Chinese gaming tycoon dies at 39 as police probe poisoning case

Lin Qi, the chairman and chief executive of games publisher Yoozoo, died in a Shanghai hospital on Christmas Day in what the police characterised as suspected poisoning, the company confirmed.

The 39-year-old billionaire first fell ill on December 16. On Wednesday, Yoozoo, also known as Youzu Interactive, said that the founder’s condition was “stable”. On Friday, the company announced that Lin had died, without giving a specific cause.

According to the National Business Daily newspaper, many employees and ex-employees gathered outside the Yoozoo’s office to mourn Lin’s death.

“Qi was the heart and soul of Yoozoo. He was the alpha of the company,” the newspaper reported, quoting an unidentified ex-Yoozoo-employee.

As one of the young stars in China’s hugely lucrative gaming sector, Lin had a net worth estimated at 6.8 billion yuan (S$1.33 billion), according to the Hurun China Rich List . Founded in 2009, Yoozoo is best known outside China as the developer of Game of Thrones: Winter Is Coming, a strategy game for smartphones and personal computers based on the HBO hit series. It is also the co-publisher of Supercell’s smash-hit game Brawl Stars with Tencent Holdings in China.

Yoozoo is among the first Chinese gaming companies to expand offshore beyond their domestic market. The company drew nearly half of its revenue overseas in the first half of 2020, according to its financial results. Yoozoo was China’s ninth top-grossing games publisher in November, ahead of ByteDance and Bilibili, according to app tracking firm Sensor Tower,

A screenshot of Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming, a strategy game for smartphones and personal computers by Chinese game developer Yoozoo.
PHOTO: Handout

Yoozoo is also often connected with the acclaimed Chinese science fiction novel the Three-Body Problem as it holds the rights for film adaptation. The company’s foray into the motion picture business, however, had sputtered over the years. In September, it granted US streaming platform Netflix the right to adapt the sci-fi novel for television.

The publisher recently established an affiliate called The Three-Body Universe to develop products based on the franchise, led by the 39-year-old chief executive officer Xu Yao. Yoozoo announced in June that it had acquired the right to adapt The Three-Body Problem into video games.

On Thursday, Shanghai police said in a post on Weibo that Lin appeared to have been poisoned, and pointed to Lin’s 39-year-old male colleague, identified only by his surname Xu, as the main suspect.

China Economic Weekly, a magazine affiliated with the Communist Party’s mouthpiece newspaper People’s Daily, wrote that Xu Yao was suspected to have poisoned Lin, stemming from a work dispute, without saying how it obtained the information. The magazine said Lin and Xu were reportedly on the outs, but rather than fire him, Lin opted to slash Xu’s salary to force him out. The poisoning was done through medication rather than old Pu’er tea, according to a report by China Economic Weekly.

Xu did not respond to an inquiry sent to his LinkedIn account.

Lin was the biggest shareholder of Yoozoo, holding 23.99 per cent of the company’s shares.

Lin’s Yoozoo was the biggest dark horse in the gaming industry in 2009. Lin started the company that year after working as a programmer for several years following his graduation. The company went public with a listing in Shenzhen in 2014 through a reverse takeover.

However, Yoozoo has been facing increasingly fierce competition in the gaming market since its listing. Its gross profit margin narrowed from 70 per cent in 2014 to 31 per cent in 2019, according to the company’s financial reports.

The company’s expansion into the motion picture business also progressed more slowly than expected. After going public, Yoozoo said that it was going to spend 1.2 billion yuan to adapt Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, a sci-fi bestseller that won the 2015 Hugo Award for Best Novel, into six films. But the project never took off and a number of executives had left Yoozoo Pictures since 2015.

Besides gaming, Lin was an avid calligraphy practitioner respected among peers. He was also a lover of Chinese poetry, according to Chinese media reports.

Lin has repeatedly said that Yoozoo was trying its best to do Liu’s masterpiece justice.

“You don’t want your last waking thought to be: how did I spoil The Three-Body Problem,” Lin said in an interview with LatePost, a media outlet affiliated with the business magazine Caijing in September. “There are a lot of reasons why The Three-Body Problem wasn’t done right before. I can face these questions head-on myself today. I myself am responsible for it.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.

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