In the early days, esports’ only consistent involvement with politics was the occasional visa issue or scapegoating by an ill-informed politician. But this summer, esports and politics seem to be running in lockstep. There’s the antitrust lawsuit between Epic Games and Apple, a bill put into the US House of Representatives regulating the US Army’s Twitch channel, and the backlash to BLAST and the LEC’s NEOM sponsorships.
Well, the hits keep on coming. On Wednesday, September 1st, India banned 118 apps with ties to China as tensions rise over a border dispute between the two countries. Included among them was PUBG Mobile, the more accessible version of the original battle royale title that was extremely popular in India. Both TSM and Fnatic signed India-based PUBG Mobile teams, the latter even opened up a gaming house and training facility in the country focused on PUBG Mobile.
While India has flocked to PUBG Mobile, the game is popular around the world. In North America, esports organisation XSET has just picked up a PUBG Mobile roster – it told Esports Insider. The timing, juxtaposed with the ban in India, creates a complicated environment for the esport.
“I feel bad for the guys over there who rely on PUBG Mobile for their income, whether that’s streaming or playing competitively,” said Nicholas “Niko” Soldatos, the captain of XSET’s new PUBG Mobile team. “I don’t think they saw the ban coming. There was that ban on TikTok a while ago but this is sort of far-reaching. I’m going to be looking to see what kind of effect this has on the global side and the esports scene for PUBG Mobile.”
Joining Niko on XSET’s new team are Kent “Juicy” Masang Jr, Justus Xavier “Angry” Wilson, Joey and RoiiDz.
XSET, a relatively new organisation from three former FaZe Clan executives and Marco Mereu, the founder of Framerate, was founded on a mission of increasing diversity and inclusion in esports. That founding mission creates an added set of questions when entering a new game.
“Yeah, [we have to consider our principles when entering a new game], the key factor we are looking at is the competitiveness of the team we are signing,” said Marco Mereu, Co-founder and COO of XSET. “You also always want to be cognizant of the makeup of the team and our commitment to being diverse and inclusive. Our players have a wide variety of backgrounds, so [diversity and inclusion] definitely factor into our decision but the most important thing on the esports side is working with the most skilled players.”
PUBG Mobile is connected to China in the same way most of the esports ecosystem is: through Tencent. As a modern esports organisation, there is no way to field teams without having some attachment to the Chinese megacorporation. When Riot Games, Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, Bluehole, and Ubisoft are all partly (or fully, in the case of Riot Games) owned by Tencent, the only major esports left are sports sims and Valve’s titles.
Tencent owns about 11 percent of Bluehole, the developer of PUBG. But the company also played a key role in developing PUBG Mobile and is in charge of the esports ecosystem around the game. And Tencent is certainly supporting the esports side.
Last week, Tencent announced a $2M PUBG Mobile tournament scheduled to take place in November. The company also announced a new update dedicated to reducing lag and improving playability in competitive events.
“I think Tencent has a good system for PUBG Mobile esports, they have a lot of player support” said Niko. “The game has a lot of job security for players that I think some other games don’t currently have for their players. They have a lot of opportunities for players at various levels from amateur to professional as well.”
Most importantly, the game is accessible. That accessibility is the reason the game took off in India; mobile esports simply pose a much lower barrier to entry than games requiring a PC or console. Especially with advancements in mobile phone technology, suddenly most smartphones can run a game like PUBG Mobile passably.
“It’s growing in North America but it’s not as popular as it is in China or India, just because of the console and PC players,” Niko continued. “That accessibility, that opens up options on the esports side which will help grow popularity a lot.”
From XSET’s point of view, mobile titles make sense. With an organisation focused on inclusivity, games that are pay-to-win like EA’s FIFA or Madden Ultimate Team prevent some people from playing. As do games that require precise ping on top gaming computers, they lock out a portion of the population who simply can’t afford to compete. Mobile games help alleviate those concerns, leading to more potential diversity in the esports scene of a game.
“When 5G networks are more broadly available, that’s going to have a huge impact on mobile gaming,” said Mereu. “Once you start to see that technology become more established, you’re going to see more and more people gravitate towards mobile esports.”
For fans of PUBG Mobile, there are a lot of reasons to be excited. Losing the player base in India certainly hurts, and the esports organisations that opened offices there must be scrambling, but the game is positioned for long-term success as the go-to battle royale on mobile. With Fortnite in a testy situation with both Apple and Google, PUBG Mobile has a real opportunity to capitalise on that audience as well.
With esports’ ever-growing popularity, and the ability to relegate the companies behind them in a way that traditional sports can’t be, esports are becoming key chess pieces in major conflicts from lawsuits to border disputes.