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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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Gaming

My latest co-op multiplayer obsession is Raft, the game where you build a raft

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Enlarge / Raft is developed by Redbeet Interactive and published by Axolot Games.

Redbeet Interactive

My co-op gaming group has logged a few hundred extra hours in Deep Rock Galactic since I wrote about it a year and a half ago, but we’re always looking for another game to fall in love with.

We’ve tried a bunch of things in the last year, guided by a combination of positive reviews and “whatever is on sale in Steam at the time.” We’ve logged time in Back 4 BloodPayday 2Warhammer: Vermintide 2, Sea of Thieves, Diablo IIIRisk of Rain 2, and Borderlands 3, and each has had its charms. But the one that has stuck with me the most is called Raft, a game about building a raft.

Raft isn’t new—it went into Early Access in 2018—but its formal 1.0 release happened this past June. The pitch: You begin the game drifting across an endless ocean on a tiny wooden raft cobbled together from flotsam and jetsam. Armed with only a trusty throwable plastic hook, you must comb the ocean for planks, plastic, and other bits of scrap that you can use to expand your raft and stay alive. And once you’re no longer in constant danger of starving to death (and once you can steer your raft instead of just letting it drift), you can begin sailing to the world’s remaining islands to figure out what happened to everyone else.

Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.
Enlarge / Bits of trash dot the water around you—from these, your empire will be painstakingly constructed.

Andrew Cunningham

The surest sign that you’ll like Raft is if you like Minecraft (or if you want to like Minecraft but find its general aimlessness frustrating instead of freeing). Building is all done on a grid system, you’re constantly combining and recombining materials to build and improve your tools, and the way the game gradually advances from an early survival-horror phase to a more free-form building-and-exploration phase is distinctly Minecraft-y. The game includes combat, and what is here feels fine (it flows a lot better than the clunky, boring combat in Sea of Thieves), but it’s all subordinate to building, exploring, and resource gathering.

The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, <em>Minecraft</em>-meets-<em>Animal Crossing</em> kind of way.
Enlarge / The crafting UI and inventory management are dense and kind of clunky, in a (mostly) endearing, Minecraft-meets-Animal Crossing kind of way.

Andrew Cunningham

In the early game, you’ll be driven almost exclusively by hunger and thirst. The two meters are ticking down all the time, and starving or dehydrating will slow you down and eventually sap your health until you die (you can always revive or respawn, but the former requires a teammate to haul you to a bed on your raft and the latter comes at the cost of 2/3 of your inventory at normal difficulty). Further complication circles you in the form of an aggressive and omnipresent shark, which is always ready to bite you if you hop in the water (or to take a bite out of your raft, if you’re out of its reach).

You can play solo, but the game is less intimidating with friends—it means more mouths to feed, but you also don’t need to stop collecting precious planks and palm leaves so you can take a break to fish or refill your water desalinization rig. There are no specific character classes, but there’s enough to do that you and up to three of your friends can find a distinct lane depending on what you like the most. I focus mostly on actual raft construction and caring for our steadily growing menagerie of domesticated animals, while others in our group prefer navigating, collecting food and materials, and advancing the game’s tech tree.

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Activision pays $35M SEC settlement over workplace misconduct disclosures

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Enlarge / Taking a close look…

The Securities and Exchange Commission announced Friday that Activision Blizzard has agreed to pay $35 million to settle a probe into the company’s handling of widespread workplace harassment and discrimination allegations.

In an administrative order, the SEC said that complaints of workplace misconduct at Activision Blizzard “were not collected or analyzed for disclosure purposes” since at least 2018. This left Activision Blizzard management “lacking sufficient information to understand the volume and substance of employee complaints of workplace misconduct,” and therefore unable to warn investors of any potential business risks those complaints entailed.

The SEC also found that Activision asked departing employees to enter into “separation agreements” that illegally asked those employees “to notify Activision Blizzard of any requests from an administrative agency in connection with a report or complaint.” That violates SEC rules designed to protect whistleblowers and prohibit employers from impeding employee complaints to government agencies.

The SEC says Activision started implementing “company-wide structural changes” on workplace misconduct complaints starting in May of 2020 and changed its separation agreement language in early 2022.

By settling these matters out of court, Activision avoids any formal admission of wrongdoing. “We are pleased to have amicably resolved this matter,” Activision Blizzard said in a statement provided to Ars Technica. “As the order recognizes, we have enhanced our disclosure processes with regard to workplace reporting and updated our separation contract language. We did so as part of our continuing commitment to operational excellence and transparency. Activision Blizzard is confident in its workplace disclosures.”

