With an estimated 200 million monthly players, Honor of Kings might just be the biggest game in the world — but there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of it. The mobile strategy game, created by technology giant Tencent, was first launched in 2015, but its success has largely been concentrated in China. The company regularly cites the game as a big driver in its earnings reports, and it has proven so popular that Tencent implemented restrictions to keep kids under 12 from playing more than an hour a day. Urban legends about Honor of Kings abound: a recent slate of headlines suggested a player went blind because she couldn’t stop looking at her phone.
Now Tencent is trying to do what no Chinese game creator has done before: turn its local hit into a global one. The developer is reworking the game for the US and Europe under a brand new name, Arena of Valor. Tencent has built an internal team specifically devoted to localizing the game for these new markets, with the goal of making the China’s biggest game a hit across the globe. And soon all of that work will be put to the test: Arena of Valor is officially launching on iOS and Android in North and South America tomorrow.
Arena of Valor is what’s known as a multiplayer online battle arena game, or MOBA, a genre popularized by e-sports behemoths Dota 2 and League of Legends. (Tencent also owns League developer Riot Games, acquiring the studio back in 2015.) Each game is a five-on-five battle, where players team up to control fantastical heroes and try to destroy one another’s base. And these free-to-play experiences have proven to be huge hits. Valve’s Dota 2 hosts an annual e-sports tournament that had a $24 million prize pool this year, while last year Riot claimed League had 100 million monthly players.
Whereas both of those games are available only on PC, Tencent’s game was designed from the ground up for mobile devices. (It’s available on both iOS and Android.) The platform is a big reason for the game’s success in China, where mobile gaming is the dominant form, but Tencent also tapped into social elements that helped make Honor of Kings particularly sticky. In China, the game utilizes ubiquitous chat services like QQ and WeChat so players can invite friends, see who is online, or discuss in-game strategies. The result is a game with a surprisingly diverse audience; an estimated 54 percent of all Honor of Kings players in China are women.
But the Chinese gaming market, where consoles were only recently introduced after a lengthy ban, is very different than its counterparts in the US and Europe. And because of this, Arena of Valor is a somewhat different game compared to Honor of Kings. Tencent even built an independent team focused on tweaking the experience for each individual country.
While the fundamentals five-on-five combat remain the same, other aspects have been changed, from the art style and interface design to the sound and music. In place of characters pulled from Chinese folklore you’ll find Western fantasy heroes and even the likes of Batman and Wonder Woman. Tencent has also partnered with Nintendo to bring the game to the Switch, expanding beyond traditional mobile platforms. (The company says more details on the Switch open beta is coming soon.) And in the absence of WeChat, Arena of Valor uses Facebook to connect friends.
The game has already soft-launched under the Arena of Valor name in a handful of countries outside of China. Tencent started with south Asia, and more recently, the game debuted in a handful of European countries, including Spain, Germany, Italy, and France. Mobile analyst firm Apptopia estimates that Arena of Valor has been downloaded two million times in Europe since its debut in early August.
But even with the backing of a massive company like Tencent, Arena of Valor might prove to be a tough sell outside of China. For one thing, there’s no precedent for a game like this. Many massive mobile titles from Asia, particularly Japan, have struggled to replicate a similar level of success in Western markets. This summer, Monster Strike — a game that reportedly rakes in more than $1 billion a year — had its English-language version shutdown. “Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the English version of Monster Strike just wasn’t the success that we thought it would be,” the game’s publisher said in May. “Sustaining the game at a satisfactory level has become difficult, no matter how much we want to keep it going.”
Arena of Valor also has an issue of perception. For most players outside of China, hardcore strategy games are closely linked with the PC, where the genre has a long history dating back to the 1990s. Mobile games, meanwhile, are typically associated with comparatively lighter fare like Pokémon Go or Monument Valley. To do that, the company says it’s working with notable streamers to get them to play the game and show it off to their audiences, and it’s also working on building a pro e-sports league to prove just how competitive Arena of Valor is.
When Arena of Valor finally makes its global debut tomorrow, it will mark a reversal of sorts. Game developers, particularly those working in mobile, have long seen China as a giant untapped market for Western-made games. Arena of Valor represents a different proposition: that the biggest game in China can compete on a global stage.