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China’s frenzy over League of Legends championship sheds light on esports growth – TechCrunch

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When China’s Invictus Gaming defeated European squad Fnatic in the League of Legends 2018 finals this past Saturday, China’s social media platforms became awash in ecstasy and pride.

“It’s like winning an Olympic gold, a teenage dream come true,” writes one thirty-something audience of the competition on his WeChat feed.

Many others share that sentiment. So far, the hashtag #IG冠军, which means “IG the champion,” has generated over one million threads on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter with over four million monthly active users. This is a critical moment for China’s first-generation of players who grew up under parents and teachers who too easily dismissed all kinds of video games.

IG’s victory marks the first time a Chinese team has won the world championship for LoL – fondly called so by fans – the world’s most played PC game according to research firm Newzoo. The role-playing and monster-slaying title is run by Riot Games Inc, a Los Angeles-headquartered studio that WeChat operator Tencent fully bought out in 2015.

It wasn’t just gamers and the youth cheering for IG. Chinese mainstream media also rushed to congratulate. An op-ed from the communist party paper Guangming Daily called IG’s victory “an alternative path to the national sports dream.”

China has a history of obsessing over sports, evident in its generous spending on the Summer Olympics back in 2008 and the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics. Now esports – or competitive video gaming – as an officially recognized sporting event, is gaining ground among policymakers.

Esports in China has grown from a 53.2 billion yuan ($7.72 billion) industry in 2016 into one that’s estimated to earmark 88.7 billion yuan ($12.87 billion) in revenue in 2018, according to research firm Gamma Data. Local officials across the country want a share of the booming market. In some cases, the governments have shelled out billions of yuan to turn their no-name towns into “esports hub” that would house competitions and gaming companies in hope of stimulating local economies.

Private companies have joined in the game, too. Tencent, China’s largest gaming company by revenue, has invested in NYSE-listed Huya and Douyu, two of China’s leading esports livestreaming services. IG itself is an esports organization that Wang Sicong, son of China’s once richest man Wang Jianlin, founded in 2011 and catapulted to today’s stardom.

But China’s relationship with video games overall has always been murky. While the government is rooting for professional gaming, it’s tightening control over leisure ones, condemning game publishers like Tencent for “poisoning” juveniles with blockbuster titles.

“The Chinese government treats esports and leisure games very differently,” a staff in the esports division of a major global gaming studio who asks to remain anonymous told TechCrunch. “I don’t think IG’s victory will cause big changes to the government’s attitude.”

Tencent, which earns two-thirds of its revenue from online gaming, lost $17.5 billion in market valuation when China’s state newspaper slashed its popular Honor of Kings, widely regarded a mobile copycat of LoL. This year, a hiatus in game license approvals again puts pressure on Tencent stock prices and profitability.

For esports and League of Legends alone, however, IG’s glory could mean a brighter future.

“At least now we will see League of Legends’ popularity continue into a couple more years. Esports’ development may also benefit from the event,” suggests the gaming company staff.

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The looming software kill-switch lurking in aging PlayStation hardware

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Enlarge / These consoles could eventually be large paperweights if Sony doesn’t fix a problem looming in their firmware.

Unless something changes, an issue lurking in older PlayStations’ internal timing systems threatens to eventually make every PS4 game and all downloaded PS3 games unplayable on current hardware. Right now, it’s not a matter of if but when this problem will occur.

This ticking firmware time bomb has been known in certain PlayStation preservation and hacking circles for a while. But it’s gaining new attention amid Sony’s recently announced decision to shut down the online stores for PS3, PSP, and Vita software. While that impending store shutdown won’t impact players’ abilities to play and re-download previously purchased software for now, the eventual wider shutdown of PSN servers for these aging consoles could have a much more drastic effect on the playability of a wide swath of games.

What’s the problem?

The root of the coming issue has to do with the CMOS battery inside every PS3 and PS4, which the systems use to keep track of the current time (even when they’re unplugged). If that battery dies or is removed for any reason, it raises an internal flag in the system’s firmware indicating the clock may be out of sync with reality.

After that flag is raised, the system in question has to check in with PSN the next time it needs to confirm the correct time. On the PS3, this online check happens when you play a game downloaded from the PlayStation Store. On the PS4, this also happens when you try to play retail games installed from a disc. This check has to be performed at least once even if the CMOS battery is replaced with a fresh one, so the system can reconfirm clock consistency.

Why does the PlayStation firmware care so much about having the correct time? On the PS3, the timer check is used to enforce any “time limits” that might have been placed on your digital purchase (as confirmed by the error message: “This content has a time limit. To perform this operation go to settings date and time settings set via internet”). That check seems to be required even for downloads that don’t have any actual set expiration date, adding a de facto one-time online check-in requirement for systems after their internal batteries fail.

On the PS4, though, the timing check is apparently intended to make sure PSN trophy data is registered accurately, and to prevent players from pretending to get trophies earlier than they actually had. You’d think this check could be segregated from the ability to load the non-trophy portions of the game, but player testing has shown that this seems to be a requirement to get PS4 games to load at all.

An eventual issue

None of this is a huge problem for most PlayStation owners right now. Yes, the 10- to 20-year lifespan on your average CMOS battery is slowly running out, especially for the earliest PS3 hardware. But replacing the battery and resyncing the internal timer with PSN is a relatively minor annoyance for the time being (assuming you can find a Wi-Fi hotspot and PSN isn’t suffering one of its rare outages).

