Who Is Sun Wukong And Why Is He In Every MOBA?

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Arena Of Valor, Honour Of Kings and Vainglory all have their Wukongs. Player.One

Wukong, also known as Sun Goku or the Monkey King, might be the most recognizable character in modern media. Spawned from the classic Chinese novel Journey To The West, variations of the prominent cultural figure can be seen in dozens of different titles. From Infernape in Pokémon to Goku in the OG Dragon Ball, Sun Wukong is an icon. Over the last decade, the character has exploded in popularity appearing in countless online titles, like Winston’s Lunar Revel skin in Overwatch and the Monkey King in DOTA 2 . MOBAs, or multiplayer online battle arenas, seem to love the character the most. He’s a champion, hero or guardian in League Of Legends, DOTA II, Warframe, Paragon, Smite, Heroes Of Newerth and more.

There’s a reason Sun Wukong is everywhere, and it’s not because video game developers are secretly furries. (I think.)

“Wukong in China is like Conan The Barbarian or Tarzan in the West,” says Stephan Sherman, co-founder and CCO of Super Evil Megacorp, makers of mobile MOBA Vainglory. Their Monkey King, called Ozo, is an acrobatic trickster with a giant spinning wheel, a deviation from the traditional characteristics seen in other incarnations. According to Sherman, Chinese investors feel that having a character that their market can relate to is paramount to the growth of any game.

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League Of Legends take on Wukong. Photo: Riot Games

The character’s origins trace back to Journey To The West, written in the 16th century by Wu Cheng'en, and widely regarded as one of the greatest historical novels of Chinese literature. The monkey king started life as a rock on the Mountain Huaguo, gaining sentience and training under a Buddhist monk in an attempt to gain immortality. He thinks he’s the most powerful being in the universe, and his lack of humility is his ultimate weakness and downfall. With a collection of magical tools, like an infinitely extending rod, the ability to make clones of himself out of hair and shoes that float on clouds, Wukong devastated the heavens until Buddha slapped a mountain on top of his head after making a general ass of himself.

100 years pass and Xuanzang, a monk tasked with bringing Buddhist scriptures back to China, is given three supernatural beings to make the trek a little easier. Sha Wujing, a general banished to earth, Zhu Bajie, an anthropomorphic pig, and Sun Wukong, who had been trapped all that time. Wukong aids Xuanzang, achieving enlightenment and becoming a celestial Buddha. The whole odyssey stretches over 100 chapters and takes inspiration from Buddhist ideology, especially the Indian deity Hanuman.

The story even lends itself to high-action superhero movies: The Monkey King (streaming on Netflix) and it’s sequel both grossed over a billion dollars in China. The character also has a longstanding history in gaming, appearing in numerous installments of Atlus’ long-running Shin Megami Tensei and Persona series since the early 90s. In those games, Sun Wukong’s known as Seiten Taisei, the Japanese translation of one of his self-anointed titles.

Recently, we’ve seen more of Sun Wukong in the MOBA genre. These games make a ridiculous amount of money in China; League Of Legends has over 11 million players in that one region alone. Reaching this audience can be difficult for an American game, but breaking through the cultural barrier with immediately discernible characters can help bridge that gap. In League, Chinese gamers know Wukong, with his extending staff, clones and overall air of arrogance. Smite is a game built on mythical pantheons,whose version of Sun Wukong has a floating cloud and can shapeshift into animals, just like in the tale. Warframe turns the beast into a robotic suit of armor but still keeps the staff and cloud invisibility.  

Honour Of Kings, another mobile MOBA, features Chinese mythological heroes and is one of the most popular mobile games in all of China. When adapting the game for markets outside Asia, they changed the name to Arena Of Valor and switched out the models and names of nearly every single character, leaving Wukong with a slightly less ornate outfit.

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DOTA 2 has their own Monkey King. Photo: Valve

As the Chinese market continues to expand, Sun Wukong is going to show up even more. Video game developers want to have a successful launch, and you can’t do that without China. It helps that the monkey king has a backstory already and easily adapted abilities for any game with violence.

What’s your favorite Sun Wukong incarnation? Tell us in the comments.

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