Although it once punched above its weight in esports, Taiwan is now falling behind countries like South Korea and Singapore. How can Taiwan leverage its strengths to put itself back on the map?
BY HENRY LAN
I started playing League of Legends (LoL) 10 years ago while attending middle school in Australia. It was already a popular game, but I had no idea how much the professional scene would explode between then and now. LoL is now the number-one PC game globally, drawing in up to eight million concurrent players per day across 145 countries.
And it’s not just LoL that’s gained popularity. According to esports analytics company Newzoo, the global esports market grew from generating US$130 million in 2012 to over US$1.7 billion in 2022 and is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 13.4%.
Arguments with my mom about time allocation between gaming and academics ensued throughout my schooling, but even she began referring to LoL by name rather than simply as “the video game” after hearing about it from the news and her friends.
Conversations like ours took place worldwide, and in few places were they more frequent than in Taiwan following the victory of the Taipei Assassins (TPA) in the 2012 LoL World Championships. This annual tournament is one of the world’s biggest, with just under 100 million viewers in 2019. TPA’s victory is considered to have catalyzed widespread recognition of esports as a legitimate industry and a viable career path.
Kevin Pai, CEO of Taiwan Esports League (TESL), says the nature of competitive gaming has evolved during the past few years. “At the beginning, organizing competitions and esports was a strategy that game developers used to hook new players and grow their player base,” he notes. “But over time, esports became a business opportunity of its own.”
Pai notes that the concept of esports is still in its infancy compared to traditional sports and contains some structural problems yet to be addressed. One example is the phenomenon of game developers exercising a monopoly over competition hosting rights for their game titles, rather than implementing integrated competitions like the Olympics for traditional sports.
Despite these structural differences, both esports and traditional sports are a test of dedication, teamwork, and comradery. Leading Asian team Talon Esports Cofounder and CEO Sean Zhang says his early childhood interest in traditional sports is what led him to enter the esports industry.
Talon Esports has sought to capitalize on these commonalities by partnering with French football club Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), currently home to superstars Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi, and Neymar Júnior. Zhang notes that the formation of PSG Talon is a mutually beneficial arrangement.
“Many traditional sports teams are seeking diversification strategies due to the increasing average age of their traditional fanbase,” he says. “The Premier League dominates here in Asia, so building a new football fanbase as a French team is difficult here. Looking at new ways to connect with young fans, such as esports, is a great way to help bridge the gap to new audiences and create a new angle, so the next best thing was for them to look at esports.”
Shifts in Taiwan
Since TPA’s rise to fame, Taiwan’s gaming industry has continued to flourish in hardware and mobile gaming development, but progress in professional esports has stalled. Many high-profile Taiwanese players have departed to play in other regions. The most prominent one is Hu Shuo-chieh (competing as SwordArT), who was acquired by U.S.-based Team SoloMid in 2020 with a record-breaking US$6 million contract.
“What usually happens is that there are better opportunities for Taiwanese players in mainland China,” says Harley Örvall, cofounder and chief gaming officer of Paper Rex, an esports team startup. Although Paper Rex is based in Singapore, Örvall resides in Taipei after falling in love with Taiwan on earlier visits to study Mandarin.
“Taiwan is a great place, but the market in China is so much bigger, which means that sponsors pay more money, and teams can in turn pay higher salaries to players,” he says. “And it’s easy for Taiwanese players to move there because they speak the language.” Örvall says he thinks the situation won’t change until Taiwanese organizations are willing to pay as much as teams in China.
Zhang says this problem can be overcome through more concerted efforts to activate brands and unlock commercial opportunities. He notes that in the past, Taiwanese teams haven’t done enough to build international brands.
“Taiwanese teams, in general, have not been the best at connecting to international fan bases as well as teams from other regions,” says Zhang. He adds that focusing only on the domestic market doesn’t provide enough commercial scale. “Video games are an international product. Why are large teams from China, Korea, and the U.S., like G2, T1, and Cloud9, so popular? Because they produce content that caters to international audiences, and they invest in building partnerships.”
Taiwan’s neighboring markets enjoy backing from big-name corporations. Such backing ranges from direct team sponsorships, such as Samsung and SK Telecom in Korea and JD.com in China, to event and competition sponsors like Mercedes-Benz and Nike. International commercialization is at the center of Talon Esports’ strategy.
