The rise of online gaming in Asia

If you were asked to name a single country that has had the most significant impact on video gaming, you’d have to say it’s Japan. The output of Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Namco, Sony and Taito formed the DNA of gaming as we know it today.

But while Japan might have been the king of the coin-op and console ages, in the online gaming age it has been joined by two other titans: China and South Korea. So how exactly did these nations become the gaming giants they are today.

Gaming in South Korea

South Korea never had a period when gaming was considered a solitary, nerdy pursuit. Since its inception, video gaming has been a sociable pastime that is taken seriously.

Added to this, during the period when online multiplayer gaming was taking off (late 1990s to early 2010s), South Korea’s investment in broadband infrastructure was the envy of the world. Speeds were always at the leading edge of technological possibility, and it’s normal to get 100 Mbit/s in the major cities.

With all the cultural and technical pieces in place, it was almost inevitable that South Korea would become the hotbed of gaming talent it is today.

Major esports meetings are broadcast on national television, with all the punditry, player stats and viewing figures you’d expect of the Super Bowl. Prize money is also eye-watering, with players in their teens becoming millionaires.

By far the biggest game in South Korea is League of Legends, the game South Korea's gaming superstar, “Faker” (Lee Sang-hyeok), plays.

But there are also thriving scenes in Overwatch, PUBG, Starcraft and Warcraft, each of which has millions of devoted online players.

South Korea’s gaming obsession has had downsides.

For example, it’s the world capital of gaming addiction, with young people regularly being referred to gaming detox retreats to wean themselves off their screens and soothe their repetitive strain injuries (RSI).

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China: the rising star

Take a brief look at the top 100 esports earners, and Chinese players pop up all along the list. At the time of writing, about 27% of the top earners are Chinese.

China’s economy has grown at pace over past 20 years, leading to greater prosperity, more leisure time, and a plentiful supply of good quality but inexpensive mobile and computing devices.

With a population of 1.4 billion, it only takes a tiny percentage of the nation to become a huge force in any esport.

For the past few years, China’s spending on gaming has eclipsed all other nations, although in the most recent Newzoo report, the US edged ahead to become the biggest. The sheer number of US players will always be a factor.

China is different to South Korea in the primary device gamers use.

Since the major consoles were beyond the financial reach of many in China (and banned by the government), Chinese manufactured smartphones became the platform of choice.

Accessible, portable and powerful, smartphone gaming remains the dominant gaming platform in the country.

According to a Pandaily report, more than half of the nation’s 1.3 billion smartphone users are online gamers, assisted by very good 5G coverage in the urban areas.

If you’ve ever played the more popular online games on your smartphone, you’ll likely notice when China is waking up, whatever time zone you’re in. If you like winning, that might well be your cue to log off.

Not all games are Asia dominated

It might, on the face of it, seem that Asian nations (or at least China, Japan and South Korea) are the dominant forces in esports. But this is true only up to a point.

When it comes to role-play games (RPGs) and online battle arenas, it’s certainly players from these three nations that are the ones to beat.

Yet when it comes to shooters like Counter Strike and Fortnite, Asian players are conspicuous by their absence in the top arenas. Those games tend to be dominated by Europeans and North Americans.

There are cultural reasons for this. As soccer dominates in Europe, cricket in India and American football in the US, RPGs are popular in east Asia.

Also, the Chinese gaming market is still developing, and with its enormous population, its presence will likely grow across other games.

India, Indonesia and Pakistan: about to level up?

There are three major economies in Asia that are lagging behind in the gaming world: India, Indonesia and Pakistan.

With a combined population of over 1.6 billion people whose average age is in the mid-20s, these nations should be on course for gaming greatness.

India in particular has a strong, thriving tech sector and good infrastructure in the urban areas, but it still has a relatively small player base.

Indonesia is another nation with great potential: seventh in the world by GDP and with stability and good infrastructure to build on.

Pakistan is still struggling in terms of internet connectivity and speed, but it has a tech-savvy and young population that could make it a gaming superpower if its internet can be fixed.

As yet, online gaming doesn’t seem to have excited young people in these nations to the same extent it has elsewhere.

As South Korea has demonstrated, you need the right technology and the right culture to get the esports sector moving, and in these nations, at least one is missing.

It just takes a spark, however, and the gaming industry is trying hard to become a part of these exciting economies.

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