Tim Lan examines the reasons for the popularity of the viral game, King of Glory. 

   At a crowded McDonald’s, two high school students face each other and tap their phone screens with both thumbs, ignoring the surrounding customers and their unfinished Cokes on the table.

   This scene has become increasingly common in China as King of Glory has gone viral across the country. Fifty million active users, an army as big as the entire population of South Korea, now play King of Glory every day, according to a May 2017 report by Jiguang Data Corp.

   Released by the Chinese Internet company Tencent in late 2015, King of Glory is the first mobile phone “multiplayer online battle arena” (MOBA) game in history, designed like a mobile version of Tencent’s popular computer game League of Legends. In the game, players tap four different buttons on the phone screen to control their characters: one large button directs the characters’ movement and the other three cast the characters’ abilities.

   Unlike games that traditionally have male-dominated user populations, King of Glory attracts female players. According to a report by Jiguang, female outperform their male counterparts, representing the majority of the game’s players at 54.1 percent. The game attracts female players by featuring cute cartoon characters rather than fierce-looking beasts common in traditional MOBA games; its low difficulty level also presents female players with no barrier to entry.

   “The difficulty is not too bad,” said Peiting Luo, 17 and an active female player, “I managed to fully understand, enjoy and compete in the game in less than a month.” In addition, the game is more accessible to female players because of its mobile platform, according to Claudia Lo, a 22-year-old research assistant of the MIT Game Lab. The high accessibility may attract female users who do not own gaming computers (or even a mouse) for traditional games. “You already have a phone, and it’s a thing that your friends are already playing,” Lo said. “Then you are gonna jump on board.”

    Rather than registering separate accounts for the game, any user can log on to the game with WeChat or QQ accounts, both mainstream Chinese social media platforms developed by Tencent. Furthermore, players can send game invites directly to their friends, view their friends’ power ranking and review their in-game performances all in WeChat or QQ.

   “You can log on to King of Glory with a social media account,” said Lo. “It would certainly help someone who doesn’t play games to join in and try this game.” When interviewed, Fangling Huang, 18, said that she remained uninterested until her closest friend proposed repeatedly to guide her in the game. “In the beginning, I dropped out after a few games,” Huang said. “Yet my friends insisted on playing with me and helping me improve, so I gradually came to like the game.”

    Even more groundbreaking is the mobile feature of the King of Glory, which allows people to play at any time, in lines, during lunch breaks and before sleeping. According to the report by Jiguang Data, King of Glory users’ most active time periods is between 12 pm and 1 p.m. The “golden hour” between 12 pm and 1 pm is the lunch break for many companies, explaining the surge of activity during the period. In fact, King of Glory users usually play multiple games in one day, averaging 47 minutes spent on the game daily—the same amount of time is just enough for only one traditional computer MOBA game.

    With King of Glory’s increasing popularity, Tencent has also started its official professional league, KPL, including 120 registered athletes, most under 22 years old, from 12 different clubs. Fans now can watch pro gamers sit and compete in front of phones, rather than bulky computers. Last year, the league started its first season and awarded the champion team $11.4 million. Throughout the season, 350 million viewers watched the KPL, said Li Gao, the mobile gaming general manager of Tencent, at the 2016 KPL finals prize-giving ceremony.

Looking to enter the international market, Tencent has released King of Glory’s official American counterpart, Arena of Valor, on Google Play and App Store recently. American gamers may also expect to see a raging tide of mobile gaming here in the U.S. soon.

Tim Lan is an independent researcher. He can be contacted at tlan@standrews-de.org.