In Asia and beyond, mobile gaming is on the rise — and esports organizations are starting to take notice

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Though the mobile gaming market is dominated by casual players, competitive mobile gaming is slowly growing into a significant facet of the space. To reach those players, large game developers such as Riot Games are dipping their toes into mobile esports through adaptations such as Wild Rift, and esports organizations are beginning to follow suit by adding mobile players to their rosters.

Driven by a pandemic-fueled increase in idle fingers, mobile gaming has exploded in popularity over the last two years. The mobile-game player base increased by 12% worldwide between 2019 and 2020, according to a report by market research firm IDC and digital advertising platform LoopMe, with much of this behavior projected to persist post-pandemic.

Nearly 60% of gamers in North America and Europe regularly play mobile games, but this figure pales in comparison to the 87% saturation of mobile gaming in the Southeast Asian market, according to Carlos Alimurung, CEO of prominent Southeast Asian esports media company ONE Esports. “The market is only going to get way more competitive, both in mobile gaming and mobile esports,” Alimurung said. “You have Riot Games pushing Wild Rift — not only in the region but globally. And you also have Riot already talking about taking Valorant mobile.”

Mobile esports is particularly popular in parts of Asia where more established esports titles are relatively inaccessible. “In 2018, when PUBG Mobile was launched globally, I thought that this game could be a potential esport for this region,” said MD Ekramuzzaman, a former competitive PUBG Mobile player in Bangladesh. “If you talk about Bangladesh or any South Asian country, proper esports is not a thing for us, because building a PC costs a lot of money from the perspective of a South Asian family.”

Furthermore, the mobile gaming scene audience skews younger than either the gaming or general esports audience. “People have recognized that the age for someone in America, in terms of owning their first phone, is only getting younger,” Alimurung said. “That trend is only exacerbated in Asia.” The recent growth of mobile gaming within this younger demographic was rapid enough to alarm the Chinese government, which instituted a three-hour weekly gaming limit for under-18 players on August 30.

Given the dual strength of mobile esports within both Asia and younger gamers at large, Immortals Gaming Club’s decision to sign the Korean-born Du-hoon “Hoon” Jang as its first mobile-focused player was a logical move. Jang, a YouTuber with over 400,000 subscribers, started his career playing the mobile online multiplayer battle arena (MOBA) title Mobile Legends but transitioned to League of Legends: Wild Rift when the Riot-Games-developed MOBA opened beta access in late 2020. 

“We believe that that young demographic is going to recognize mobile gaming as something they’re very familiar with,” said Immortals vp of marketing Max Bass. “Knowing that Wild Rift adoption is a goal of Riot’s, we’re hoping there’s Wild Rift familiarity — we’re hoping that there’s awareness for the game, that there’s engagement for the game.” Immortals is leaning in on its signing of Jang and other Wild Rift players by investing in mobile-native content such as Wild-Rift-themed Snapchat lenses.

So far, Immortals is the largest North American esports organization to sign a Wild Rift player — but it almost certainly won’t be the last, according to experts such as Alimurung. Shortly after Immortals announced its signing of Jang on August 2, the esports team Sentinels followed suit, announcing the pickup of its own Wild Rift squad on August 6. Among the other large esports organizations that have signed mobile competitors are Andbox, which brought on a full Call of Duty: Mobile team in June, and Team SoloMid, whose Brazilian division picked up a Free Fire squad in August. 

“It’s clear from all the statistics around mobile gaming that the audience is here, and while we’ve been involved in the space for a few years now, we felt now was the time to formalize our presence with the team,” said Rohit Gupta, co-founder and CPO of Andbox. His reasoning comes down to key trends: that developers, from Activision with Call of Duty and Riot Games with League of Legends: Wild Rift, are taking their biggest brands to mobile thanks to better hardware as well as the proliferation of 5G. Gupta also noted the second point is down to its aforementioned growth in popularity outside of main markets like Asia and Latin America.

All told, the mobile esports team creates an opportunity for Andbox to grow the popularity of its brand through a mix of content produced in partnership with members of the Call of Duty: Mobile team and its roster of creators as well as competing in more tournaments. 

“It’s an opportunity for us to bring incremental audiences to the team but we also feel we can bring more casual mobile gamers with us too,” said Gupta. “Mobile gamers tend to be more casual so feel there’s plenty of opportunity ahead for crossover.”

These fans could potentially open up new commercial opportunities for Andbox. 

“Mobile esports is underserved when it comes to media dollars, which is surprising when you look at how much time is spent on those titles but then again the same could be said about esports more broadly,” he added. “There are, however, signs that brands are starting to wake up. Last year was eye-opening for many of them given how much growth there was when traditional sports went quiet.”

Even if consoles and gaming computers eventually reach market saturation in Asia, it’s unlikely that they will cannibalize the popularity of mobile gaming and mobile esports in the region. “Mobile esports are here to stay,” said Bolin Wang, managing director of content+ at Mindshare China. “Mobile, PC and console esports won’t replace each other, as they can have vastly different ecosystems, audiences and marketing value for brands.” 

For the moment, mobile esports remains a small sliver of the broader mobile gaming market, which was worth nearly $100 billion in 2020, according to a report by “Mobile esports is definitely interesting,” said Andy Tian, CEO of social entertainment company Asia Innovations Group. “But, like in the States, esports does not drive mobile gaming revenue.”

However, Alimurung believes that mobile esports will begin to capture more of the general esports market over time: “Our general hypothesis is that mobile esports will not only be the dominant platform in Asia but also in the rest of the world.”

Future potential notwithstanding, mobile esports are, at the very least, a rapidly growing avenue for large game developers and esports teams to reach fans in overlapping and emerging demographics. With Riot Games investing in the mobile infrastructure of competitive titles such as Wild Rift and Valorant, advertisers and media companies in esports would be wise to keep an eye on this burgeoning subsection of the mobile gaming space.

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