In November 2018, Chinese e-sports organization Invictus Gaming won the League of Legends World Championship in Incheon, South Korea. It was the first time for a team from China to take home the championship trophy, the Summoner’s Cup. At the time, JackeyLove, who played as the team’s bot laner—a high-damage role that performs ranged attacks—was only 17 years old.
Before he was racking up kills with his signature character Xayah at the 2018 finals, JackeyLove, born Yu Wenbo, had been training with Invictus for three years, slaying enemies for 12 hours a day with no days off, he said in an interview with VPEsports. Still a minor, he was at the peak of his e-sports career.
But from now on, those expectations will need to be adjusted. With the Chinese government capping gamers under the age of 18 to three hours of playtime per week—teenage recruits may no longer undergo intense video game training, at least not without breaching regulations.
Soon after the rules were announced, Tencent’s e-sports arm TJSports—an organizer of leading e-sports events for titles like Honor of Kings, League of Legends, and Game for Peace—issued a notice to say it had set 18 as the new minimum age for competitors. Previously, the lower age limit for the King Pro League (Honor of Kings) was 16, while participants of the Legends Pro League (League of Legends) had to be at least 17 years old.
E-sports journalist Chen Hongyu, who has covered China’s e-sports scene since 2018, told KrASIA that he believes the new regulations will have a positive impact on the country’s e-sports landscape but, for now, China’s e-sports clubs are letting go of underage players.
Many teams in the League of Legends Development League, or LDL, have had to axe their lead gamers. The problem has led to a shortage of fieldable players, so much so that teams are loaning members aged over 18 to each other to remain active in tournaments.
Will China’s e-sports teams maintain their elite status?
Many e-sports fans worry that the new regulations will weaken China’s e-sports prowess in the global arena. The matter is particularly pertinent because e-sports will be a medaled event at the 2022 Asian Games, which will be held in Hangzhou.
At the moment, it is unclear whether the Chinese government will provide exceptions to underage e-sports players for professional training. And the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), which is the organizer of the Hangzhou Asian Games, has not indicated the criteria for selecting national team players for the 2022 e-sports events. Officials of the OCA and Hangzhou Asian Games did not respond to KrASIA’s request for comment regarding minimum age limits for participating players.
Chen said the concerns may not be warranted. “There is no scientific evidence to prove what the ‘golden age’ of e-sports players is, and many excellent players are above 25 years old, in games such as Dota 2, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, and League of Legends. The top players on the stage to compete in League of Legends are, on average, in their early 20s.”
Additionally, the e-sports veteran believes self-discipline, good communication skills in team settings, and the ability to cope with stress are factors that matter more than the player’s age.
As the e-sports industry evolves, the age of players is becoming less important. “This is not a time when you can win a game by simply buying the top five superstar players. Tactics, the most recent game versions, scientific training, and even psychologists and fitness coaches are important for a team working toward becoming a champion,” Chen said.
Pro gamer fame?
The reality of going pro isn’t as rosy as the imagined leisure of playing video games all day. There may only be one pro gamer out of any cluster of thousands of players, and reaching the top of the leaderboard is only the first step of going pro, Chen said. It usually takes weeks for coaches to figure out whether a teenager might be able to go pro.
Most people, particularly younger players, typically do not realize how much effort it takes to become a professional gamer. Former League of Legends player Zitai, born Liu Zhihao, who was only 15 years old when he competed at the World Championship in 2012, once told Chinese media that he trained for 16 hours a day. Another top player, Faker, or Lee Sang-hyeok of South Korea, said during an appearance on a Korean reality show that he trains for more than ten hours each day.
Pro gaming is a tough space, where reaction, wit, and strategy intermingle, and split-second decisions could determine whether the many thousands of hours spent in front of a screen lead to a trophy or second place.
New ways to search for talent
Normally, e-sports teams are formed through cutthroat competition that starts early. Players commit to training programs in e-sports clubs in hopes of developing the skills and dexterity needed to make it to the pro leagues. That grind is typically seen as more suitable for young players, less so adults. For years, that has shaped how clubs seek out recruits.
According to a 2019 survey by China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, the average “retirement” age for e-sports players is 24, and 54% of the surveyed e-sports players were between the ages of 16 and 22.
“The new rules are pushing the e-sports industry to go in another direction, which is to focus on adult players, and to develop a better talent acquisition system. In the future, e-sports will be less of a bother to Chinese parents,” said Chen.
Take the Hangzhou-based LGD e-sports club as an example of what recruitment used to look like. In a notice the club posted on Weibo in January, one requirement for new potential team members was to be “born after 2003,” or under the age of 18. Those who filled “support roles” could be older.
But the club’s enlistment conditions are changing now. The manager of LGD told KrASIA that all of his players are “above 18, and we have always complied with the government’s regulations.”
Bilibili’s e-sports club, which competes in pro leagues, declined to comment on its recruitment practices.
Pro gamer rush
In a survey conducted by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, “gamer” was the fourth most favored career choice for minors, with 17% of respondents choosing this option. The pick was more popular than “doctor” and “scientist.” Naturally, some parents are concerned.
This has created a cottage industry of e-sports training businesses that mimic pro-level training and at times function as shock therapy to crush children’s hopes of making it into pro leagues.
A coach at a Chengdu-based e-sports training center told KrASIA, “Children do not know how fierce the competition is.” While he may start a circuit with 100 trainees, it’s common for just a dozen participants to remain by the end of the program because players decide to quit quickly when they realize e-sports aren’t necessarily all fun and games.
The e-sports scene in China is undergoing sea changes. To keep their edge, professional teams are figuring out new ways to discover and recruit players.