A black market has emerged for Tencent’s mobile smash hit, Honour of Kings. People are selling their services – helping people level up, or gain better weapons or avatars – to those who don’t have the time to get these things themselves.
Last week, ace-player-hire Huang Zhibin helped a Shenzhen business owner slay foes in the early hours of the morning. Then he played the game for a university student from Hong Kong, and later, an office lady in Beijing.
The League of Legends-like game is feeding an underground market for battle-tested coaches who help newbies climb up the rankings, either via ready-made accounts, or by logging onto their social media profiles and helping them level up.
With more than 200 million players hooked, the world’s top-grossing iOS mobile game in July has created a class system in real life. Mums, students and office workers find out their colleagues’ and friends’ ratings by linking their accounts to WeChat. On Honour of Kings, it’s become a race to impress – and many will pay for status.
“These people have busy daytime jobs, and not all of them have the skills, but no one wants to be laughed at,” said Huang, who has helped almost 200 people boost their rankings in less than a year. By day, Huang, 26, works as a rail mechanic in Fujian. By night, he charges a one-time fee of about 2,000 yuan to help newbies gain a coveted “Supreme King” label within a week.
“Now you have office workers, businessmen who want to wow their friends,” said Huang, who can make 10,000 yuan a month – more than double his regular salary.
In Honour of Kings, players typically fight in teams of five through a battle arena against real opponents. The game is free to download and play, with Tencent getting money from users paying to upgrade their powers. The risk is that instead of buying from Tencent, money flows to the black market, said Jelle Kooistra, head of mobile at gaming consultant Newzoo.
“I would strongly advise game developers that recognise these problems to clearly signal that account trading is not allowed,” Kooistra said. “If not, in-game spending can slowly drift away from official to non-official channels, particularly among those who spend the most.”
A spokeswoman for Tencent didn’t respond to multiple messages requesting comment.
It’s unclear how large the underground market has grown, but on e-commerce sites like Alibaba’s Taobao there are shops offering similar services. With Tencent restricting playing time for children in response to government criticism, merchants are selling fake WeChat IDs for 40 yuan each. Even the game’s own official message board is full of notices offering private lessons on how to rise through the game.
One of Huang’s earliest customers was Jewin Zhu, a 36-year-old Chinese property developer in Sydney who spotted his ad on a forum. Zhu was stuck, unable to master the “assassin” avatar he favoured and feeling he needed it to maintain his social circle since the game serves as an ice-breaker or bonding exercise for newly made WeChat acquaintances.
“The main reason I still play this game is purely for the purpose of social networking,” said Zhu, who owns at least six accounts so he has the appropriate ones to match his business contacts. “When you meet someone new, this is the easiest way to bridge a connection.”
While the terms of service for the game bans accounts suspected of paying others to play for them, Tencent hasn’t taken any public action against these practices. That may have to change as Tencent prepares to debut its biggest in-house title in the US. While dominant on its home turf, the company has yet to demonstrate an ability to woo foreign audiences. Its biggest overseas hits – Riot Games Inc.’s League of Legends and Supercell Oy’s Clash of Clans among them – were acquired at a huge cost.
Till then, Huang is making a good income from his side gig. While some clients seek private tutoring, others want him to play on their behalf. The latter group hand over their WeChat details so Huang can temporarily assume their identities. That’s no casual sacrifice: like Facebook, WeChat is the first resort for millions booking rides, ordering food or just looking up news, and comes with a digital wallet and entire contact list.
But to many it’s a small price to pay, and Huang says their private information is of no value or interest to him. For those worried about money stored on WeChat, Huang advises them to set up payment passwords so he can’t move their funds. He says he hasn’t encountered complaints so far. Indeed, Huang’s more worried about the competition, which is getting fiercer as the underground market grows. He’s had to lower his fees just to beat back rivals.
“Too many people are offering the same service these days,” he complains. “That’s why word of mouth is very important.”