“It’s as simple as committing more to creating content and understanding the value of the content,” says Zhang. “If Taiwan wants to be competitive with China, we need to offer comparable salaries. In order to do that, we need to do a better job of educating our partners to improve and believe in the content.”
Factors for success
There is no reason Taiwan can’t become an esports powerhouse. The country’s advantageous geographic position, robust internet infrastructure, and strong grassroots ecosystem form a trifecta of advantages that can propel it to become a world leader in the industry.
Talon’s Zhang also points to the strengths of Taiwan’s internet connection speed and talent pipeline. “Taiwan is way ahead of Hong Kong regarding the mindset of parents and schools,” he says. “I think the foundation is there. Everything is ready to go. The internet is great.”
Ecosystem builders like the Taiwan Esports League (TESL) reinforce this mindset. TESL hosts the League of Legends School Championship (LSC), an inter-school competition organized in partnership with high schools and universities and supported by the Ministry of Education as well as LoL developer Riot Games.
TESL CEO Kevin Pai stresses that a vibrant grassroots community underpins the industry’s growth. “I see esports in two layers,” he says. “There’s the professional esports side and the grassroots esports side. Using LoL as an example, there are only a handful of professional tournaments in Taiwan yearly but 4,000-5,000 competitions at the grassroots level.”
These high school and university-level tournaments form the talent pipeline for professional competitions. Pai notes that the average age of esports players is extremely young – players usually peak around the age of 23, and teams nurture talent from ages 15 or 16. TESL now aims to provide comprehensive training and development opportunities by partnering with technology developers to run pilot programs at schools.
“Our goal is to not only host grassroots competitions but provide widespread training for the community to have the capacity to host their own local competitions by possessing capabilities like shout-casting and media,” says Pai.
Despite the strength of Taiwan’s grassroots community, Pai and Zhang agree that there is a notable gap separating it from the upper echelons of professional leagues. While universities and schools provide a solid foundation, establishing formal second-tier “academy-style” leagues could bridge this divide. But these leagues, which would offer aspiring players a more straightforward path toward professional esports, have long struggled to materialize.
At the center of this is the willingness to invest in the Taiwan market from developers like Activision Blizzard, a leading game developer known for titles such as World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, and Candy Crush under its three banners of Activision, Blizzard, and King. Paul Chen, Blizzard Entertainment’s head of strategy and business development for APAC, says game developers are conflicted about the Taiwan market.
“Both Activision and Blizzard have been in Taiwan since 1998,” he notes. “Half of Taiwan’s population plays games, and there is a large base of very devoted and engaged players across all our game titles. We’ve always identified Taiwan as a potential hub to host the biggest events and serve as a bridge for our developing markets in Southeast Asia.”
But Activision Blizzard’s investments in Taiwan have not always borne fruit. When Chen joined the company in 2017, Blizzard chose Taipei to build the world’s first Blizzard Arena, a fluid multi-purpose esports arena fully equipped with broadcasting rooms and player stages. Today, the Blizzard Arena is defunct and in the process of being torn down. While Chen acknowledges the effects of the pandemic, he also believes government support is essential to support the industry.
“Number one is the ability to bring talent into the country for events,” he says. “Particularly for players from less visa-friendly countries, we need special help to bring them in for events. We often don’t know the player lists until a month or two before the event, so it’s too late for us [to apply for visas].”
South Korea’s introduction of the E-6 visa has opened doors for professional esports athletes worldwide to reside in the country. This special cultural and arts visa covers music, art, literature, and entertainment talent. Governments in Southeast Asia are also considering similar schemes, while esports players continue to obtain visas for entry or residency in Taiwan.
The second form of support is for events and is financially linked. Chen notes that while the Singaporean government provides companies with substantial concessions to run global competitions that drive tourism to the country, Blizzard has never received such support in Taiwan.
There have been some positive developments, however. One of these was President Tsai Ing-wen’s push in 2017 to classify esports as a sport, which led to professional esports players being included in the list of athletes that are granted military service exemption. Chen recognizes the progress and urges the Taiwan government to act proactively to capture opportunities in the esports sector.
“When we invest in kickstarting the industry, we would really like to work with partners at our side,” he says.