donated ¥500K ($71.4K), 60,000 medical masks, and 10,000 medical gloves to Wuhan’s hospitals.
DouYu, Wuhan’s First Unicorn Internet Company
Since Amazon bought Twitch for $970M in 2014, Chinese businesses have placed their attention on live streaming platforms, as they try to position themselves as the “Chinese Twitch.” After two years of competition between multiple live streaming companies, three rose to prominence: DouYu, Huya, and Panda TV. Gaming and esports have become the major content of choice on these platforms. Chinese audiences are now able to watch tournaments daily, and many retired esports players have turned to stream as a way to continue making a living.
In March 2016, Wuhan-based live streaming company DouYu raised a $100M Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings, and reached a company valuation of $1B, becoming the first unicorn internet company in Wuhan, as well as in Hubei. In 2019, DouYu would raise $775M in a U.S. IPO on the Nasdaq Stock Market, with the IPO valuing the company at nearly $4B.
DouYu recently donated ¥10M ($1.45M) to the Wuhan Charity Association, while Huya donated ¥7M ($1M).
Esports Events in Wuhan .
In 2017, China hosted the League of Legends World Championships for the first time. Between Oct. 5-15, the group stage of the tournament was held in the Wuhan Sports Center. The stadium was at full capacity for the event. The Wuhan government first lit up the Yellow Crane Tower, a historical structure that has been part of the city as early as AD 223. In addition, the 2019 KPL Fall Split Grand Final was held in Wuhan, and the government lit the buildings in Wuhan Changjiang Zhuzhou in honor of the event.
Wuhan is a city with a 3,500-year history and has seen plenty of challenges and hard times. The novel coronavirus outbreak has had a significant negative effect on China’s economy, including its esports industry. But we should remember that the success of China’s esports industry would not be without the contributions of Wuhan. There can be no doubt that these contributions (and those to come) will continue long after the virus outbreak becomes a distant and faded memory.”