Szechuan, Southwest China. Lying comfortably on a gray sofa, Yang Xiuzhong stares intently at her smartphone, watching every movement of the colorful little characters whistling across her screen. It’s late, almost midnight, and while many 52-year-old working mothers might think about going to bed, Ian excitedly yells at her teammates while playing the hit mobile game Honor of Kings.
Like most 4.8 million live streamers in China broadcasting their gameplay, Yang plays almost non-stop. The anxiety she feels when she loses is only matched when she sees her views drop.
In addition to being an above-average amateur, Yang has carved out a niche for herself among the legion of eSports livestreamers, not only being one of the oldest Honor of Kings gamers, but also regularly livestreaming with her 29-year-old daughter Wu. Sit. They call themselves “the most powerful mother-daughter duo” in live broadcasts.
China is home to around 720 million gamers, 52% of which are men, according to Niko Partners, a market research firm that focuses on gaming in Asia and the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Chinese CNG market researcher estimates only 4.6% are 55 years of age or older, although this number is gradually increasing.
As a standout, Yang’s mastery of the game has earned her no small amount of recognition. In 2022, she won the Honor of Kings regional eSports tournament, earning the title of Most Valuable Player. Her performance shook social networks. “Whether you’re playing Honor of Kings, live streaming or playing in a nationally recognized competition, gender and age are never an issue if you have a dream,” she said. said at the official award ceremony.
Hailing from the southwestern province of Sichuan, Yang is a longtime gaming enthusiast. Before the advent of mobile gaming, she played a wide variety of board games and was often obsessed with increasing her rating. Ten years ago, when the multiplayer farming simulation game “Happy Farm” was popular, she found that adding new contacts on QQ, the Chinese instant messaging app, allowed her to get ahead faster. “I added as many strangers as I could, but not for communication,” she says. “It just meant I could steal their vegetables.”
When her daughter first recommended that she play Honor of Kings in 2016, Yang immediately downloaded the game and absorbed its complex mechanics that match her tenacious personality. “Normal games are too easy and boring for me,” she tells Sixth Tone.
“Honor of Kings” belongs to the category of multiplayer online battle arenas, a subgenre of strategy games that require nimble fingers to accurately control characters and quickly react to changes in the battle situation. After initially struggling with the pace of the game, Young began to improve her skills by watching others play online and gradually developed her abilities by playing characters with secondary roles on the battlefield. “The best part about this game is that it caters to players of all genders and ages,” she says. “As players, we can always find a character that fits our personality.”
Wu credits her mother’s enthusiasm and time commitment for the speed with which she grasped the game’s controls and characters. Sometimes she would find her mother still playing online around 3 am. However, instead of advising her to go to bed, Wu joined her.
By this point, Wu had already left her job at a state-owned enterprise to become a broadcaster in 2020. Jan, confident that she can beat most of the other amateurs, decides to join her in 2o22. They were surprised by the near-instant increase in attendance to their stream: the average number of viewers tripled every time the mother and daughter played together.
“A lot of viewers tell me they want their parents to play this game with them. They adore my daughter,” says Ian, adding that she feels the live broadcast highlights their close relationship. “Winning the game is not the goal; having fun together is.”
However, not all online reviews were friendly. “Some say I’m setting a bad example as a parent,” she says with a wry smile. Others made fun of her for her age.
Yang also says that she constantly hears about conflicts between her young fans and their parents in game chats. To ease the tension, she suggests they play games together or watch her live stream, but most are reluctant to follow her advice.
She believes the root of the argument is that parents often don’t do enough to learn about their child’s life and interests, and therefore don’t build constructive communication. “Instead of just telling them not to play, they can ask them what the game is about, or distract them from the game by offering to do other things together,” Yang suggests.
When Yang entered the tournament in 2022, it was simply a gift she asked her daughter to join her. But with the increased attention following her win, Young found herself taking part in a variety of activities, from participating in professional training sessions and exhibition matches against eSports stars to media interviews. “She knows she’s a bit famous now,” Wu says.
Despite the attention and recent life-changing events, the 52-year-old mother tells Sixth Tone that what she values most is the time she spends with Wu every day. “She means everything to me. All my energy goes to her,” says Ian.
Since her birth, Wu Yang has tried a wide range of businesses to help her family stay afloat, from running a street food stall to running a teahouse. “We, the poorest, couldn’t even afford to buy a roll of toilet paper,” she says.
When Wu was old enough to start high school, Yang left the city in search of higher paying jobs in other provinces. “I was doing what a lot of male workers were doing at the time,” she says, explaining that she worked about nine hours a day carrying rebar on construction sites.
In addition to the economic difficulties, there was an emotional break with her husband, who, according to Jan, lacked neither the passion nor the ability to improve the family’s living conditions. “I think she was disappointed because my father was not someone she could rely on and he had no intention of improving,” Wu says, recalling that her parents argued a lot when she was a child.
Wu is the person Yang talks to when she feels tired or unhappy. “We’re more like friends than mother and daughter,” Jan says. The couple talked every day while she worked on the construction site.
Wu says Yang is happy to learn all about her life and hobbies. This habit used to upset Wu, but she later found it understandable after putting herself in Yang’s shoes. “She never really interferes in your life, she just wants to know what you’re doing,” she says.
In Wu Yang’s eyes, she is an open mother. When she quit her job at the company and decided to become an on-air presenter—an act of rebellion, according to many relatives—Ian didn’t hesitate to support the decision. “My mom says that when you’re a kid, your life is pointless if it’s too stable.”
After Wu changed careers, Yang took care of her both in and out of the world. At first, she monitored the live stream account as an assistant, and later live streamed with Wu or took care of her grandson while Wu played online by himself. However, Wu often worries about Yang’s health as he usually insists on joining her nightly live broadcasts. “My biggest hope is that one day the game will become just a hobby for her again,” she says.
She is happy to see that her mother has become more open and independent, because becoming a champion has opened up a bigger world for her. Last year, Yang formed a team of senior gamers and flew to Nanjing, in the eastern province of Jiangsu, to play an exhibition match with a professional eSports team.
In the arena, Jan fondly remembers how the crowd cheered her and her teammates on. To mark the occasion, she took home a commemorative plaque from the event and placed it on her balcony. “It says, ‘Keep playing.’ It speaks to my heart,” she says.
Contributed by Huang Yang.
(Header image: A screenshot shows Yang Xurong and Wu Xijia playing during the live broadcast.)