The global esports market is forecast to grow to just under two billion by 2025 as competitive gaming becomes more mainstream. Many of esports biggest competitions boast giant prize pools, such as Valve’s annual world championship in Dota 2, which had a prize pool of $40 million, making it the largest tournament in esports.
When it comes to esports, PC and console gaming dominates the space even though mobile is the most popular platform for gamers. So why is mobile being overlooked, and how can the industry change that?
In this guest post, the Head of esports at Saudi Esports Federation, Faisal Bin Homran, explores those exact questions and shares why mobile developers should be getting involved in esports.
If you’re not a regular follower of esports, it would be easy to say the scene is dominated by the big names on PC and consoles that frequent media headlines. Typically, these are MOBAs, shooters, or fighting games, with some of the most popular examples being League of Legends, DOTA 2, Counter-Strike, and Street Fighter.
Competitive mobile games such as Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, PUBG: Mobile, and Arena of Valor are capturing the hearts of gaming fans across Asia and MENAFaisal Bin Homran
While these titles remain a massive part of the 1.4 billion dollar global esports market, competitive mobile games such as Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, PUBG: Mobile, and Arena of Valor are capturing the hearts of gaming fans across Asia and MENA, which accounted for more than 56% of global esports revenue in 2022. Mobile Legends: Bang Bang is the most-watched competitive video game in the world.
According to Market Research Future projections, the mobile gaming market industry will increase from $114.96 billion in 2023 to $247.07 billion in 2030, growing at a 13.60% CAGR (compound annual growth rate) throughout that period.
Despite this, mobile esports is still relatively unheard of in the West, an issue which is only amplified by the fact that most mobile games, despite their huge audiences, are often underreported by mainstream gaming publications. But with the mobile market generating 50% of global gaming revenue in 2022 and Mobile Legends: Bang Bang generating more peak views than any other esports game in 2023, it’s time that mobile esports was given the same levels of respect as traditional esports.
Mobile esports’ slow rise to the top
Let’s put the growing success of mobile esports into perspective, starting with the biggest titles. PUBG Mobile is so popular that its total prize pool for 2023 so far is almost $12m, putting it in second place in esports overall, just behind DOTA 2, while Arena of Valor and MLBB’s prize pool is over $6m collectively. Meanwhile, Free Fire is one of the most popular mobile games in the world, with an average of 84 million daily active users, according to SensorTower.
The mobile game market is growing at a much faster rate than PC and console, with the global rollout of 5G along with cheaper access to mobile hardware being key contributors to that growthFaisal Bin Homran
Mobile esports tournaments are no small endeavour either. PUBG MOBILE World Invitational (PMWI) at Gamers8: The Land of Heroes, the biggest esports and gaming festival worldwide, is proof of mobile gaming’s popularity. Hosted in Riyadh, the winners – Vampire Esports from Thailand, who claimed back-to-back tournament triumphs – collected $500,000 from the total $3 million prize pool. Activision has also partnered with the Snapdragon Pro Series in the hopes of levelling up the ‘Call of Duty: Mobile’ esports scene.
So what’s behind the rise? The simple fact of the matter is the mobile game market is growing at a much faster rate than PC and console, with the global rollout of 5G along with cheaper access to mobile hardware being key contributors to that growth, especially in places such as India which accounts for 21% of the mobile market.
In certain regions, mobile is the only platform available that can provide a reliable online competitive gaming experience. While most of the US and Europe have easy access to high-speed broadband perfect for consoles, many parts of SouthEast Asia (SEA) cannot provide players with the necessary bandwidth over Wi-Fi. Mobile, however, fares much better, with faster speeds and coverage in more than 95% of the region.
Several other economic factors have influenced SEA’s dependency on mobile platforms. The high cost of living and low wages across many parts of SEA mean that many people cannot afford an expensive PC or console, whereas there are many entry-level mobile devices more than capable of running the leading mobile esports titles. Combined, these factors have helped mobile to become the go-to choice for professional players in the SEA.
The challenges facing mobile esports
Many of the biggest mobile gaming tournaments are hosted by their respective game developers, which usually results in them being hosted in the region with the most playersFaisal Bin Homran
The one caveat to all this is that it’s led to a certain level of regional disparity in the esports market. Free Fire, Arena of Valor, PUBG Mobile and MLBB have all cemented themselves within the SEA, with the latter becoming the most-watched esports title. However, in the Western world, mobile esports is trailing behind PC and consoles, with titles like League of Legends: Wild Rift struggling so much to get off the ground there that Riot has ditched the Western market entirely.
There are a few different reasons for this. For one, mobile is the platform of choice in the SEA, meaning that this region gives birth to an overwhelming number of talented players, so much so that Eastern teams mostly dominate the rankings. For example, if you look at the rankings for the best MLBB players, the top 20 consists entirely of players from the Philippines or Indonesia.
Like any other sport, one of the most appealing aspects of esports for many fans is rooting for their home team. Regions that struggle to rank highly will struggle to attract a sizable audience, and without those viewership numbers, few will be willing to invest and help grow the popularity of mobile esports.
Adding to the problem is that many of the biggest mobile gaming tournaments are hosted by their respective game developers, which usually results in them being hosted in the region with the most players. Allowing, enabling, and encouraging established third-party brands to host gaming tournaments, such as with Gamers8 and PUBG, helps to expand the audience and contribute positively to the medium as a whole.
How (and why) mobile developers should get involved
There’s a real opportunity in the mobile esports market for developers looking to stand out from the crowd. From the outside, breaking into the esports market may seem impossible, but if you look closely, most of the mobile titles which have established themselves are just pocket-sized versions of PC and console games, so much so in the case of MLBB that Riot attempted to sue developer Moonton because of its similarities to League of Legends.
Arguably, an original esports title specifically designed for mobile and a “hardcore” audience would be able to differentiate itself from other gaming platforms better and would be a unique offering on the market. Having “mobile first” esports titles would also improve the respectability of the mobile competitive gaming scene by giving it a greater sense of independence rather than being a spin-off, particularly in the West.
As mobile esports is still in its infancy compared to traditional esports, it’s important for studios and publishers to invest in the space to ensure its continued growthFaisal Bin Homran
A great example of such a title is Super Cell’s Brawl Stars, a fast-paced 3v3 battle royale game for mobile. SuperCell has established its own competitive league for the game, the Brawl Stars Championship, with 2022’s tournament having a prize pool of $1 million. Alongside its other titles, such as Clash of Clans, Super Cell’s growing success in the esports scene means it can generate new revenue streams through partnerships and sponsors while increasing its presence in the competitive gaming space.
As mobile esports is still in its infancy compared to traditional esports, it’s important for studios and publishers to invest in the space to ensure its continued growth, whether that’s through funding grassroots esports teams, infrastructure, or start-ups that could end up developing the next big hit. Krafton recently committed to a $150m investment into the Indian gaming market, a mutually beneficial play as start-ups will receive the funding they need to create while Krafton benefits from growing its presence in a rapidly evolving market.
The early nature of this growing space also means there are opportunities for mobile studios to develop innovative new titles, following in the footsteps of major players such as Krafton and Riot. New competitive games that attract players from all over the world are essential to mobile esports' continued growth and will help put the mobile market on the map, meaning it can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with traditional esports.
Edited by Paige Cook