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The Unusual Courtship of China's ESports Queen

Shuli Ren

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Forget medical school and engineering degrees. With a record 8.3 million university graduates this year, Beijing is urging its best and brightest to take up competitive video-gaming. ESports professionals can make triple the national average salary, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. As the economy slows, pouring resources into China’s night-shift GDP might just be wacky enough to work. 

Municipal governments have taken the hint, luring gaming clubs with cash handouts and other perks. The resort island of Hainan is setting up a 1 billion yuan ($150 million) development fund and giving up to 10 million yuan in subsidies for international tournaments. Shanghai’s Yangpu district offers a 30% rental discount to businesses in the sector.

The push has made unlikely pairings of 60-year-old local bureaucrats and thirtysomething eSports executives, who’ve been forced to ditch their PowerPoint presentations for formal government memos. Pan Jie, nicknamed “the Queen” among China’s professional gamers, has learned that Bohemian dresses and video-game T-shirts don’t go over well when officials visit the Hangzhou headquarters of her club, LGD-Gaming, one of  China’s largest.

With government support, Pan Jie’s dream of operating her own eSports stadium is getting closer to fruition. Still, you’d be forgiven for doubting that layers of statist procedure can springboard the competitive video-gaming sector, particularly when China’s private enterprises are already struggling to get the funding they need. 

Having scouted venues across China, Pan Jie settled on a plot of land on the outskirts of Hangzhou, within a shantytown development zone located in the Xia Cheng district. Beijing has been working to revive these areas since 2015, with the central bank flying in more than 3.5 trillion yuan of helicopter money to support such projects through pledged loans. 

The Xia Cheng district is hoping that a new eSports park – along with the tourism and tech jobs it can generate – will bring in over 1 billion yuan, more than 10% of the 8.9 billion yuan in fiscal revenue it collected in 2018. Judging from a publication by the district’s news office, officials seem to have outlined concrete policies rather than grand promises. 

Indeed, the local government was quick to act, tearing down old residential buildings to make space for the new construction, which will eventually house up to 1,000 startups. To help LGD-Gaming move into the new center by its May deadline, officials even called furniture shops late at night, demanding employees work overtime to meet the company’s needs. A handful of bureaucrats temporarily stationed at the park have been assigned as startup liaisons.

Whether Xia Cheng can meet all the grand expectations is a big unknown. Hangzhou is home to China’s wealthiest businesses, including Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Yet not all areas are created equal. Last year, Xia Cheng’s GDP grew 6.1% to 93 billion yuan, not even half that of the tourist district of Yu Hang. 

Meanwhile, Xia Cheng has entrenched business interests to deal with. Smack at the center of the eSports zone is a huge, five-story warehouse occupied by Zhejiang Food Stuff Corp., a provincial champion known for its cured ham. The district has to wait for the company to build another site before any demolition work can begin. For the time being, startups have occupied a small corner of the redevelopment zone, and Shenzhen-based Quantum Capital, a venture-capital firm, postponed opening a branch there. 

Over the next five years, China’s competitive video-gaming industry can absorb close to 2 million workers, according to the Ministry of Human Resources. But throwing cash at an idea isn’t enough. Bureaucrats will need to show that they can work effectively with what they once called the “lost souls” of the gig economy. During a recent visit to LGD-Gaming, one official pooh-poohed a hipster barbecue joint inside the eSports park: Grilling lamb chops on an open pit? How undignified, he apparently complained. The business was shut within days. “We were sad for a while, because their lamb tasted great,” Pan Jie lamented.

To contact the author of this story: Shuli Ren at sren38@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachel Rosenthal at rrosenthal21@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Shuli Ren is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian markets. She previously wrote on markets for Barron's, following a career as an investment banker, and is a CFA charterholder.

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