Despite the size of the settlement, the payment represents less than 0.4 percent of Activision Blizzard’s $8.8 billion in annual revenue (as of 2021) and, thus, will likely have a minimal impact on the company’s bottom line. Settling the matter out of court also means the complaint is no longer a potential complication for Microsoft’s planned $69 billion acquisition of Activision, which is facing its own government headwinds from the Federal Trade Commission.

Today’s settlement follows an $18 million settlement the company reached with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2021, just a day after that complaint was filed.

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Did Billy Mitchell use this illicit joystick to set a Donkey Kong high score?

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Mitchell (right) at the 2007 FAMB convention with former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers and what appears to be a Donkey Kong cabinet with a modified joystick.

Over the years, King of Kong star Billy Mitchell has seen his world-record Donkey Kong scores stripped, partially reinstated, and endlessly litigated, both in actual court and the court of public opinion. Through it all, Mitchell has insisted that every one of his records was set on unmodified Donkey Kong arcade hardware, despite some convincing technical evidence to the contrary.

Now, new photos from a 2007 performance by Mitchell seem to show obvious modifications to the machine used to earn at least one of those scores, a fascinating new piece of evidence in the long, contentious battle over Mitchell’s place in Donkey Kong score-chasing history.

The telltale joystick

The photos in question were taken at the Florida Association of Mortgage Brokers (FAMB) Convention, which hosted Mitchell as part of its “80s Arcade Night” promotion in July 2007. Mitchell claims to have achieved a score of 1,050,200 points at that event, a performance that was recognized by adjudicator Twin Galaxies as a world record at the time (but which by now would barely crack the top 30).

In his defamation case against Twin Galaxies, Mitchell includes testimony from several purported witnesses to his FAMB performance. That includes former Twin Galaxies referee Todd Rogers (who was later also banned from Twin Galaxies), who testified that the machine used at the event was “an original Nintendo Donkey Kong Arcade machine as I have known since 1981.”

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet.

Another angle showing Mitchell, Rogers, and Ritch Workman in front of the seemingly modified Donkey Kong cabinet.

But the pictures from the FAMB convention, made public by fellow high-score-chaser David Race last month, raise additional questions about that claim, thanks to what Race calls a “glaringly non-original joystick” seen in the machine shown in those photos.

Original upright Donkey Kong arcade cabinets were shipped with a distinctive short joystick with a prominent black ball atop a silver metal stick (close-up available here). But the machine behind Mitchell in the recently released FAMB photos clearly shows a taller joystick with a red ball and stick.

The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified <em>Donkey Kong</em> cabinet (right).
Enlarge / The joystick shown in the FAMB photos (left, zoomed in for detail) vs. the joystick on an unmodified Donkey Kong cabinet (right).

Use of a non-original joystick would violate Twin Galaxies’ Donkey Kong rules, which require games be played with “an original stock 4-way Donkey Kong arcade joystick, or a replacement 4-way joystick of exact size and shape as the original Donkey Kong arcade game joystick.” Twin Galaxies’ also requires “a wide image of the game’s control panel” in any record recording to verify this. And archived rules discussions also suggest that players of that era knew cabinets with aftermarket joysticks were known to be unacceptable, even if the core arcade board had authentic Donkey Kong software.

A taller joystick might actually be a hindrance for high-level Donkey Kong play since it requires more physical movement to get the same in-game results. But that disadvantage could be worth it if the controls in question were an eight-way joystick rather than the standard four-way joystick Nintendo shipped on original cabinets. An eight-way joystick mod could give a player an advantage by letting them enter diagonal inputs (e.g., up and left simultaneously), which could speed up transitions after climbing ladders, for instance.

Mitchell also testified in court documents that his FAMB Donkey Kong performance was “visible on a TV above the cabinet to give the guests greater viewing capability.” But while a VCR can be seen above the cabinet in the photos—presumably to record the performance for later verification—no such external display can be seen (though it conceivably could have been brought in for added visibility when Mitchell was actually playing).

In that same testimony package, technician Robert Childs testified that the FAMB score was achieved using “my same Donkey Kong Arcade machine,” which was purportedly used by Mitchell to set a 2004 record of 1,047,200 points in Childs’ warehouse/showroom. Assuming that’s true, the non-standard joystick could also further jeopardize that performance’s place in the record books.

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