Editor’s Picks: The Top 5 Rising Mobile Esports of 2020
In China and Southeast Asia, mobile esports have stood right alongside their PC and console brethren for years. While the West has yet to catch up in this area, 2019 was a significant step forward as games like Clash Royale and PUBG MOBILE helped bring new organizations, viewers, and sponsors into the mobile ecosystem.
Early in my esports career I was among the naysayers, discounting the competitive merit of mobile games and wondering aloud why anyone would choose to watch or compete in Arena of Valor over League of Legends. However, the last two years have proven that mobile esports are building up their own distinct community – a niche market that won’t be reached by traditional PC esports. Not only do these games have their own compelling competitive storylines and hype moments, but they also present a unique opportunity for brands and esports organizations alike to tap into a market they have yet to reach.
Looking ahead, 2020 is set to be the biggest year for mobile esports yet. Between new releases, new partnerships, and a better understanding of the market as a whole, these games will help propel mobile esports forward. These are the top five rising mobile esports of 2020 – the games I predict will bring the most growth to the mobile ecosystem.
League of Legends: Wild Rift
Honor of Kings and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang have proven that mobile MOBA’s (the genre dominated by League of Legends on PC) can sustain an esports ecosystem in Eastern markets, but Arena of Valor’s attempt to replicate that success in the West has been less than successful. There is a high barrier of entry in convincing a PC-focused market to commit 20-30 minutes to playing a game on a phone.
This is where League of Legends: Wild Rift comes in. A familiar IP is a proven way to lower the barrier of entry for any game, and there are few IPs more familiar to gamers than LoL. Wild Rift will be the inflection point that propels mobile MOBA’s into mainstream popularity in the West, to say nothing of its likely success in China.
Historically, Riot Games has been more methodical in its esports development than some of its competitors, so it is unlikely that the game will launch with a multi-million dollar franchised league, but exhibitions featuring LoL pros are sure to be part of its marketing effort, no doubt leading to a more established esports structure heading into 2021.
Supercell has been a driving force in the development of mobile esports largely through its commitment to the Clash Royale League, which drew a number of new esports organizations into the space. While no such league has been created for the developer’s newer competitive title, Supercell has already announced a significant commitment to Brawl Stars in 2020.
A year-long competition structure is ideal for a growing esport as it allows organizations to monitor the game early in the year, and then swoop in the buy up free agent contender rosters ahead of major championships where the bulk of the viewership and prize money will be concentrated. More structure, more prize money, new organizations entering the space – these are the defining characteristics of a growing esport, and Brawl Stars fits the mold perfectly.
While most of the headlines surrounding mobile battle royale titles have been focused on PUBG MOBILE, Garena’s entry into the genre quietly had a strong 2019 and doesn’t look to be slowing down. According to Esports Earnings, the game awarded nearly $400K USD in prize money in 2019 – virtually all of it coming from a single event, the Free Fire World Series. According to YouTube’s annual YouTube Rewind, Free Fire was also the fourth most-watched video game on the platform.
In addition to its game publishing work, Garena is an experienced esports tournament operator. With Free Fire challenging the likes of Call of Duty Mobile and PUBG MOBILE in total downloads, the company has an opportunity to also challenge its competitors for the mobile battle royale esports market.
The last two spots on this list are somewhat of a cheat as both have proven themselves as established esports, but their growth potential (both for different reasons) means that they simply cannot be ignored.
For Clash Royale, that potential comes primarily from a recently-announced partnership with Turner Sports to oversee the Clash Royale League’s ad inventory. The CRL has largely operated without sponsors for its first two years, but bringing in the company that operates ELEAGUE (which has signed its fair share of non-endemic partners) should change that in a hurry.
While viewership and prize money may not grow dramatically for the CRL in 2020, the opportunity for brands has just grown significantly, which is critical to the long-term viability of any esport in the modern era.
When one of the most downloaded mobile games in the world commits $5M to an overhauled global esports structure, it is worth noting. PUBG MOBILE is already a dominant esport in growth markets like India, and esports organizations including Fnatic and Spacestation Gaming have taken note.
On PC, battle royale esports remain a complicated challenge, largely held aloft by the overwhelming prize money infused into Fortnite by Epic Games. PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS has abandoned its regional leagues after just one year, and Apex Legends saw virtually no esports interest this year after the launch hype died down (next year’s Global Series may change that, but it remains to be seen). Mobile battle royales appear to be another story entirely.
Both Free Fire and PUBG MOBILE have shown that there is an audience interested in watching these games played at a competitive level, and Tencent has the resources to develop PUBG MOBILE into not just a powerful mobile esport, but an industry leader overall.