Forrest Li is the founder and CEO of Garena, the company behind one of the world‘s most popular mobile games – Free Fire. Under Li‘s leadership, Garena has gone from a fledgling startup to a gaming giant worth billions of dollars, largely driven by the meteoric success of their battle royale hit.
Garena‘s Founding Story
Forrest Li first conceived Garena (a portmanteau of “global” and “arena”) in 2009 as an online platform for multiplayer gaming. Born in China, Li moved to Singapore to establish Garena because of the country‘s friendlier business environment.
The company started by partnering with game publishers and brands like Riot Games, Electronic Arts and Activision to launch their titles in Southeast Asia. Garena provided localization, distribution and payment solutions tailored to the market.
This kickstarted Garena‘s growth in the region. By 2014, their platform had over 150 million registered users and had expanded into Taiwan, Vietnam and Thailand. Garena also branched into game development, scoring an early hit with their first title " League of Legends".
But it was the 2017 release of Garena Free Fire that catapulted the company to new heights.
Free Fire Explodes in Popularity
Free Fire took the burgeoning battle royale genre popularized by PUBG and tailored it successfully for mobile. It was an instant hit, especially in emerging markets like India, Latin America and Africa.
Some indicators of Free Fire‘s massive popularity:
Over 1 billion downloads on Google Play Store as of August 2021
100 million+ peak daily active users
Topped $100 million revenue in US in Q1 2021, more than PUBG Mobile‘s $68 million
Most downloaded mobile game globally in 2019 and 2020
Over 500 million views on YouTube for the official launch trailer
Image: Free Fire‘s downloads and revenue have exploded since launch
Industry analysts credit Garena‘s localization strategy and smooth cross-device gameplay for Free Fire‘s appeal. The game runs seamlessly even on lower-end smartphones with limited storage. This helped it gain a strong foothold in developing markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia where PUBG struggled due to high device requirements.
The game is now published in over 130 countries and is available in over 50 languages.
Addictive Gameplay Built for Mobile
At the core of Free Fire‘s success is intensely addictive, fast-paced battle royale action perfectly suited for mobile. Matches last just 10 minutes, so players can drop in, battle it out, and quickly get back to another round.
50 players parachute onto a remote island and scramble to scavenge weapons and equipment. The playable area shrinks every few minutes, forcing confrontations. The last player/team standing at the end wins.
While the base format mirrors other big battle royale titles, Garena expertly tweaked the Free Fire formula for mobile. Some examples:
Simplified controls: Intuitive tap, swipe and joystick controls replace complex configurations on PC/console titles like PUBG. Players can easily run, shoot and switch weapons on the go.
Smaller map: The compact map intensifies the action and encounters. No need to run around endlessly like in PUBG‘s huge maps.
Character abilities: 35+ characters with unique skills gives variety. E.g. healing teammates, damaging enemies, trackers etc.
Frequent updates: New modes, maps, weapons, skins etc. are added regularly to keep players engaged. Seasonal battle passes with exclusive rewards incentivize grinding.
According to gaming industry expert Simon Zhuang, "Free Fire really nailed the mobile battle royale experience. The fast, bite-sized matches cater perfectly to mobile gamers who want action on the go. Garena wisely built on proven formulas but innovated with mobile-first features like character abilities. The result is a hyper-addictive game tailor-made for smartphones."
This potent combo makes Free Fire "snackable" and extremely replayable. Players keep coming back for just "one more match".
However, Garena has also faced criticism for monetization practices seemingly aimed at minors and triggering compulsive spending.
Although Free Fire is free to download, the game makes revenue through in-app purchases – players can buy virtual diamonds to get skins, costumes, weapons etc. These provide no gameplay benefit but are desirable for cosmetic reasons.
Total player spending in Free Fire hit $1 billion in 2021. But analysts have raised concerns about:
High prices of cosmetic items. Some skins cost upwards of $50 per item. Critics allege this exploits susceptible players.
"Lucky draws" with low odds of winning rare items. This can tempt players, especially minors, into buying repeated attempts.
Battle passes and events encourage daily grind for FOMO (fear of missing out) on time-limited rewards.
Parent groups have called out Garena for aggressive marketing tactics and features that enable underage gambling-like behaviors. However, the company claims compliance with all regulations.
According to Rachel Wu, PhD Psychology, "features like lucky draws utilize variable reward systems – providing rewards at unpredictable intervals. This can foster compulsive purchase decisions as players chase that next elusive win."
While monetization fuels profits, Garena needs to weigh ethics and player well-being moving forward.
Major Esports Ecosystem
As Free Fire grew into a cultural phenomenon, a thriving community of esports athletes and streamers developed around it. Top teams compete professionally in tournaments for lucrative prize pools.
The official Free Fire World Series 2022 held a prize pool of $2 million. Some other major tournaments include:
- Free Fire Pro League (FFPL) with ~$80,000 prize
- Liga Elite de Free Fire with ~$100,000 prize
The game‘s massive reach ensures high viewer engagement. The FFWS 2022 finals peaked at over 5 million concurrent viewers on YouTube.
Popular professional players and fan favorites include:
TSG Jash (India): Known for headshot marksmanship and cool under pressure.
White444 (Morocco): Signed by major esports org Galaxy Racer. His YouTube has over 6 million subscribers.
Aman (Indonesia): The first Indonesian to win FFWS in 2021. Plays for EVOS Esports.
Rishi Gaming (India): One of the most popular female pros with 3.5 million YouTube subscribers.
Scout, a pro player from Thailand, notes "What makes Free Fire great for esports is the fast-paced, intense matches. Teams have to work together tactically while also reacting quickly. The skills and strategies required provide lots of competitive depth beyond just shooting."
The continued growth of tournaments and livestreams ensures Free Fire will be a mainstay of the esports world for years to come.
Bans and Controversies
However, not all governments look kindly upon Free Fire‘s meteoric success. In 2022, the Indian government banned Garena Free Fire as part of a purge of apps with Chinese origins over data and sovereignty concerns.
The sudden loss of its biggest player base was a major blow for Garena. However, Free Fire MAX – a revamped and separate version of the game – is still available in India as of writing.
Garena will also need to fend off competition from studios like Krafton (PUBG) who are adapting their major titles for mobile. Further government intervention also remains a threat.
But despite disruptions, Forrest Li remains focused on sustaining Garena‘s momentum. He aims to expand their portfolio beyond just Free Fire by investing in more in-house game development.
In conclusion, the runaway success of Garena‘s Free Fire has cemented founder Forrest Li‘s status as one of the gaming industry‘s visionaries. His company‘s mobile-first approach saw the potential of catering to young, emerging markets – a strategy that propelled Free Fire to the top.
While controversial at times, Li‘s leadership has made Garena synonymous with mobile gaming innovation. Free Fire kicked off a battle royale revolution on smartphones and forged an entire subculture around it. And with esports and international growth still going strong, Forrest Li seems poised to continue taking Garena to new heights.