Did you know that esports has entered its golden jubilee this year? It has been 50+ years since the first-ever esports event took place at Stanford University in 1972 when 24 players competed in an Intergalactic Spacewar tournament, and the winner received a year’s subscription to the Rolling Stone magazine. Fast forward to 2023, technological advancement has made esports accessible to everyone. Notably, mobile esports has precipitated a much larger number of tournaments. Mobile esports in Asia has become an important pillar of the global mobile esports market, with Southeast Asia (SEA) as one of the fastest growing regions for mobile esports and China becoming the biggest mobile esports market in the world.

Esports is a primary topic for Niko Partners’ research and a list of our esports reports and subscription services is available here.

Back in 2019, Niko Partners published a special report, Evolution of Mobile Esports for the Mass Market where we foresaw that mobile esports would be a primary driver for growth in the digital games industry over the next 5 years. A little over 3 years later that prediction is coming true. Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, a popular MOBA game developed and published by Moonton Games, is a prime example of the rise and success of mobile esports in the SEA region and even globally. In January 2023, Niko analysts attended the M4 World Championship and M Summit in Jakarta, Indonesia. Here are some of our observations and takeaways of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang’s largest esports event of the year.

M4 World Championship Overview

The first three iterations of the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang World Championship were hosted in Malaysia and Singapore, with M1 (2019) held in Kuala Lumpur, while M2 (2020) and M3 (2021) being held in Singapore. The fourth and latest edition of the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang World Championship, commonly known as the M4 World Championship was just held in Jakarta, Indonesia at the Bali United Studio (Group Stages) and Tennis Indoor Senayan (Knockout Stages and Final) between January 1 and January 15, 2023. This was the first time since the COVID-19 lockdowns that the M4 happened fully in-person and without limitations on audience size.

Qualifying rounds were held via the regional Mobile Legends: Bang Bang Professional League (MPL) or Moonton-approved regional competitions. Sixteen teams qualified from Asia, North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to compete in M4.

The 2023 M4 was the second time that two Filipino teams from the upper bracket and lower bracket competed in the finals for the championship title. In the end, ECHO Philippines defeated 2022 champions and tournament favorites, Blacklist International, with a score of 4-0 to claim the World Championship title.

Interestingly, Karl Gabriel “KarlTzy” Nepomuceno became the first Mobile Legends: Bang Bang esports athlete to ever win two world championships. Karl, who is part of ECHO in M4, previously won the M2 Championship with Bren Esports. The Philippines is also recorded as the only country whose teams won three editions of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang World Championship in a row.

ECHO won the US$300,000 of the US$800,000 total prize money, with an option to select the esports team’s own M4 winner’s championship skin, a UBS-exclusively designed gold ring, gold medal for every player and coach, and an exclusive champion’s tour organized by the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy. On the other hand, the M4 finals MVP and M4 Fans Choice awards go to ECHO’s Benedict “Bennyqt” Gonzales and RRQ Hoshi, respectively.

Sponsors for the event included the Secret Lab, Gank, Esports Charts, Me Watch, UBS, the Tourism board of Indonesia, and the social platform TikTok which shares a Parent company, ByteDance, with Moonton.

Niko Partners attended events from the tournament’s opening ceremony through the press conference following the finals. We saw the excitement and enthusiasm radiating from the crowds as well as the players. Even though the event took place over the course of a week, people were showing up in droves to watch matches in the arena, even in the middle of the work and school week in Jakarta. And during key matches the arena and a secondary outdoor overflow venue were packed with spectators, showcasing the popularity of esports in the country and the region in general.

Niko analysts after attending the M4 and M Summit in Jakarta

Although the final was exhilarating, nothing could match the energy of seeing the hometown favorites, Indonesia’s RRQ Hoshi, take on Blacklist International in the third elimination round. This matchup would set global viewership records, according to Esports Charts, which reported a peak viewership of 4.2 million globally for this match – higher even than the championship match. The showdown between RRQ and Blacklist lasted all 5 rounds of the best-of-5 series and was punctuated by football chants, drums, and waving banners in the stadium. Outside the venue, people from all walks of life – from cab drivers to young people sitting at food carts – could be seen with their phones held sideways watching the showdown between the Philippine and Indonesian favorites play out, a testament to the overwhelming popularity of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang.

