China's Most Popular Mobile Game Charges Into American Market

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 8:52 am

Chinese tech giant Tencent is trying to do something that's never been done before: take the biggest online mobile game in China global.

Kings Of Glory, sometimes also translated as Honor Of Kings, boasts over 200 million monthly players worldwide. In China, it's been reported that tens of millions play daily. The game is so popular that Tencent had to implement a daily time restriction for young players to "ensure children's healthy development."

Now Tencent is trying to duplicate that success with a revamped version of the game for Western audiences, named Arena Of Valor, released in Europe in August and in North and South America earlier this month. While download figures have not yet been released, the game was charting at No. 15 on Jan. 1 in the Role Playing Games category on the iTunes app store.

The multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) game revolves around matches between two teams of five players. Each player has control of an in-game avatar that has weapons and magic abilities. The team that destroys the opposing team's base first wins.

One of the reasons the game is so big in China is because "literally anybody can play," Drew Miller tells NPR. He plays Arena Of Valor professionally for esports team Team Liquid.

Traditional MOBA games like League of Legends — Tencent took control of that game's parent company in 2011 — are complex, PC-based games, with matches that can last well over an hour. Tencent simplified the genre for its mobile game, and Arena of Valor matches only last about 15 to 20 minutes. That's allowed it to attract both serious and casual gamers.

"It's the only MOBA game I would ever consider trying to play with my mom," says Miller, who demonstrated of Arena of Valor for Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep.

The other reason the game achieved such popularity in China is because Tencent has integrated the game with its social media app, WeChat — the No. 1 messaging app in China. Miller says that allowed players to find others nearby also playing the game and instantly start a match.

"It sort of provides a similar competitive feel as playing a pickup basketball game," he says.

The social aspect is also given credit for why 54 percent of the game's player base in China, or about 108 million people, is female.

In bringing the game across the Pacific, one of Tencent's challenges was adopting the more relaxed approach American users take to mobile gaming compared to those in China, where it's most gamers' primary platform.

"Here in the U.S., mobile gaming is a much more casual experience, focusing more on games like Candy Crush and other simple mindless clickers," says Steven Asarch, who has covered MOBAs extensively as a reporter for online gaming publication Player.One.

The U.S. mobile gaming market was projected to reach 37.2 percent Americans, or 121.4 million people in 2017. In comparison, China had 503 million mobile gamers in 2016, and that number is projected to grow to 699 million by 2021. It is also estimated that 95 percent of the China's Internet usage is mobile.

Asarch says there hasn't been a mobile game in the U.S. that has broken into the serious gamer market.

"If Arena of Valor can break that, I would be incredibly impressed," says Asarch.

To make the game more appealing for the Americas, Tencent has replaced some of the original's in-game avatars — drawn from Chinese mythology — with other characters, such as D.C. Comics superheroes Batman and Wonder Woman. They've also announced that there will be a version for the Switch, Nintendo's hybrid console-portable gaming device.

Asarch says Arena Of Valor's true test will be how well it does on the Switch, which dominates the portable gaming market and is Nintendo's all-time fastest selling console.

"Everyone hears mobile MOBA, they ditch out," Asarch says. "But if they hear Switch MOBA, they're like, wait a minute, that could be interesting! That sounds like it might work!"

Asarch says if a MOBA game can be play on the Switch, it will change the entire market.

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Chinese tech giant Tencent is trying to do something that's never been done before - take the biggest online mobile game in China global.


The game is called "Kings Of Glory." Tens of millions of Chinese play it every day. Now it's being released. This new version, though, isn't exactly the same, as our co-host Steve Inskeep discovered while playing it with international gamer Drew Miller.


It sounds, you know, like James Bond or something except with games.

DREW MILLER: (Laughter) Very similar to James Bond just with video games. Recently I got back from Korea. I was on Team Liquid and we played against Team SK in a showmatch for the Asia International Championship for "Arena Of Valor."

INSKEEP: What's the game in its Chinese form?

MILLER: It's called "Kings Of Glory."

