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Why hardcore gaming phones are now a thing

In less than a year, we have seen several hardcore gaming phones announced and/or released. But what caused this trend, and will it burn out?

Published onJune 13, 2018

ASUS Rog Phone gaming smartphone in hands from behind in half case.

Playing games on our mobile phones has been popular for a long time, but for the most part popular games are pretty casual fare, like Angry BirdsCandy Crush, or Pokémon Go. Plenty of Android games are more hardcore than those franchises, but they haven’t gotten nearly as much mainstream attention.

Read: Best kids games for Android

However, in less than a year, companies either released or announced several new smartphones designed specifically for gaming. These aren’t for playing Candy Crush, but rather for graphically intensive titles with deeper gameplay like Shadowgun Legends, Vainglory, and yes, battle royale games like PUBG Mobile (with Fortnite hopefuly coming soon to Android).

Razer Phone - gaming smartphones

While we have seen smartphones made primarily for playing games in the past, none of them managed to find a big audience (we’re looking at you, Nokia N-Gage and Sony Xperia Play). Razer’s had huge success selling gaming laptops and accessories for the PC market, and in 2017 it entered the smartphone space. The Razer Phone not only had high-end hardware like 8GB of RAM and the fastest (at the time) mobile processor, it also threw in features like a 120Hz display and what it called Ultramotion, which supposedly adjusted the frame rate of your games to match the screen’s refresh rate, so there’s less screen tearing.

Read: Here are the best phones for gaming

While Razer has not revealed sales figures for its first phone, there’s no indication it was a financial failure like the Essential Phone, which also launched in 2017 . Indeed, in 2018 even more gaming smartphones have popped up. Most of them are being sold and marketed in China, such as the Xiaomi Black Shark, and the nubia REDMAGIC, and more recently the HONOR Play.

Later this year ASUS plans to launch the ROG Phone, which has impressive features like a 90Hz display and an overclocked Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip. The phone will also be sold with accessories like a dock that will add a secondary display for the phone, a gamepad for adding console-like controls, and another dock for connecting a monitor, keyboard, and mouse for PC-like gameplay.

There’s no indication gaming phones are going away in the short term, but what prompted their release in the first place?

Mobile gaming is massive in China

As we mentioned before, many of these new gaming phones are aimed at China and other Asian markets. There’s a big reason for that: mobile gaming is huge in that part of the world at the moment. Indeed, a recent study claimed mobile gaming revenues in China hit $14.6 billion in 2017. That’s nearly twice the revenue of mobile games in the U.S. in the same year. Another study found overall worldwide revenues from mobile gaming in 2017 were 2.3 times higher than from PC and Mac games, and 3.6 times higher than revenues from console games.

Chinese companies like Tencent have achieved tons of success by releasing popular mobile games like Arena of Valor, which now has 200 million registered players and over 80 million daily active users, all on mobile devices. The launch of PUBG Mobile and Fortnite for mobile devices earlier this year has boosted hardcore mobile gaming even more. These kinds of games simply won’t run on smartphones with 1GB of RAM and a slow processor. Players who want to compete with their friends need phones with higher hardware specs, and so far, gaming phones have had some of the highest specs of any Android handset. Indeed, the ASUS ROG Phone is the current champ for all Android phones in terms of hardware, with its overclocked processor, 8GB of RAM, and as much as 512GB of onboard storage.

Mobile esports is also gaining in popularity

Along with the rise in hardcore mobile gaming in Asia, we have also seen a huge boost in popularity for pro esports tournaments and events made for mobile gaming. The developers and publishers for games like Mobile Legends, Vainglory and Arena of Valor have hosted official tournaments where players compete for lots of prize money, and that trend doesn’t look like it’s slowing down. Indeed, the official Arena of Valor playoffs are being held in Los Angeles this week at E3 2018, with Razer providing its own gaming phones for the tournament.

It makes sense for Razer, which already has a ton of experience sponsoring esports players, teams and tournaments in the console and PC markets, to expand and include mobile esports as well. Showing off how well your hardware handles hardcore games is an excellent marketing scheme, and could lead to even more sales of that phone. That kind of lesson will not be lost on other smartphone makers looking for new ways to promote and sell their products to an ever growing hardcore gaming audience. The rise of battle royale games in the mobile esports space will keep that trend going.

Playing hardcore games on normal mobile phones can be tough

huawei p20 pro vs samsung galaxy s9 quick look aa (10 of 10)

Flagship phones with high-end specs like the OnePlus 6, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus, and the HUAWEI P20 Plus can all run graphically detailed games just as well as the new gaming phones, but phones even a little weaker can struggle. If you have tried to play a game like PUBG Mobile for longer than a few minutes with a mid-tier phone, you likely struggled with overheating or even just using touch screen-based controls.

Some new gaming phones try to make things easier for gamers who want to spend hours on their phone. Both the Xioami Black Shark and the nubia REDMAGIC claim to have better internal cooling setups, with the Black Shark adding an actual liquid cooling system similar to those found in many gaming PCs. The ASUS ROG Phone will be sold with its own external cooling add-on when it launches.

Read Next: Hands on with the ASUS ROG

The ROG Phone will have optional gamepad and dock accessories for gamers, and the Black Shark is also available with a similar gamepad dock. In other words, turning those smartphones into something closer to portable consoles is on the minds of many smartphone makers, and it could bring more gamers to those phones, leaving behind mainstream devices like the Galaxy S9 and OnePlus 6.

Smartphone makers can make more money from gaming smartphones

Budget smartphones may sell more units, but the profit margins from those sales are razer thin. Selling phones with higher hardware specs with mid-range or higher prices brings in more profit, even if they don’t sell as many units. Gaming phones are still mostly priced in the mid-range, so they are affordable for gamers and can still make money for the phone manufacturers.

Gaming phones can stand out from standard phones with little effort

gaming phones like Xiaomi Black Shark are increasingly popular

It’s becoming harder for smartphone makers to release new products that truly look and act different from the competition. Sometimes, that’s by design. The “notch” on the iPhone X has led to a ton of copycats. However, these gaming smartphones have new looks and features to make them stand out.

The REDMAGIC has an angled back and a horizontal LED light that can be one of 16 million color options. The Black Shark also has LED lights inside its logo on the back, and a different angled form factor. It costs very little to make these kinds of changes, but they make handsets stand out from a crowded market full of thin phones with nearly bezel-free displays.

Final thoughts

ROG Kunai Gamepad
First generation gamepad

Hardcore gaming phones certainly look promising. Their unique features and looks, along with improved gaming performance, could pull the rabid and growing mobile gaming audience away from mainstream flagship phones. Only time will tell if this trend will stick around or flame out like we have seen with other mobile trends in the past.

What do you think of the current gaming smartphones trend? Are you interested in buying one or are you happy gaming on your more mainstream phone? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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