I’m willing to bet you’ve never heard of the most popular game in the world. Odds are you probably don’t know much about its developer either, which owns League of Legends developer Riot Games, more than 80% of Clash of Clans developer Supercell, nearly half of PC legend Epic Games, and roughly a quarter of Activision Blizzard.
Arena of Valor, developed by Chinese tech giant Tencent, has a ludicrous amount of people playing it. Its player base mirrors the similarly ludicrous reach of the company that makes it, which recently became the 10th largest company in the world overall. While Arena of Valor has only just started stretching outside of China, the mobile MOBA has over 200 million registered players and regularly hits 80 million daily active users.
By comparison, it absolutely dwarfs even its closest western competitors. Overwatch (which, again, Tencent owns a piece of) only recently hit 35 million players globally. Even at the peak of its infectious popularity, Pokemon Go hit just over half of the unique users Arena of Valor gets on any given day.
But perhaps the most impressive part of Arena of Valor is just how fun it is. It shares a lot of its DNA with League of Legends, and before playing, it was simple enough for me to imagine what a streamlined, mobile version of that might be like. The game I pictured didn’t sound too appealing. But Tencent haven’t just made it work; they’ve made it work great.
It truly feels like League of Legends in a bite-sized form. The touch controls on my iPhone worked shockingly well, with ability buttons turning into a joystick to aim with when you hold them down. The matches are a short 10-15 minutes, but still manage to feel like they have a beginning, middle, and end-game. I was expecting a genre shoehorned onto a platform it wasn’t designed for, but instead it feels right at home.
This already wildly popular game coming to Switch could be explosive in the West.
Additionally, a lot of mechanics that would otherwise be cumbersome on mobile have been simplified without being entirely removed. Last hitting minions for gold is still there, but you also get apartial reward just for being nearby. There’s an elaborate item shop with complex build paths to explore, but now you can buy items on the go and preset order you buy them for each hero. It even has map pings, text chat, and voice chat to communicate with your team, though that last one is mercifully turned off by default.
Arena of Valor had its first Western launch this August in Europe, where it’s already picking up steam, and it was just announced that the mobile version will be coming to North America (as well as Latin America) tomorrow, December 19. Tencent is a company with considerable resources, but are planning to take their marketing of the game slowly rather than buying up every billboard and Twitch ad you see – but once the ball starts rolling it seems unlikely they’ll let it stop.
Somewhat surprisingly, Tencent revealed during a Nintendo Direct in September that Arena of Valor would also be leaving its mobile-only roots to launch on the Switch this winter. While the phrase “free-to-play mobile MOBA esport” can cause many people’s brains to immediately shut off, the idea of this already wildly popular game coming to Switch could be explosive in the West.
Stranger still, Batman – yes, that Batman – is a hero in this game, with Wonder Woman, Superman, The Joker, and other officially licensed DC Comics characters alongside him – though they’ll all be arriving in post-launch updates for North America. While the original version of Arena of Valor has a variety of Chinese mythological and historical figures as playable heroes, Tencent decided they would be too unfamiliar in other regions and reskinned them to be the more globally recognized superheroes.
It’s not hard to see current MOBA players losing hours of their life to Arena of Valor.
The whole game is a strange amalgamation of things I’ve seen elsewhere, with much of Arena of Valor’s aesthetic and style clearly rooted in Tencent’s other outrageously popular MOBA, League of Legends. If I wasn’t familiar with the history behind the company, it would be easy to mistake the whole thing as an asset-grabbing knock-off, even though that’s not the case at all.
Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to play Arena of Valor on Switch, and I’m not sure Tencent is even entirely clear on how that will look yet – for example, whether or not your accounts are linked across the mobile and Switch versions is an incredibly important question left unanswered. Additionally, Arena of Valor leans heavily on touch controls, which will still work on Switch, but I’m generally curious how the translation to real joysticks will hold up.
It’s not hard to see current MOBA players losing hours of their life in Arena of Valor, but the short matches and handy new player tools mean its appeal will likely spread further than just the hardcore fans. It distills an incredibly complex game type into something digestible without sacrificing the competitive heart of it. And when it does come to Switch, it will cement itself as a game that’s very hard to ignore.