Mobile esports reaches new heights in 2024 with a boost from Saudi Arabian investment

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It’s shaping up to be a banner year for the mobile esports industry, with an unprecedented amount of activity in the space in 2024. The secret to all this growth? A healthy amount of investment from Saudi Arabia.

Mobile esports activity has been picking up gradually since 2021, but 2024 could be one of the most lucrative years yet for the esports teams and players participating in popular mobile games such as “PUBG Mobile” and “Mobile Legends: Bang Bang” (MLBB).

Last month, for example, the Snapdragon Pro Series (SPS), a global mobile esports league, signed an official partnership with “MLBB” publisher Moonton Games to bring more regions and more prize money to the league. In January, Tencent announced that it would invest $15 million to make its mobile game “Honor of Kings” into an esport. And Riot Games is currently testing a mobile version of its popular first-person shooter game “Valorant” in China, with rumors of a full launch in 2024.

“We’re seeing 5x growth in almost every measurable target that we have,” said Sam Braithwaite, vp of mobile game ecosystems for ESL/FACEIT Group, which owns and operates the SPS. “A good example would be that in year one of the Snapdragon Pro Series, the global program generated 7 million hours watched. Heading into year three, 37 million is the target that we’re going to be expecting.”

The SPS isn’t the only area of growth for mobile esports in 2024. This year also marks the first iteration of the Esports World Cup, a July event that will include competitions in mobile titles such as “MLBB,” “PUBG Mobile” and “Free Fire.” On April 16, the event announced an eye-popping $60 million prize pool. It’s the largest prize pool to ever be offered at an esports event, and mobile gaming gets to be part of the excitement.

The mobile East

A unifying feature links the Snapdragon Pro Series and the Esports World Cup: both are ultimately owned and operated by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which acquired ESL/FACEIT Group in January 2022. The PIF did not respond to a request for comment regarding its push into mobile esports, but an increased presence in mobile gaming presents clear benefits to an entity located in Asia. Mobile esports is particularly popular in the Asian market, and there are 14 dedicated “MLBB” teams in the Middle East region alone.

“By participating in the Esports World Cup, ‘PUBG Mobile’ leverages the event’s vast scale and visibility to enhance its profile among both current fans and potential new players. It supports our efforts to maintain the game’s relevance and excitement within the competitive gaming community,” said James Yang, senior director of global esports for Level Infinite, the global publisher and esports operator of “PUBG Mobile.” “Hosting the game at such a significant event aligns with our ongoing collaborations in key markets, such as Saudi Arabia, where ‘PUBG Mobile’ has already established a strong presence.”

As money flows into mobile esports, esports organizations are racing to take advantage of the opportunity. Last month, the esports org NRG announced a “PUBG Mobile” team sponsored by Samsung, becoming one of the first major North American orgs to participate in the mobile game.

“We thought PUBG was a great start, just because of how big it is internationally,” said NRG director of business development Hauk Nelson. “It’s maybe not the biggest mobile game in the world, but it’s the biggest one that still has a pretty familiar Western footprint, as opposed to ‘Free Fire’ or something like that.”

Financial incentives

In addition to the potential prize money on offer, another reason why esports teams are leaning into mobile games in 2024 is that they are being paid directly to do so. This year, the Esports World Cup is operating a Club Program providing financial incentives to orgs fielding teams in multiple Esports World Cup titles. The Esports World Cup has not disclosed the specific amount of money it is disbursing through the initiative, but the payments have reportedly ranged from $100,000 to $600,000 for participating teams.

The practice of paying esports orgs to field teams in specific games is not unprecedented in the industry. In fact, it was a relatively common practice during the early days of esports, as games jockeyed to gain the favor of competitive gamers. Initiatives such as the Esports World Cup Club Program represent a return to this practice, which could become more widespread once again as mobile game publishers look to boost their footprints in Western markets.

“If publishers/developers/properties are going to incentivize orgs to participate in their ecosystems, it’s paramount that those ecosystems be viable in the long term,” said Nathan Lindberg, founder of the gaming and esports consultancy Moneybadger Consulting LLC. “In most sports leagues, salary minimums and caps, plus fair financial practices, are instituted to guide and protect organizations and grow the league properly. On top of that, the properties should be leveraging commercial sponsors to provide revenue value to orgs as a plan to off burden the financial relationship.”

Long-term sustainability notwithstanding, the return of official publisher and league incentives is good news for esports organizations, which are always on the lookout for new sources of revenue. NRG hasn’t been offered this type of financial incentive yet, but Nelson told Digiday that the company would certainly be open to one if it came up.

“‘PUBG Mobile’ is just the start for us trying to have more of a global footprint in the space, and I think mobile is going to be pretty appealing for everything moving forward,” Nelson said. “Look at the Esports World Cup — it’s like half of those games are mobile.”

As mobile esports grows, advertisers are taking note of the opportunities present in the space, too. The Snapdragon Pro Series is co-owned by the tech company Qualcomm, which also acts as a title sponsor for the league — but this year, non-endemic brands are ramping up their interest in mobile esports, according to Braithwaite.

“We have great commercial partnerships with Monster and DHL and Samsung, who sponsored our program globally. And then there’s some partners that have just specific regional pies that they’re going for, like a North American specific partner,” Braithwaite said. “What we’re seeing is increased interest, which is fantastic.”

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