From light novels to eSports: the business model behind The King’s Avatar
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Earlier this year, Tencent released the first season of the anime series The King’s Avatar (全职高手) on streaming platforms. The anime is an adaptation from the Internet literature book of the same name. The first episode was released on Youtube and has more than 3 million views, a surprisingly high number for a Chinese made production (its views on bilibili and tencent’s platform topped 120 millions views in China). The anime is now discussed on reddit and multiple forums and its second season is very much awaited. Though the numbers are impressing, this news would be anecdotal if it was not for the theme of the anime: eSports. Characters in the series compete in a world resembling something between World Warcraft and Dungeon Fighter Online – not in a VR-like setting like in Sword Art Online or Ready Player One – but in front of their computers, in a net bar.
But before the anime, let’s take a quick look at the books. The Chinese culture of internet literature is quite unique for it’s scale. The 39th statistical report on Internet Development estimates that 45.6% of Chinese netizens have consumed internet literature in 2016, which accounts for 333 million people. In most cases, you read the first chapters of a book for free then start paying small fees to open further chapters. The few authors that manage to live from it will have to count on their number of readers, and the amount of chapters they publish, which can extend endlessly if the series succeeds. Butterfly Blue (蝴蝶蓝) author of the King’s Avatar wrote 1728 chapters (more than 5 million Chinese characters) and according to qidian - the website that publishes the King’s Avatar - it was read by more than 36 million people.
With such a strong fan base, doing an anime adaptation does not sound too risky, especially if done by a major video game company. Tencent is the first video game company in terms of revenues in the world, and with its Netease shapes an oligopoly on Chinese gaming by owning 70% of the country’s gaming industry revenues. Tencent’s biggest game, Honor of Kings (王者荣耀) partly shares its name with the fictional game at the center of Butterfly’s Blue’s novel: Honor (荣耀). Also every episode starts with the promotion of a Tencent MMO mobile game bearing the same name as the novel. In addition to the games, the messaging app often used in the show looks and rings exactly like QQ, Tencent’s online messaging app. Finally the show also comes with its derivative products, like figurines that were served in McDonalds across China. And if you like fast food, you will get plenty throughout the anime. McDonalds is a sponsor of the show, and its fries, burgers, ice creams and logo spring out at every turn, even finding their way into the dialogues.
That being said, the scenario of the King’s Avatar is unlikely to blow your mind for its novelty. Ye Xiu, a twenty something eSport champion of the game Glory, retires from his team for obscure reasons. He loses his avatar and becomes a nobody, until he decides to work for an internet bar as a night manager. From there he logs back into the game for the opening of the new server, and fights back up into the game to reclaim his fame. On his quest he will be helped by a funny sidekick, a looking-strong-but-actually-weak-inside female protagonist, as he will be challenged by a dark all-time friend-turned-foe rival. Where the anime actually stands out is the way it talks about video games. Most of what make MMOs what they are have their place in the anime: from classes, crafting, clear time, guild, looting, boss type to actions per minute. The King’s Avatar is probably the first anime that takes MMO games and eSport seriously. And while the ingame action of Glory is dramatized, the protagonists are really seating on their chair, hitting their keyboard, giving orders in their headset. The King’s Avatar shines by the way it makes eSports look cool.
Tencent’s investment in the anime is incredibly clever. As a quick reminder, the company owns League of Legends and Fortnite, and invested 15 billion dollars last year in eSports. And through the main protagonist of the series, Ye Xiu, Tencent sets a role model for its consumers. Voiced by actor Yang Yang who notoriously plays in romantic movies, Ye Xiu epitomizes the perfect eSport champion gentleman. Far from negative stereotypes of eSports, Ye Xiu is tall and slender, in full control of his emotions, skilled in leadership, successful with girls, passionate about the game while always seeming detached and unimpressed by his performance. His personality seems like a suitable flagship for Tencent’s local consumer base as well as its potential consumers abroad. The webnovel publisher Qidian has already translated more than 1200 chapters of the webnovel in english and wrote all the subtitles for the anime to be distributed overseas.