Chinese Invasion?

Fascinating rumors this week that Chinese Internet giant Tencent Holdings is bringing its blockbuster mobile game, Honour of Kings, to the US and Europe in September. Until now, Tencent has been best known (in the US at least) for its WeChat social network, but that may be about to change in a hurry. Honour of Kings has over 50 million daily active users in China and is widely considered one of the most addictive mobile games ever.

Will it succeed in the US, and what does this tell us about the future of TV? Two thoughts.

1. Video Games Rule Pop Culture Among Today’s Kids
As I’ve written previously, video games are the drug of choice for today’s kids and teens. It appears that the Chinese are rapidly discovering this for themselves. The state-owned People’s Daily newspaper has called Honour of Kings “poison” and called for its regulation. Chinese parents and teachers complain that game-playing has caused once-disciplined Chinese youth to stop doing their homework. (This is sounding more and more like 50’s rock & roll all the time.)

As a result, Tencent just introduced new ‘voluntary’ limits restricting kids under 12 to just an hour of game play per day and imposing a daily curfew of 9pm. (Youth between 12 and 18 are limited to two hours per day and have no curfew.) I’m assuming that these rules will apply globally, which ironically will mean that the Chinese government is now in the business of protecting American youth from the dangers of video games. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

Regardless of how many hours they actually play, the larger point here is that video games are a cultural juggernaut. My three boys (two age 10, one 13 as of this writing) could care less about traditional TV shows or pop music. Movies are occasionally entertaining, but basically peripheral. Spectator sports have become mainly a thing that adults care about, and that kids therefore tolerate (or not) for that reason.

Video games, by contrast, are king. The ability to talk about Minecraft, Clash Royale, and (presumably soon enough) Honour of Kings is the currency of today’s kid culture. Boys may seem a little ahead (or is it behind?) of girls on this score, but that may be more perception than reality. The games mentioned above (to say nothing of female-friendly titles like Dragon’s Age: Inquisition, Candy Crush, and Hex FRVR) have millions of female players.

If you doubt me, run this simple experiment. Put a group of kids by themselves in a room on their own and see what they talk about when left to their own devices. Video games! Tencent obviously understands this –- the timing honestly could not be any better to launch an assault on the US gaming market, which brings us to our second point.

Globalization Is A Two-Way Street
The US (and the West in general) is very comfortable in its role as an exporter of culture. We’ve been doing it (at least) since Columbus discovered America in 1492. (Although I’ve since learned that our schoolbooks were wrong and China actually discovered America in 1421). The list of massively successful US exports is far too long to list, but it’s worth naming just a few: Coca Cola, jazz, Levis, McDonalds, Hollywood (movies), rock & roll, the PC, Google, Facebook, and Netflix. (The British, for their part, have certainly been known to (culturally) invade the US from time to time, most famously in the 1960s via a little known group called the Beatles, but that’s a different story.)

Recent history, though, including last summer’s Pokemon Go fad (Japan) and the 2012 Gangnam Style phenomenon (South Korea), suggests that Asian pop culture can give just as well as it gets. Other than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Jackie Chan (if we count Hong Kong), though, China’s pop culture exports to the US have been fairly meager. (I’m not counting Shen Yun here, which is beautiful but focuses on classical Chinese ‘high culture’ and is thus in a category all its own.)

This is all to say that Honour of Kings will represent a new chapter in the history of pop culture exports. As the rest of the world knows all-too-well from its experience with the US over the past 100+ years, ‘products’ are not just products. They carry cultural values, both positive and negative, and influence everything from gender roles to attitudes towards money and authority. Rock & roll is not ‘just’ music any more than McDonalds is just a hamburger.

What Chinese values are embedded in Honour of Kings?  We’re about to find out.

Cultural exchange is inherently messy and unpredictable. Did anyone know in 1964 that the Beatles would influence the fate of the Vietnam War? (“All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”) Will Honour of Kings take America by storm and take US-China relations in a whole new direction?

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel Espelien is Senior Advisor for TDG and VP of Client Services for the Corum Group doing sell-side technology acquisitions. He lives near Seattle, WA.