Mobile Legends: Bang Bang (MLBB) is one of the biggest esports titles in the world right now, even though it’s a mobile twist on the familiar MOBA formula created originally for PC. According to data platform Esports Charts, MLBB is the third most popular esports game in the world by peak viewers, with a larger peak audience record than CS:GO, Dota 2 and VALORANT, trailing only behind League of Legends and another mobile game, Free Fire.
The game’s immense popularity is due largely to the fact that MLBB is hugely popular in Southeast Asia. A regional tournament for the SEA region reached more than 3.6m peak viewers in June 2023, and the M World Championships are regularly one of the top global events by viewership. For all intents and purposes, MLBB is doing very well — but its popularity in Asia is strongly contrasted by its lack of presence in other major markets.
Moonton, the developer of MLBB, aims to change that with the MPL MENA, a regional league in the fast-growing MENA region, one of the most popular places in the world for esports brands right now. MPL MENA is a young league that started out in early 2022 with the MPL MENA Spring 2022. The league has yet to see peak viewership break the 10,000 viewer mark after four splits played.
To dissect the past, present and future of MPL MENA, Esports Insider sat down with Jaime Cruz, Head of Esports for MENA and South Asia at MOONTON Games. Cruz spoke to Esports Insider after the first competitive round of the league was over, and noted that the new Fall 2023 season is seeing increases in viewership across all metrics when compared to the Spring season.
Fall 2023 saw more average viewers (3,190 compared to 1,390) and more than double the amount of hours watched than Fall 2022 (230,000 compared to 101,000), but peak viewership still hovered around 8,000 viewers.
The current season saw changes in the competitive structure of the event take place, with the best team from Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the GCC region securing a spot in the playoffs along with the team that gathered the most points during the regular season. This, according to Cruz, is a major change that should provide more diversity and representation in the finals, hopefully making the league more interesting for viewers.
Another change for this season would be the inclusion of Team Falcons, arguably one of the best-known regional teams, to the league. Cruz said that the inclusion of Falcons is “very strong proof” that there is much more interest in both the region and the league. The Falcons already made considerable success in their first split, and were one of the most-watched teams during the season.
Threefold approach to increasing viewership
Still, getting just Team Falcons on board will not make MPL MENA the most-watched MLBB league ever, a fact that Cruz knows very well. He notes that MOONTON aims to take a threefold approach to increasing viewership.
The first is to have more compelling storytelling for teams. In order to be a fan of a team or a player, there would need to be a connection or a relatable story that the fans can latch onto to be consistent fans of teams and players. MOONTON said it is working with the teams to provide them with assistance in creating better content to make sure fans can fall in love with the teams and the players who play for them.
The second part is more educational content about the league and the game itself. “We learned that more casual players have a strong affinity for educational content about the game, because at the end of the day, if you play the game you want to improve and get better on a consistent basis,” Cruz explained.
“I think being able to create content that allows our player base to become better at the game by providing builds and guides with our professional players as the source of information would help compel these casual players to start tuning into the league.”
Cruz added that this educational approach focuses on creating more content and approaching fans through the platforms they engage on, such as community groups which gather both offline and online, and provide them with more MLBB activations. This outgoing approach to fans is the third way the company aims to get more people to become fans of the league.
Enlisting help: VOV Gaming and Team Falcons
To further boost engagement, the company partnered with Saudi Arabian esports company VOV Gaming. The gaming venue company is owned by Savvy Games Group, the owners of ESL FACEIT Group, and operates a large gaming and esports venue in Riyadh, the country’s capital. The partnership already saw the LAN finals of the fall split take place in the VOV Gaming venue, but Cruz noted that using the spaces as venues for esports events is just a part of the partnership.
“Another aspect of this is having VOV’s facilities be of use to interested members of the MLBB community to utilise and deploy. We want to use the VOV Gaming spaces as spaces where we can have the MLBB community in Saudi Arabia together for different offline events, such as community tournaments or watch parties.”
Another aspect of making the MPL MENA more competitive is simply to have better and stronger teams. Right now, the best teams of the MPL MENA go to compete in the SEA Cup, one of the strongest tournaments in MLBB, as well as the ONE Esports MPL Invitational and the M5 World Championships.
Team Falcons, for example, participated in both the ONE Esports Invitational and the M5 Wildcard stage and finished third in their Wildcard group and ninth at the ONE Esports Invitational. These results show promise, but also clearly demonstrate that the region needs further improvement. Cruz noted that there still is a gap in the skill of the MENA teams and the SEA teams, but the calibre of teams that compete in each split tends to improve.
“I think over time, as we are able to progress through more seasons of MPL MENA, and as we are able to provide more platforms for the teams to be able to compete competitively, whether through more first-party competitive circuits or third party initiatives, I am very confident in saying that our teams will slowly catch up to the best teams in the world,” Cruz added.
Kickstarting a regional interest in mobile MOBAs
The MENA region is not known as a mobile-first region nor a MOBA-favouring region, which makes Moonton’s idea of growing a large league here even harder, especially when compared to the SEA region where mobile is historically the most popular platform for gaming. Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia have, as Cruz puts it, years of experience in MOBAs and mobile games, and an inherent culture of playing mobile MOBA games, which is a major catalyst for MLBB’s growth in the region.
With MENA, education is still needed on mobile gaming and the MOBA genre in itself — a problem Moonton says it will tackle with a “bottom-to-top” approach of educating and supporting the grassroots scene first.
“Instead of trying to get as many big teams and players into the league, we want to start small first with focusing our efforts towards building out community, creating more grassroots events and organically getting more people to play MLBB and compete in MPL MENA.”
This also means that some of the new teams might not be on the same level as more reputable organisations such as the aforementioned Team Falcons. Cruz said that Moonton aims to combat this by providing organisations with resources and support, especially with content creation.
He added that Moonton aims to cross promote the teams, drive awareness and interest towards them so they can build their fan bases. The company also takes experiences and lessons learned from its more established markets and tries to adapt them to MENA.
“Candidly speaking, at the end of the day, we would want to make sure that the teams and players that participate in our league are also able to sustain themselves. If they can’t, then it’s also a loss for us because we’re not able to keep these teams and players in our ecosystem. I think given the movements of some markets and some key stakeholders in the markets pushing more gaming and esports within their countries, I’m optimistic that our teams will be able to sustain themselves. “
For Moonton and the MPL MENA leadership, attention is now turned towards the M5 World Championship. After that starts the new Spring Split of the MPL MENA, which Moonton hopes will bring much-needed attention to the game in arguably its most challenging project to date.