China

Meet China’s new gaming underclass

They're called "peiwan," and they act as female companions and therapists to their online male "bosses."

Woman gamer

Female game companions on esports apps are constantly objectified, harassed and exploited.

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

A 23-year-old Shanghai native nicknamed Sake has been playing competitive games since a young age. During her senior year in college, Sake learned that she could make extra cash from her hobby by serving as a virtual companion (陪玩, pronounced peiwan) for online gamers. Her customers were mostly men willing to pay for a partner to play with them, help improve their skills or sometimes just chat with them during downtime.

Sake usually waited for gamers to find her on Bixin, China's leading online marketplace for gamers. Proactive peiwan can find clients by grabbing orders that are already priced. Other times, companions enter an order distribution hall (派单厅) where they line up in front of a customer and a host to show off their voices. Because audio chat is a major component of gaming, a gamer will often pick the companion who he thinks sounds the best.

In the game companion world, women like Sake refer to their male clients as "boss" (老板). And the "boss," often men, call the women "missie" (小姐姐), an affectionate moniker for attractive young women in China.

After graduating last summer, Sake has had difficulty landing a job amid China's COVID-affected labor market, so she's continued working as a part-time peiwan to scrape by while looking for full-time work. She charges the equivalent of $3 per hour for her services, which primarily involve playing Overwatch with clients she's matched with on Bixin.

Sake's rates are set low because the game she's most skilled at playing, Overwatch, a team-based multiplayer game published by Blizzard Entertainment, is far less popular than hits like League of Legends. Then again, Sake told Protocol, most male clients hire female game companions not to improve their skills, but for the company.

"It's a little sexist," Sake said. The gamers "are not here to level up; what they want is entertainment." For that, they usually hire a male trainer.

"Only men are considered serious, skilled gamers," Mengyang Zhao, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania who studies China's video game service industry, told Protocol. "However skilled a female gamer is, people generally don't take her seriously, so women tend to hit a low wage ceiling."

Sake is one of 6 million registered game companions on Bixin, an app developed by Shanghai Yitan Network Technology Company. Yitan was founded in 2014 and is backed by IDG Capital. Esports has exploded in China over the past several years — particularly during the pandemic, when more idle labor joined the game-service sector. China is now the world's largest esports market, registering $21 billion in sales in 2020. National and local governments have announced policies to attract professional esports talent. Last year, the China Communications Industry Association's esports branch, a trade organization, designated game companions as a profession. But most peiwan on platforms like Bixin are casual gamers like Sake not certified by the association.

As with other thriving tech sectors like ecommerce and ed tech, esports has penetrated deep into lower-tier markets (下沉市场) beyond first- and second-tier cities. During the first half of 2020, Bixin attracted over 950,000 new game companions from rural China, accounting for almost half of the platform's new users. State media has praised platforms like Bixin for helping revitalize China's post-COVID economy by offering freelance gigs.

But game companions exist in a corner of the digital gig economy that's given far less public attention than delivery workers, car-hailing drivers and livestream hosts. It's a job virtually unique to China, according to Zhao, the Penn researcher, who said she has interviewed more than 60 Chinese peiwan over the past two years. In 2021, the game companions for hire on marketplaces like Bixin were overwhelmingly female and were generally looked down upon by professional esports players and game developers. Most of them live in China's economic backwaters: rust belts, far-flung regions and small towns. They tend to not have college degrees, which leaves them fewer employment options. And on apps like Bixin, they are constantly objectified, harassed and exploited.

Being a peiwan can be excruciating work. In one extreme case, Zhao came across a peiwan in the northwestern Chinese city of Xi'an who slept only seven hours every three days so she could work enough to take home $1,544 a month. In order to get a higher hourly rate, many game companions will take overnight orders. The influx of game companions in the past two years has lowered the average hourly rates to about $3 from the equivalent of $7.70. "But for many game companions, this is still an easier job than working as a supermarket cashier, hotel receptionist, restaurant waiter or factory worker," Zhao said. "They can work from home."

Bixin has had issues with users exploiting its social features and using the app to solicit sex. There are multiple reports of "bosses" reportedly sexually harassing female game companions on the Bixin app. Last year, regulators in Shanghai summoned Bixin executives for talks and ordered it to pause one social feature that was "harmful to the physical and mental health of minors" and told it to improve its content moderation mechanism.

Much of the flirting, negotiation and transaction now happens not on Bixin, but during games and on WeChat. Bixin matches "bosses" with "missies" through a combination of AI and manual selection processes. Many of the profile photos — good-looking young women — are fake. The key determining factor for a boss to pick the companion he prefers is her voice. Many prefer a "girly-girl voice," Zhao told Protocol. And because female companions are more popular than their male counterparts, it's common for male game companions to use a voice changer to make themselves sound like a woman.

Not only do the majority of the female game companions earn low wages, but they often have to play therapist to clients. "Sometimes, I have to listen to [client] gripes, and talk them through things while playing with them," Sake told Protocol. "Counseling is expensive. I feel like [clients] are taking advantage of me."

