Sea founder Forrest Li is the latest to enter the billionaire club

Sea founder Forrest Li. Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

Free Fire is a world unto itself.

More than 40 million players log on each day to find weapons and battle it out till one character’s left standing. It’s Sea Ltd.’s marquee hit, a virtual landscape housing more people than the American population and the prime reason Chinese-born founder Forrest Li is climbing the real world’s wealth rankings.

The 41-year-old entrepreneur owns 13.8 percent of Singapore-based Sea, a stake now worth roughly $1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Shares in Southeast Asia’s biggest gaming service surged 35 percent on Wednesday — the most since its 2017 initial public offering — after reporting a doubling in sales and robust growth at e-commerce unit Shopee. Free Fire played a mega role: with more than 350 million registered users from Brazil to Indonesia, it was the world’s fourth most-downloaded game on the Apple and Google app stores in 2018.

Even though last year’s net loss widened to $961 million, investors are betting that Sea’s costly expansion into e-commerce will complement its gaming arm and create a regional internet-services heavyweight in the mold of backer Tencent Holdings Ltd. Sea this week forecast 2019 annual adjusted revenue at gaming arm Garena and mobile shopping unit Shopee will double or more.

Li, who is now a Singaporean citizen, joins Tim Sweeney in the e-gaming billionaire stakes. Sweeney created Fortnite, another last-character-standing Battle Royale sensation.

Neither has to look far for advice on how to manage their wealth. Tencent is a shareholder in both Sea and Fortnite-developer Epic Games Inc. and the Chinese gaming titan’s founder Pony Ma is worth $34.4 billion, according to Bloomberg wealth rankings.

Born and raised in the port city of Tianjin by state-company lifers, Li attended a Shanghai university in his teens, arriving in a metropolis teeming with urbanites who spoke an alien dialect. He spent most nights playing games at an internet cafe till dawn. Li adopted his English name after identifying with Tom Hank’s Oscar-winning portrayal of the fictional character Forrest Gump.

After graduation, he worked at Motorola Solutions Inc. and Corning Inc. in China. But he saw a limited future as a white-collar manager and enrolled in Stanford’s MBA program. It was when he attended his then-girlfriend’s graduation ceremony — the same one where the late Steve Jobs gave his now-famous commencement speech — that things clicked for him.

In an interview with Bloomberg in 2016, Li said he replayed the oration daily for months on YouTube before deciding to strike out on his own. “It gave me the courage to do what I am doing now,” he said at the time. Li founded his company, then known only as Garena, in Singapore in 2009, starting out as an online gaming service.

Since going public in October 2017, Sea has struggled to keep its footing amid widening losses. The company invested heavily to expand beyond games and into e-commerce, where it faces entrenched competition from the likes of Lazada, owned by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., as well as a number of well-funded homegrown players.

Its U.S.-listed stock traded at $13 on average in 2018, below the IPO price of $15. It closed at $21.50 Thursday in New York, down 1.7 percent.

Bloomberg

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.

Singapore Reporter/s

In Singapore, we are looking to double our reporting team by this year-end to comprehensively cover the fast-moving world of funded startups and VC, PE & M&A deals. We want reporters who can tell our readers what is really happening in these sectors and why it matters to markets, companies and consumers. The ability to write precisely and urgently is crucial for these roles. Ideal candidates must have to ability to work in a collaborative, dynamic, and fast-changing environment. We want our new hires to be digitally savvy and ready to experiment with new forms of storytelling. Most importantly, we are looking for hard-hitting reporters who work well in a team. Collaboration and collegiality are a must.

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).

Following vacancies can be applied for (only in Singapore).   

  • A reporter to track companies/startups that have raised private capital, and have the potential to become unicorns. SEA currently has over 40 companies with a valuation of over $100 million and under $1 billion.
  • A reporter who can get behind the scenes and reveal how funding rounds are put together, or why they’ve failed to materialise. She/he in this role will largely focus on long-format stories. 
  • A journalist to track special situations funds, distressed debt and private credit (from the PE angle) across Asia.