Tournament after tournament, across popular games like Starcraft, League of Legends, and Street Fighter Korean teams continue to dominate at almost every level of competition. Whether they’re playing for tournament prizes or aiming to win playoffs and demonstrate steady records during regular seasons, South Korean esports players push the boundaries of skill in gaming. Shooting games, fighting games, MOBAs, you name it – and there’s a Korean out there making a living from it. So, how has South Korea established this dominant record and what separates them from their counterparts overseas?
Endorsed by the Government
While the rise of PC bangs and the internet boom of the 90s and early 2000s certainly contributed to the development of online gaming in South Korea, esports didn’t properly rise to prominence until the establishment of the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA). Host of the annual KeSPA Cup and acting as the regulatory body for other tournaments and competitive leagues throughout South Korea, KeSPA is responsible for much of the growth and development of the early esports scene.
Broadcasting League of Legends during the 2016 KeSPA Cup. Image courtesy of Slingshot Esports.
Founded in 2000 after approval by the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, KeSPA’s official goal is to make esports an official sporting event with strong commercial prospects across multiple games. By managing broadcasting rights, the formation of new events and leagues, and the working conditions of players, KeSPA has fought to prove the legitimacy and mass appeal that esports can offer to the entire populace of South Korea and to a lesser extent, the world.
If you put in the work, you’ll see results. That’s just how life works, and Korean players have realized that. Most of them put in 10 to 18 hours a day. Only stopping to maintain basic bodily functions, they’ve earned an edge over the competition. While many top teams in the West play for similar periods, their players tend to prefer a more healthy work-life balance. Exercise, socializing with friends beyond the team, and managing stress are all important factors for most Western players.
Three-time LOL World Championship winners SKT T1 announce that they will begin streaming on Twitch. Image courtesy of CybBet.
Due to the cutthroat nature of tournament prize pools and limited financial prospects for losers, Korean players constantly put their livelihood on the line. Western teams may survive in large part thanks to sponsorships and franchising deals, but many Korean teams need to win or place highly to stay afloat. It leads to a lot of turnover at the lower levels of most professional scenes, thus keeping the system as competitive as possible for most games.
Staying afloat is important, but for some players, fame is just as important. Star players are held in high regard by Korean media outlets and they are glorified just like professional soccer players in Europe can be. Thanks to the extra money, fame, and overall importance placed upon esports in Korean society, infrastructure has also developed to accommodate the growth of the scene. Giant stadiums, professional coaching staff, and training centers all add an extra layer of professionalism that Western countries simply haven’t developed yet.
Cracks in the Machine
As dominant as Korean teams may be in games like League and Starcraft, other regions across the world have excelled in areas of their own. Europe reigns over the competition in CS:GO, American players dominate in fighting games like Super Smash Bros, and the verdict has yet to be decided in new games like Overwatch.
American Super Smash Bros. Melee player Hungrybox celebrates his victory at EVO 2016. Image courtesy of FLOKO.TV.
However, the biggest competitor is China. In the past few League of Legends World Championships, Chinese teams have earned very high standings just below their Korean counterparts. Thanks to large injections of money from investors, the Chinese scene has taken off at an astounding rate. This has even led to a “Great Exodus” of Korean players who have moved to Chinese teams in recent years to reap the benefits of bigger paychecks.
Predicting the Future
While South Korea still has a leg up on the competition, Western investors and traditional sports organizations have come to see the value of gaming at the professional level. In recent years, former NBA player for the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, Rick Fox, has created a new brand and established teams in major gaming titles such as League of Legends, Counter Strike: Global Offensive, Super Smash Bros., and more.
Fox paid $1 million to buy and rebrand his LOL team. Image courtesy of CalvinAyre.com.
With other NBA players following suit (most famously Shaquille O’Neal, who is now a major investor in NRG esports), we will likely see esports continue to grow in the future. While it is difficult to predict which games will dominate viewership numbers a decade from now, it is safe to say that professional gaming is on the rise. Expect Korea to face fierce competition in the coming years.