But nothing lasts forever, as Sony’s recent decisions regarding older PlayStation online stores shows. At some point in the future, whether it’s in one year or 100 years, Sony will shut off the PSN servers that power the timing check for hardware it no longer considers important. After that, it’s only a matter of time before failing CMOS batteries slowly reduce all PS3 and PS4 hardware to semi-functional curios.

Sony could render the problem moot relatively easily with a firmware update that limits the system functions tied to this timing check. Thus far, though, Sony hasn’t publicly indicated it has any such plans, and hasn’t responded to multiple requests for comment from Ars Technica. Until it does, complicated workarounds that make use of jailbroken firmware are the only option for ensuring that aging PlayStation hardware will remain fully usable well into the future.

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Fast and Furious 9 drops a new trailer ahead of June 25 release

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This past weekend, with little to do thanks to the pandemic, I marathoned through the Fast and Furious franchise. That was fortuitous timing, because on Tuesday a new trailer dropped for F9, the next installment, which arrives in theaters on June 25.

We actually got our first look at F9 well over a year ago, when the first trailer dropped at the end of January 2020. Family has been a central theme to the F&F movies, and that continues here. Dominic Torreto (played by Vin Diesel) and the gang have to confront his younger brother Jakob (John Cena), described as “the most skilled assassin and high-performance driver they’ve encountered.” He’s working with criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron), who sports a much more flattering haircut than in Fate of the Furious, the movie where she improbably hacked a bunch of old cars to drive themselves.

Also returning to the series is Han Lue (Sung Kang), who we all thought died at the end of Tokyo Drift. (This was revealed to be the work of Deckard Shaw (Jason Stratham) who was bad in Furious 7 but then turned out to be good in Fate of the Furious and Hobbs and Shaw.)

Based on this second trailer, the plot for F9 appears to involve magnets, and at one point Tej Parker (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson) don makeshift pressure suits and take to the skies in what might be a DeLorean with rocket boosters strapped to the roof.

As my colleague Jennifer Ouellette explained last year, “F&F9 will probably make about as much sense as its predecessors—in other words, not much sense at all. And fans wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I know I wouldn’t.

Listing image by Universal Pictures

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It’s Dave Bautista and pals vs. zombie horde in Army of the Dead

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Dave Bautista stars in the zombie heist film Army of the Dead, directed by Zack Snyder.

Fresh off the successful release of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, we’ll soon be getting the director’s latest project: Army of the Dead, about a group of mercenaries that attempts a heist in a zombie-ridden Las Vegas. In a sense, Snyder has come full circle. His directorial debut was 2008’s Dawn of the Dead, an entertaining reboot of the original George Romero classic from 1978.

Army of the Dead started out as a joint project between Universal Studios and Warner Bros. back in 2007. But like so many films, it got stuck in development hell until Zack Snyder signed on as director in 2019. Netflix picked up the distribution rights from Warner Bros. soon after.

Per the official premise:

Army of the Dead takes place following a zombie outbreak that has left Las Vegas in ruins and walled off from the rest of the world. When Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), a displaced Vegas local, former zombie war hero who’s now flipping burgers on the outskirts of the town he now calls home, is approached by casino boss Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada), it’s with the ultimate proposition: Break into the zombie-infested quarantine zone to retrieve $200 million sitting in a vault beneath the strip before the city is nuked by the government in 32 hours. Driven by the hope that the payoff could help pave the way to a reconciliation with his estranged daughter Kate (Ella Purnell), Ward takes on the challenge, assembling a ragtag team of experts for the heist.

They include Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera), an ace mechanic and Ward’s old friend; Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick), a zombie killing machine; Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro), a cynical helicopter pilot; Mikey Guzman (Raúl Castillo), a go-for-broke influencer and Chambers (Samantha Win), his ride-or-die; Martin (Garret Dillahunt), the casino’s head of security; a badass warrior known as the Coyote (Nora Arnezeder) who recruits Burt Cummings (Theo Rossi), a slimy security guard; and a brilliant German safe cracker named Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer). Scott finds an unexpected emotional hurdle when Kate joins the expedition to search for Geeta (Huma S. Qureshi), a mother who’s gone missing inside the city. With a ticking clock, a notoriously impenetrable vault, and a smarter, faster horde of Alpha zombies closing in, only one thing’s for certain in the greatest heist ever attempted: survivors take all.

Notaro replaced comedian/actor Chris D’Elia late in the project, on the heels of a number of sexual misconduct allegations against the comedian. This required reshooting some scenes with an acting partner, which were then inserted into the film; Notaro was also inserted into several scenes via digital compositing. She has been fantastic on Star Trek: Discovery, and it will be interesting to see how she fares in Army of the Dead.

The trailer is entertaining, with Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” as a musical backdrop, just to set the mood. “There’s 200 million dollars in a vault beneath the Strip,” Tanaka tells Ward and his team. “This should be a simple in and out.” Of course, nothing is ever simple. Vegas is swarming with zombies—faster, smarter zombies, not the classic Romero variety. They’re smart enough to organize, and that, plus their far superior numbers, doesn’t bode well for our human protagonists. (The house, after all, always wins.) But we are definitely on board for the Zombie Elvis and zombie tiger.

Army of the Dead debuts in select theaters and on Netflix on May 21, 2021. If this is as much fun as Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead—and it looks like it could be—Army of Dead should be a huge success. There are already plans for a prequel film focusing on the character Ludwig Dieter (played by Matthias Schweighöfer) and an anime-inspired TV series, Army of the Dead: Las Vegas.

Listing image by Netflix

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