The e-sports market is booming at home and abroad and has the potential to turn into a multibillion-dollar industry. Video gaming has even been mooted as as a sport that could be recognised by the International Olympic Committee rather than a general leisure activity.
To catch up with the trend, the Hong Kong government has vowed to promote the rapidly growing industry, but industry insiders say the city lacks the right policies to foster its growth.
Hong Kong E-sport Gymnasium, one of the biggest video gaming venues in Hong Kong, is reportedly operating without a license. It is hardly its fault though, as the government has failed to provide clear instruction on how to apply for one.
Operating in grey area
“Before we opened for business, we sought advice from the Home Affairs Department whether or not we needed a license, but got no response from them,” says Dennis Lau, managing director of Hong Kong E-sport Gymnasium.
“Then the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department came along, saying we needed the Places of Public Entertainment License. But since we are in an industrial building, applying for such license is impossible,” says Mr Lau.
According to the land lease, activities conducted in an industrial building must be for “industrial use”, shutting the door for obtaining this license. However, in practice, many operate a range of other businesses in a legal grey zone.
“The authorities told us to seek a venue in shopping malls, where things would be easier. But I wonder how many of us can afford the rent there,” he adds. “They could have supported us in finding venues to operate, such as subsidizing our rent or even granting us premises.”
“Now we are operating in fear, worrying that we are running the business illegally without a license,” says Mr Lo.
He says a gaming venue in Lai Chi Kok is operating with a Restaurant License, since it runs as a video-gaming-themed bar. It’s one of the few choices left.
He bashes the Innovation and Technology Bureau, which leads the tech development of Hong Kong, for not giving the industry players any support. Rather, it is promoting the industry at the Cyberport only.
Mr Lau says government policy and resources are inclined towards the Cyberport, rather than small industry players, making it the sole incubator of the industry. Cyberport is managed by a government-owned company.
The 2018-19 Budget has announced the funding allocation of $100 million to Cyberport to promote the development of e-sports, of which $50 million will be used for developing the Cyberport Arcade, a shopping mall, into a local e-sports and digital entertainment node.
As a result, Cyberport Arcade could be the exclusive venue for e-sports competitions and mega events, training programmes and public promotion activities.
“Cyberport is not an ideal place to host video gaming events. It’s simply too far. In the long run, it cannot sustain the development of the industry,” says Mr Lau.
Mr Lau says Taiwan and South Korea are way ahead Hong Kong in supporting the industry with their policies.
“For example, South Korea has rolled out a slew of incentives to promote the video gaming industry. There are regulations on the industry and guidelines on applying for a license. Professional video gamers can also be exempt from the mandatory military service and they are guaranteed minimum pay,” says Mr Lau. “All these measures help encourage people to take on this career path.”
“In Hong Kong, there are programs to support elite athletes, but none for professional video gamers,” Mr Lau.
Mr Lau believes that Hong Kong officials, if they do take the industry seriously as they claim, should promote it in a holistic manner, instead of just allocating funds to the Cyberport.
The size of the global e-sports market reached US$460 million in 2016, and Cyberport believes it has “high economic potential”.
Accounting firm PwC has predicted annual revenues in Hong Kong’s video game industry could grow to HK$7.8 billion by 2021.
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