INSKEEP: OK. So "Kings Of Glory." What is the concept of "Kings Of Glory?"

MILLER: It's basically a mobile version of "League Of Legends" or "Dota." And this breaks it down into, like, a 15-minute game, whereas the PC versions take up to an hour or even an hour and a half. You pick a team of five and then the other team picks a team of five, and then you fight against each other with magical spells and you try and defeat the enemy's base.

INSKEEP: As best you can tell, what is it about "Kings Of Glory" that has made it so appealing?

MILLER: Well, they basically did a bulk of their advertising through the WeChat app, and it's the No. 1 used messaging app in China.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is huge. Hundreds of millions of people are on there, so they have an opportunity to advertise to that market.

MILLER: Exactly. So through the WeChat app, it turned it from a game into more of a social aspect as it has the nearby feature within the game. So you can see who's playing around you, like...

INSKEEP: You could play some stranger who just happens to be 50 feet away from you at the time.

MILLER: Yeah. And the game is simple enough that it's the only mobile game that I would ever consider trying to play with my mom as well. So it's simple enough...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

MILLER: It's true because most MOBAs are considered the hardest multiplayer games to play online.

INSKEEP: You just said MOBA game. What is a MOBA game?

MILLER: Multiplayer online battle arena.

INSKEEP: Well, I've got a phone here, and the app is loaded and there's a number of choices. What do I do?

MILLER: We can do the grand battle.


INSKEEP: OK. I just pressed it. Wow. That was quite a sound effect. Your screen name is alwaysgreen (ph).


INSKEEP: So I'm in the game. Alwaysgreen is in the game. And now it says find a match.

MILLER: You can go ahead and hit find match now.

INSKEEP: Match found. There's a bunch of players here, I guess.

MILLER: You're going to pick which one you want to play as.

INSKEEP: OK. What about this guy here?


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Freedom is hard fought.

INSKEEP: Freedom is hard fought says this hero. Oh, my gosh. I am now a guy in shining armor with a sword.

MILLER: That is Arthur.

INSKEEP: That's Arthur. OK, great.

MILLER: The match is about to begin.


INSKEEP: Look at it. There's a bunch of our characters now standing around in a kind of arena.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Get ready. Minions will be deployed in five seconds.

INSKEEP: OK. I - oh, I can move around my character using my thumb.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Dare to engage.

MILLER: Now you've found the joystick.

INSKEEP: Yeah. And now I got to start whacking people, except I'm facing the wrong way, which is really not good.

MILLER: You can follow me.

INSKEEP: I'm following you.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Stand your ground.

MILLER: If you swing the sword - yeah.


MILLER: There you go.

INSKEEP: I just like the old sword swinging.

MILLER: They're going to kill us here.

INSKEEP: Oh. Oh, my goodness. It's like a nuclear explosion almost.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) You have been defeated.

INSKEEP: Boo. And there I am, dead on the ground.

MILLER: Yes, that's your body.

INSKEEP: OK. Good to know. At this point, I think I'm going to retreat from the field of battle. Is that OK?


INSKEEP: OK. So I'm just going to close the app.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Enemy onslaught.

INSKEEP: Enemy onslaught. OK, we're getting out of there. Hey, that was fun. Thank you for guiding me through that.

MILLER: Yeah, no problem.

INSKEEP: I guess we should note that video games are designed to be addictive. What about this game would you say is addictive?

MILLER: This sort of provides a similar competitive feel as playing like a pick-up basketball game or something else of that nature.

INSKEEP: Pick-up basketball game - that's what this is. Like, it's a group of random people who get together to play maybe one time, maybe 20 times. You never know.


INSKEEP: Well, Drew Miller thank you very much for taking the time to guide us through, as alwaysgreen, this American version of a Chinese game, "Arena Of Valor."

MILLER: Yeah, it's been my pleasure to talk with you.


MARTIN: That was our own Steve Inskeep gaming his way to greatness. He was talking on skype with international gamer Drew Miller.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANS ZIMMER'S "LOBBY THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.