LOS ANGELES — The world’s most popular video game console is probably in your pocket right now.
Once solely the home of relatively simple, if captivating, games like Fruit Ninja and Paper Toss, mobile games have experienced a revolution in recent years. Growing from a past that began with Snake and Brick Breaker, phones and other mobile devices now feature games with the kind of strategic gameplay once only available on PCs and gaming consoles like PlayStation and Xbox. And it’s driving eye-popping revenue figures. This year, mobile game spending is projected to rise more than 25 percent and represent the majority of all games spending, totaling about $70 billion in a $138 billion market, according to research firm Newzoo.
Such numbers have bolstered hopes for a new growth front in mobile gaming, as the industry recently christened its first esports leagues. Formal esports organizations, which oversee season-long competitions between professional video gamers competing for robust pools of prize money, have usually been the province of blue-chip game titles from major publishing companies catering to consoles and personal computers. But surging audience numbers and the widespread availability and accessibility of mobile devices has made competitive gaming titles for cellphones and tablets a fertile growth area as esports continues to push into the mainstream.
Clash Royale, a multiplayer online game created by Finland-based Supercell, launched its league in late August. The multiplayer online battle arena game, a spinoff of the exceedingly popular Clash of Clans, pits gamers against one another as they attempt to destroy their opponent’s towers by deploying cards featuring medieval-themed, cartoon characters with particular attributes. The league features a $1 million prize pool, teams from some of the most prestigious esports organizations — like Immortals, Team Liquid, 100 Thieves and Cloud 9 — and is composed of divisions in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Latin America.
Another popular mobile game, Vainglory, made by Super Evil Megacorp, launched a league of its own this month, adding to a slate of existing tournaments worldwide. The Vainglory Premier League is currently a series of invitationals, which will culminate in a world championship, as the league determines what the “correct long term league structure is,” said Super Evil Megacorp CEO Kristian Segerstrale.
Regardless of format, esports industry leaders are lined up behind competitive mobile gaming.
“We firmly believe that mobile is the future of competitive gaming,” said Noah Whinston, 23, CEO of Immortals, a top esports organization.
The belief stems from outsize potential audience numbers driven by the prevalence of mobile devices. Seventy-seven percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone, including 94 percent of people between 18-29, according to 2018 figures from The Pew Research Center. There were 4.3 billion smartphone subscriptions in 2017, expected to grow to 7.2 billion by 2023, according to last June’s Ericsson Mobility Report.
This ability to reach such a wide swath of people enables Clash Royale and other mobile title-based leagues an opportunity to develop both a massive audience and pull players.
“I am super excited to be a part of this because I think the game is fantastic and I think the ability to actually reach fans who can actually play this game is huge.” said Jack Etienne, founder and CEO of Cloud 9, who recently won the Overwatch League’s inaugural championship as the owner of the London Spitfire.
A different approach to esports
While most existing esports leagues have cashed in by selling broadcast rights and tickets to live competitions that have filled major pro sports arenas, Clash Royale League is currently seeking neither, nor is the league chasing other kinds of revenue streams pursued by other esports and traditional sports leagues.
“For Clash Royale, esports is fundamentally engagement marketing and we are not looking to monetize it directly,” said Tim Ebner, head of esports for Supercell, which makes Clash Royale. “We don’t need a sponsor, it’s a marketing expense.”
While Ebner also joked he’d be open to talking about broadcast rights deal if ESPN or another network offered an absurd amount of money, his relative lack of interest stems Supercell’s robust marketplace of in-game purchases, also called microtransactions. Though free to download and play, Clash Royale, like many mobile and console games, allows gamers to level up more quickly by paying real world money to acquire in-game currency.
Supercell, which is owned by China’s Tencent and was valued by them at more than $10 billion in 2016, only has four game titles. It reported 729 million euros in profit and 1.8 billion euro in revenue for 2017.
Though the free-to-play model is ideal for engaging new players, games that utilize it almost always offer in-game purchases. Clash Royale is estimated to have surpassed $2 billion in revenue and Clash of Clans is past $6 billion, according to mobile analysis firm Sensor Tower. Almost all of that money is driven by in-game purchases.
Games like Fortnite, another free title popular on mobile platforms, offer in-game purchases for discretionary, cosmetic items, like skins. But some types of in-game purchases have generated widespread controversy. Star Wars Battlefront II and Dungeon Keeper were both roundly accused by gamers for being “pay to win” games, where real-world payment allows for significant in-game advantages. The Clash Royale league caps its players’ cards at the same level to prevent extra spending from providing a competitive edge.
Earlier this year, the Entertainment Software Rating Board said they would begin to add labels on games with in-game purchases and its European counterpart, PEGI, announced last week it would follow suit.
Mobile gaming’s esports advantage … and limitation
The International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker forecasts the overall smartphone market to reach 1.646 billion units shipped in 2022, up from 1.465 billion in 2017. This is compared to 82.2 million PlayStation 4 units sold through July since its 2013 release. Microsoft does not release sales figures for Xbox One, but game publisher Electronic Arts stated that the console sold 29.4 million units as of 2017. Nielsen has reported 162 million video game console owners in the U.S., or about 50 percent of the population.
Despite the enticing metrics of mobile gaming, some industry observers do not see a rosy future for mobile esports leagues.
Citing the screen size and control scheme as limiting factors, Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities, is skeptical about the ability for a mobile game to establish itself as a major, organized esport on par with Overwatch League or the League of Legends Championship Series.
“I don’t think mobile ever becomes a big deal,” he said. “If you can watch a movie in Imax or on your phone, which one are you going to do? The best experience is always going to be on a large screen,” said Pachter, who added that mobile game participation will “vastly exceed” that for PC and console games.
“There will be games that people want to play, I’m just not sure that we want to watch,” he said, seeing mobile-based strategy games like Clash Royale as being more like curling or chess in that way.
Owing largely to endemic interest and non-legacy media outlets, Clash Royale’s league has been able to generate buzz. A trailer teasing the season kickoff received over 13 million views on YouTube in just the first few days.
Ebner said he is confident in the interest for Clash Royale as an esport. Clash Royale’s YouTube channel has over 600 million views and Ebner estimated there have been more views than that on the game’s replay feature. Further, 25 million players from 113 different countries competed in an open qualifying tournament for the chance to be signed to one of the pro teams.
“A lot of the diversity we have been missing in console and PC esports is there in the gaming community. It’s just there in mobile because it’s easier to access,” said Whinston.
These developments, from an esports league to billions of revenue, would have been hard to imagine during the early days of mobile gaming, which started in the mid-late 1990s, notably with Snake on Nokia phones. The advent of the iPhone brought colorful and engaging games but, like bubble gum, the taste quickly faded, owing to the limited scope of gameplay. But recent titles have solved that problem, particularly as devices get more sophisticated, opening up new possibilities for game makers.
“The big revelation for mobile gaming was that if you remove the barrier to the gaming field, a whole lot more people want to be gamers than you think,” said Seth Allison, a Clash Royale game designer.
Larger questions about the future of mobile gaming will take some time to play out, but 20-year-old Colton Wall, a pro Clash Royale player for Complexity gaming, is just trying to ride it out.
“It’s doing what I love and I’m good at it, so might as well make a career at it, for as long as I can and then I can always go back to school,” said Wall. “And I can pay for it now.”