M Summit Overview

On January 13, Moonton Games organized its inaugural business conference, M Summit, in conjunction with the M4 World Championship to discuss key issues with primary stakeholders in the country and region, including the government, media, game publishers, event organizers, teams, and advertisers. The keynote address was delivered by the Moonton Games Head of Regional Esports, Sophie Guo, the Head of Esports Ecosystem, Ray Ng, and the Head of Regional Esports Sales, Adrian Cher. They discussed a variety of topics, including the demographics of Mobile Legends: Bang Bang players, viewership of the game’s esports titles, Moonton’s esports partnership models, Moonton’s 2022 esports milestones and 2023 esports roadmap, upcoming events, and updates regarding M4 watch party in Indonesia and Malaysia.

Following the keynote, three panels were held:

Panel 1: “What are the upcoming trends and opportunities in Indonesia’s budding mobile esports ecosystem?”

Panel 2: “New opportunities in the mobile esports economy”

Panel 3: “Expanding the Mobile Legends: Bang Bang‘s esports ecosystem: What are the opportunities in creating partners’ event with Moonton Games?”

Conversation with Lucas Mao, Head of Esports at Moonton

Lucas Mao, Moonton’s Managing Director of Global Esports, welcomes attendees at the first M Summit

Before the final match of the M4 Niko analysts had a moment to catch up with Lucas Mao, the Managing Director of Global Esports at Moonton who provided some insights about the success of Mobile Legends esports in Indonesia and across the globe.

Lucas pointed to three foundational elements that have supported Mobile Legends: Bang Bang’s growth as an esports powerhouse in Indonesia and across Southeast Asia. First, he described Mobile Legends as a national game, with more than 10% of the population of Indonesia playing it according to their measure. This is thanks to the high accessibility of the title which can be played on a wide range of high-end and low-end smart devices. Second, there is a strong desire from Indonesians to see their players do well. This was palpable throughout the M4, as Indonesian fans showed up in force to cheer on RRQ and Onic, the two national teams in the tournament. He explains that, while football is quite popular in Indonesia, there are not many opportunities to see Indonesians competing on that global stage. Esports is a place where Indonesians have done well, so building on the excitement of that success is key to growing the esports market for Mobile Legends. Third and finally, Moonton doesn’t treat their tournaments as media events but as sporting leagues.

What Lucas means by this final point is that, rather than just investing in prizes or high-gloss, uniform media products, the M4 is the culmination of leagues built with an attention to the unique characteristics of each market. The MPL in Indonesia is different from the MPL in the Philippines or Liga LATAM in Latin America. “To see Southeast Asia as a uniform market is a mistake. SEA is a concept, but each country is unique,” explains Lucas. To acknowledge this, they have built a staff of 70 that support their regional esports efforts, with 15 dedicated to Indonesia alone – working on everything from localized production to managing the success of teams and maintaining relationships with local officials. It is exciting to see an esports enterprise that takes this lesson to heart.

Niko’s Outlook of Esports in Southeast Asia

Niko Partners has estimated that the Asian esports industry generated a combined revenue of US$680.4 million in 2022, a 7.3% growth over 2022. Asia accounts for more than half of the over US$1.1 billion global esports market. There are also nearly 755 million esports fans across the region. Southeast Asia, along with India and Japan, is the fastest growing Asian sub-region and Indonesia is the largest and most valuable market within SEA contributing to nearly a fifth of the SEAs esports market value.

There are a lot of opportunities for growth in this region. The esports industry has also saw major mergers and acquisitions activities, which Niko tracks as part of its Esports Tracking subscription. We also note that esports still skews heavily male across Asia as a whole, Niko’s survey of gamers in China found that 79% of gamers who had competed in esports at any level, from amateur to professional, were male. While esports viewership and participation is on the rise among women, there is a major opportunity if brands and organizers can bridge this gap. At the M4 tournament matches that Niko Partners attended, the majority was male but there is clearly as strong and growing interest from female viewers who were in on the excitement both in the stadium and the watch party held outside.

Fans at the upper bracket quarter final match between Onic Esports and Falcon Esports

Niko Partners was thrilled to see esports fandom thriving in Jakarta, and excited for the opportunity to deepen our understanding and share our own insights about esports across Asia. Please follow along with all of our esports research in 2023. As players now have a myriad of video game and entertainment options, esports products built on local expertise and insights continue to win out.  Understanding the local ecosystem and esports audiences is key to attracting sponsors and building a long-term esports ecosystem.

Authors: Edward Tien, Darang Candra and Dr. Alexander Champlin