Fueled by WeChat, Female Gamers Power Tencent’s $3 Billion Hit

  • Women outnumber men on its blockbuster Honour of Kings
  • A combination of social and gaming lies behind its appeal

Women have overtaken men as the top players of the blockbuster mobile game 'Honor of Kings' and its popularity with female players has helped make it Tencent's most profitable title. Bloomberg's Lulu Chen reports on 'Bloomberg Markets: Asia.' (Source: Bloomberg)

U.S. game companies might learn a thing or two from Tencent Holdings Ltd. when it comes to bringing out the women.

Honour of Kings now boasts the highest proportion of female players for a hard-core or battle-arena title, genres still dominated by males. That success in roping in a long-neglected constituency is a big reason the title has become Tencent’s most profitable mobile game. 

It was China’s largest social media company’s dominance via WeChat that proved instrumental in attracting a more diverse base, along with the bite-sized nature of Honour of Kings match-ups and a broader palette of playable characters than most games of its ilk. Females accounted for 54.1 percent of users as of May, according to IDG Capital-backed internet consultancy Jiguang. That outstrips the 35 percent-or-lower average for similar games on computers or consoles, as well as comparable mobile title Vainglory, according to industry consultancy Newzoo.

Take Zhu Qiaopu, a kindergarten teacher turned tattoo apprentice who musters a group of mothers for battle every night after putting her three-year-old to bed. Zhu, whose favorite characters include King Arthur, an armor-clad close-range attacker, has devoted about 230 hours to the game in the two months since she began. Invited by her husband, she ended up beating him to a coveted platinum badge.

“With WeChat we can discuss our strategies and improve our skills,” said the Chengdu, Sichuan-based 30-year-old, who’s spent at least $147 unlocking characters and buying performance-enhancing potions. “When all your friends are on the game and you can see their ranking, you just feel like you can’t be left out and suck at the game. Who doesn’t want to win?”

Honour of Kings.

Photographer: VCG via Getty Images

Honour of Kings’ mass appeal will be put to the test as Tencent prepares to debut its biggest in-house title in the U.S., a market dominated by publishing powerhouses like Activision Blizzard Inc. and where WeChat is largely non-existent. While dominant on its home turf, the company has yet to demonstrate an ability to woo foreign audiences. Its biggest overseas hits -- Riot Games Inc.’s League of Legends and Supercell Oy’s Clash of Clans among them -- were acquired at a steep cost. Those very same acquisitions however handed Tencent a major global platform that could help its biggest in-house title connect with foreign gamers.

Tencent has certainly clicked with the home crowd. Honour of Kings’ cocktail of social media and gaming (allowing users for instance to add actual friends) won it some 108 million female players, according to Jiguang. That’s more than the population of Argentina and Canada combined. Jane Yip, a spokeswoman for the company, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

That females outnumber men in a violence-laden game is remarkable, for an industry notorious for its fraught relationship with women. From the 2015 Gamergate harassment campaign to criticism of gratuitous sexualization in staples like Grand Theft Auto, girl gamers have seldom felt completely comfortable in the testosterone-fueled world. 

Just last year, Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox division hired women dressed as school-girls to dance and socialize with a mostly male crowd at a Game Developer Conference party. Tencent itself apologized this year for a sexually suggestive game organized by one of its divisions for an annual party.

While women are the majority in casual fare such as Candy Crush Saga, they’re distinctly under-represented in hard-core and mid-core titles. Such games typically require longer time commitments, demand more investment in building characters or learning in-game techniques, and also frequently involve copious amounts of violence.

Honour of Kings is an adaption of the better-known League of Legends in which players, usually in teams of five, hack and slash their way through battle arenas. It’s free to download but generates revenue from users who buy upgrades to improve their odds in battle.

With women comprising 54 percent of its players, it outstrips its desktop cousin, whose female contingent has stood at 35 percent over the past three months, according to Newzoo. It also surpassed Vainglory’s 33 percent. The average women gamer ratio in battle-arena games is about 28 percent for desktops and 34 percent for consoles, Newzoo says.

Attracting the oft-marginalized half of the population is what could propel Honour of Kings’ revenue to as much as $3 billion this year, said Serkan Toto, the founder of Tokyo-based consultant Kantan Games Inc.

“The time when gaming was dominated by male users is absolutely over,” he said.

Because a single session only lasts about 20 minutes, the game demands less commitment from its players, who can polish off rounds in fragmented time slots. That in turn lowers the entry barriers for female users who’ve had scant exposure to mid or hard-core games, said Marie Sun, a Shenzhen-based analyst at Morningstar Investment Service. The sheer wealth of playable characters — currently more than 60 from snipers and sorcerers to assassins — provide enough variation to sustain interest once a user is hooked, she added.

Other times, it comes down to bragging rights. Xu Junyang’s ability to dish out heavy blows has enhanced her popularity among gamer-friends. Her favorite character is Yu Ji or Consort Yu, a historical Chinese figure transformed into a sniper who can freeze opponents while meting out serious damage with her bow.

“Where do I get my fulfillment? The fact that I’m a vision on the battlefield, I slaughter numerous people and never get killed,” said the 30-year-old Xu, who joins Zhu on the same team almost every night. “My friends keep pulling me back. They’ll ask me ‘hey your son asleep yet, want to play a round.’”

In fact, Honour of King’s popularity — 200 million active gamers in China by Jiguang’s count — has grown so rapidly it may have alarmed some in Beijing. Government media mouthpieces, including the People’s Daily and Xinhua, have criticized it for exacerbating addiction. Tencent has also declared a system to limit playtime for under-18 users. Other media, including the China Business News, have said the game’s become something of a dating app for girls hoping to snag boyfriends. 

“It all comes down to whether you have self-restraint. If you do, it’s just a form of stress relief,” said Xu, who works a regular job. “Saying girls play games to win the attention of men is just bias. No matter if it’s men or women, both have the right to the same kind of delight.”

— With assistance by Yuji Nakamura

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