It’s late morning in the shadows of Shanghai. In a set of luxury apartments around 30km (19 miles) away from the lights of the city’s ever expanding skyline, the sound of construction work roaring through the apartment complex is barely enough to wake a group of six young women from their sleep in their shared flat.
These apartment-dwellers aren’t just roommates – they’re teammates. They’re members of LLG – one of China’s best female e-sports teams, and a highly skilled group of professional video game players.
It’s the morning after another long training session where they stayed up playing the online multi-player game League of Legends into the early hours of the morning.
They live in semi-luxury like b-list celebrities. They have thousands of followers online, large rooms, designer purses, bags and jewellery and it’s all paid for by playing computer games.
China boasts the largest internet population in the world: more than 731 million Chinese people are online, according to government officials in January. But until recently, many computer games were not available here. Between 2000 and 2015, console games were banned in China. Gaming was viewed as “digital heroin” by government officials. Yet today there are an estimated 170 million e-sports players and fans in the country.
China makes up more than half of the global e-sports audience. More than 500 million people worldwide watch other people play video games. By some estimates the video game industry could be worth $35bn (£26.4bn) by 2021. And more people watch gaming in China than live in many European nations. For many e-athletes, it’s catapulted them into fame and fortune.
For many male e-athletes, anyway.
Some male players earn up to $2m (£1.5m) a year in prize money. Yet professional female gamers command more modest incomes.
“In the past when we played games in competitions, onlookers would say, these girls play really badly. They would mock us and say they should play and that we should get off the stage,” says Shan Chen, a 20-year-old team member, who sports dyed cropped hair and square framed glasses.
Shan Chen earned her stripes playing in internet cafes in her home town of Wuhan in central China. She would out-play young men who tried to stop female players from even entering the internet bars.
Now Chinese female gamers want professional leagues of their own. Male e-sports players have established leagues that guarantee them an income, yet women-only competitions are more sporadic and spread out through out the year.
Ding Ding is the only Korean player in the team and a star signing. She moved to China to pursue her dream of playing professionally.
“There are no female teams in Korea at the moment, but in China there are. It’s more organised here. I have improved a lot here,” she says. “But compared to male teams, it’s still not enough,” she adds.
Both Ding Ding and Shan Chen were keen athletes as school. Shan Chen was a competitive table tennis player growing up, while Ding Ding trained as a gymnast before suffering a knee injury. They treat e-sports with the same level of intensity as any other sport. They train seven hours a day and live, work and eat as part of a team.
“There’s still a long way to go if we wanted to get to a similar level with male teams,” says Ding Ding. She hopes that in the future men and women will be able to compete in the same side.
Members of LLG are funded by an e-sport enthusiast turned investor. Each member is paid between $1,200 and $2,200 a month (£908 to £1,664), which is more than double the earnings of an average Chinese university graduate. Many gamers also earn income through self broadcasting, presenting and streaming their games for online payment. Some argue that it encourages the mainly male audience members to focus on their looks rather than ability. Many women also face discrimination and harassment online.
“Men and women should be equal. I feel that girls can also play games well. They shouldn’t look at us with tainted glasses,” Shan Chen adds.
LLG is part of China’s post-1990s generation. They have grown up in an era of rapid economic advancement. But in many ways, they grew up rebellious. Defying odds, they turned their hobbies into professions, dropping out of education to pursue a career in cyber-space. A generation earlier, they may have been seen as problem children.
But the life span of professional players in China is relatively short. The repetitive nature of the sport takes its toll on the athletes. Their gaming abilities rely on rapid hand movement and reaction times using the keyboard and mouse. Gamers usually compete for just four to five years before becoming injury-prone, which forces them into retirement.
For now though, LLG are continuing to pursue their dream of playing video games professionally – and they’re not letting gender barriers stop them.
By Danny Vincent