LOS ANGELES -- TCL Chinese Theatre has witnessed fandom a lot. Avengers assembling or Stormtroopers marching for a premiere is what the historic landmark calls a Monday. Between snapping photos of the Hollywood Walk of Fame stars and documenting three Peter Parkers in a real-life Spider-men pointing meme, a man in a tie-dyed T-shirt tilted his head upon seeing the "Arena of Valor World Cup" posters above the entrance.
"What is going on here?" He asked the dozens lining up at the door, tossing his hands in disbelief. "What kind of World Cup is this?"
Inside, Korean fans are chanting "Dae Han Min Guk (The Great Korea)" at the same volume that rocked Kazan Arena when their national soccer team upset Germany in the FIFA World Cup four Saturdays ago. The cheers were loud enough to drown out the shoutcasters' trembling voices describing how swiftly Team Korea took down the Abyssal Dragon and Chinese Taipei, their opponents across the stage.
A common elevator pitch for Area of Valor is "League of Legends on iPhones." It looks and plays exactly like how it sounds. From the color scheme, user interface, game mechanics to the font of "Victory" at the end. It is also a borderline carbon copy of the original game on the Chinese server, titled Honor of Kings or Kings of Glory, depending on which translator you ask.
The game was so popular on the other side of Pacific Ocean that the developer had to enforce a playing time limit on the sub-18 population of the 200 million active users.
Tencent Games also distributes Honor of Kings, and its parent company owns Riot Games. In China, the Honor of Kings Pro League, better known as KPL, just concluded its spring split as a franchised league three weeks ago in a grand finale that filled up the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. Since Arena of Valor's launch last December, Tencent has added patches and updates tailored for North America, like reskinning the Chinese folklore hero Guan Yu into Superman. The World Cup would be one of the many steps Tencent is taking to localize its success in mobile esports.
Tanner "Rest" Scadden downloaded Arena of Valor on launch day at the App Store. The 20-year-old from Orem, Utah, was working at a hospital construction site when he and his teammates shot up the leaderboard. After fending off several offers received over Twitter, Rest's clan joined Team Allegiance and qualified for the World Cup with a win at the E3 Valor Series.
"I did some research on it, on how successful it is in Asia, and I decided that I'd like to be part of that," Rest said. "Arena of Valor is just really fun, and we knew that it has huge success in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and China. We thought it'd get big here too."
With the other four members of Team Allegiance scattered across three time zones, playing on iPhone 8 Pluses makes it easier for them to schedule scrims. Accessibility is a huge draw for Rest, who lost plenty of time to League of Legends in high school but moved onto mobile titles like Vainglory after moving out of his parent' house and selling the gaming PC to his brother.
The accessibility card might as well serve as Arena of Valor's AD Carry. For Ramon Hermann, Tencent America's director of esports, it means players can start an LAN party everywhere with cell phones in their pockets and enjoy the game whether they rank bronze or master.
"I feel like the game does a good job easing you into it, where it doesn't feel nearly as hardcore or toxic as, say, Dota 2 or something," Hermann said. "To get into that game as a new player these days is really tough. You almost need a friend who's willing to guide you through the experience. ... Arena of Valor is a lot more forgiving for beginners' level."
Hermann started his career in esports at Blizzard, back "when it was called cyber games competition because the term esports didn't exist, and nobody knew what to call this kind of events." His resume also includes being part of the Riot team that struck a deal with Big Ten Network, the first of its kind in collegiate esports.
His vision for Arena of Valor as an esport title goes beyond the top level of competition like the World Cup.
"What does Tier 2 and Tier 3 look like? What does Little League look like? What does college look like? Maybe high school? All those different aspects, I think that's just going to grow the entire space and ecosystem," Hermann said. "Hopefully when another World Cup comes around, there will be growing interest in seeing what that's going to be like."
On the caster's booth, Jeff "SuiJeneris" Chau shares Hermann's optimism on mobile esports. For him, the community in NA is small enough for him to work as the general manager and head of mobile for Immortals by day, and do play-by-play at events. On his agenda after the world cup writes Indonesia in August, where he will cast Clash Royale and Arena of Valor exhibition matches at the Asian Games.
"I feel like Asia is leading the way, and the West is following about one or two years later," Hermann said. "The West is always following one or two years later."
The potential of mobile sports is convincing enough for Immortals to add teams in Clash Royale and Arena of Valor. Like their teammates in PC and console games, they live in a team house and commute to the Immortals campus to train and practice. Even though the team fell to Scadden's Team Allegiance in the Valor Series finals and failed to qualify for the world cup, seeing a standing-room only ESL arena at E 3 pointed Chau to a bright future for the mobile MOBA.
"I think for mobile, it has the highest potential to be a breakout success. We've seen that happen. It took about like seven months, for King's Honor to become what it is today... It's a historic landmark in LA," Chau said as he looked up to the ceiling. "For the game to the world cup in North America, it's signaling to organizations that are based in North America or the west that we are here to stay in North America, and we are here to invest in North America and EU, western audience."