Bixin doesn't allow users to trade contact info through its own messaging channel, but savvy users know to bypass the monitoring of the platform by exchanging WeChat handles during games. Once they are connected outside of Bixin, the client and the companions can negotiate new terms and prices there. Game companions like it this way because they can take 100% of the revenue, instead of giving Bixin a 20% cut. But this also means they are out in the Wild West on their own, without protections when problems arise at work. To maintain customer relationships, companions have to constantly keep in touch with "bosses" on WeChat, even when games aren't in session, sending their effective hourly wages even lower.

Sake eventually became friends with a handful of regulars. But when she and her female friends play games for fun, they always seek other female partners because of their world experiences with "greasy" men, a slang term signaling poor boundaries. "There are generally two types of bosses," Sake told Protocol. "They either suck up to women or they are misogynists." Some gamers are embarrassed when their friends find out Sake is a paid peiwan. "It's like I'm the waitress pouring drinks for the men."

A DTC baby formula startup is caught in the center of a supply chain crisis

After weeks of “unprecedented growth,” Bobbie co-founder Laura Modi made a hard decision: to not accept any more new customers.

Parents unable to track down formula in stores have been turning to Facebook groups, homemade formula recipes and Bobbie, a 4-year-old subscription baby formula company.

Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

The ongoing baby formula shortage has taken a toll on parents throughout the U.S. Laura Modi, co-founder of formula startup Bobbie, said she’s been “wearing the hat of a mom way more than that of a CEO” in recent weeks.

“It's scary to be a parent right now, with the uncertainty of knowing you can’t find your formula,” Modi told Protocol.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Sponsored Content

Foursquare data story: leveraging location data for site selection

We take a closer look at points of interest and foot traffic patterns to demonstrate how location data can be leveraged to inform better site selecti­on strategies.

Imagine: You’re the leader of a real estate team at a restaurant brand looking to open a new location in Manhattan. You have two options you’re evaluating: one site in SoHo, and another site in the Flatiron neighborhood. Which do you choose?

Keep Reading Show less
Enterprise

Celonis vows to stay independent despite offers from SAP, ServiceNow

Celonis is convinced standalone mining vendors can survive. But industry consolidation paints a different picture, and enterprise software giants are circling.

Celonis CEO Alex Rinke turned down offers from ServiceNow and SAP, according to sources.

Photo: Celonis

For the past decade, any software vendor that touted new levels of automation and data-driven insights appeared to have seemingly unrestricted access to capital. Now, as valuations drop and fundraising becomes more difficult, founders and company leaders are facing a difficult decision: look to be acquired or try to go it alone.

At Celonis — which, at an $11 billion valuation, is one of the buzzier software upstarts — that question appears to have already been decided. Enterprise software giants ServiceNow and SAP made offers in the past year to buy the process-mining firm, according to sources familiar with the deliberations, which were turned down because the Celonis leadership team wanted to remain independent.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a writer-at-large at Protocol. He previously covered enterprise software for Protocol, Bloomberg and Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JoeWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

Enterprise

SaaS valuations cratered in early 2022. But these startups thrived.

VCs were still bullish on supply chain, recruiting and data startups despite the economic environment that chopped the valuations of newly public companies and late-stage enterprise startups.

While private equity has been investing in enterprise tech for decades, the confluence of several trends in the sector is making it more competitive than ever before.
Image: Getty Images; Protocol

Despite a volatile tech stock market so far this year that has included delayed IPOs, lowered valuations and declining investor sentiment, a few enterprise tech categories managed to keep getting funding. Data platforms, supply chain management tech, workplace software and cybersecurity startups all dominated the funding cycle over the past quarter.

When it comes to enterprise SaaS, the number of mega-deals — VC funding rounds over $100 million — spiked last year, according to data from Pitchbook. Partially driven by the onset of a pandemic that accelerated the need for everything from contact centers to supply chains to move into the cloud, the number of large VC deals tripled between 2020 and 2021. That growth has extended into this year, where the number of mega-deals has already outpaced all of 2020.

Keep Reading Show less
Aisha Counts

Aisha Counts (@aishacounts) is a reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software. Formerly, she was a management consultant for EY. She's based in Los Angeles and can be reached at acounts@protocol.com.

Fintech

Plaid is striking back after Stripe entered its core business

Onboarding customers through identity verification and ACH transfers is a hot sector in fintech, and the two fast-growing fintechs are set to battle it out.

Plaid is looking to help banks and fintech companies with anything related to the onboarding of a customer onto a financial product, said Plaid CTO Jean-Denis Greze.

Photo: Plaid

Plaid is moving into identity verification in a crucial expansion beyond its roots connecting banks and fintechs — a move that could put it in more direct competition with Stripe, another company known for its financial software tools.

In conjunction with its Plaid Forum customer conference this week, the company is also announcing two products focused on ACH transfers as it moves into payments.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Latest Stories
Bulletins