Hong Kong’s esports festival brought together top players from the three biggest esports games in the world. There was a glitzy stage show, a live DJ, and 80,000 visitors.

So why did it feel so empty?

On day one, only a third of the seats were taken.

It’s important to note that Hong Kong wants to become an esports hub. They spent US$5 million on the three-day festival and budgeted $12.7 million to promote esports this year.

In theory, the city has plenty of advantages. It’s easily accessible by air and most people from the West don’t need a visa to visit. And Hong Kong has a history of hosting world-class conventions and events, like Art Basel or the Rugby Sevens.

But what Hong Kong doesn’t really have is a strong sporting culture. Even the Rugby Sevens is as much about the party as it is about the sport.

Hong Kong kids just don’t grow up to be sports stars. And apparently, they don’t want to be esports stars, either: One survey by a local NGO found that 80% of kids don’t want to pursue a career in esports.

But Roy Kwong, the founder of Kowloon Estadium, says hosting events like this could be Hong Kong’s way in.

“We don’t have world-class talents. That’s the reality,” he said, “But what we can do is to provide quality service for tournaments and such. And we need people to understand that and be part of the industry.”

Big games, big names

The festival brought together events for three of the most popular games in esports: PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG), League of Legends (LoL) and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO).

The CS:GO tournament was actually fun to watch. But it was hard to find its stream online. (Picture: EMFHK)

There were about 5,000 seats set up to watch the esports tournament. It impressed me at first glance. Lighting, giveaways, broadcasting set-up; it all felt slick and professional.

But then the League of Legends tournament started. And a large number of seats remained empty.

To be clear, the League of Legends tournament was not just some nameless opening act. Although it featured retired pros, the lineup was still star-studded, including NA LCS legends like Dyrus and Hai.

Given the talent on show, given the fancy decorations, given the live DJ they hired for the event… seeing those empty seats was pretty awkward.

In fairness, it did improve over the weekend. But despite the draw of PUBG, the headline event, at best I estimated that only 60% of seats were taken.

What made that sight all the more surprising was that both the organisers and fellow attendees say that tickets for the event were sold out.

So where was everybody?

Why watch when you can play?

One of the answers was on the other side of the hall.

Along with the esports tournaments, the other part of the festival was a sort of mini gaming expo, where companies had booths for attendees to play games.

Sony allowed attendees to play the new Spider-Man game for PS4 weeks before release, while HTC brought a bunch of Vive VR headsets -- something hard for people to experience at home in space-starved Hong Kong.

This area was a lot busier than the esports area. But just as I was starting to feel encouraged by this festival, I ran out of stuff to do. After only ten minutes, I realized that this section was disappointingly small.

Put it this way: When drinks company Monster Energy has one of the biggest booths, you know this wasn’t taken too seriously by any major players.

On the flipside, arguably one of the most popular esports events took place in this section: The PUBG Mobile booth had amateur tournaments -- including an females-only event, won by a team called Nova. They were just as surprised as anyone to win, given that they only formed the team the week before.

(I might have asked for a picture with them. You know, in the name of reporting.)

The PUBG Mobile booth where all-girl amateur teams duked it out was the most visited area of the festival.

The future of esports in Hong Kong

I might sound negative here. But I’m not trying to be.

It’s hard to argue that Hong Kong is up there with places like Shanghai as an esports venue. It just isn’t. After all, Shanghai was just selected as the venue for next year’s The International Dota 2 tournament -- the first time the richest tournament in esports will take place outside North America.

But at the same time, this festival was something Hong Kong only experienced for the first time last year. It takes time to build something from scratch… and there are plenty of lessons to be learned.

Many of my friends were shocked that Dyrus and Hai were in Hong Kong. I guess the ads didn’t reach them. (Picture: EMFHK)

Kowloon Estadium’s Kwong says the organizers focused on getting big-name esports players from the West -- players who may not be a draw for a regional audience.

“Events in Hong Kong have to serve esports fans from southern China and Southeast Asia. Forget about North America,” Kwong said.

Mark Chu, the vice chairman of the Hong Kong Game Development Association, said that the game demo booths overshadowed the esports tournament -- showing that the city has a lot to learn about hosting esports matches.

But he thinks there’s an appetite for more esports in Hong Kong.

“Many citizens are still not familiar with professional gaming. But if we have more amateur esports events, that might help the festival grow. ”