In 2015, I was an exchange student studying in Canada. After the first class in film theory, I had a short conversation with my professor and was heading out of the classroom when an American student approached me and asked me where I was from.
“I’m from Korea,” I answered. Instead of Psy, Park Ji-sung, Lee Byung-hun, or North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, he said, “Korea! Faker! Zed!”
It was certainly surprising to hear the nicknames of South Korean gamers all the way out in Canada. Not Lee Byung-hun who rose to fame through his role in G.I. Joe, or Psy who won an MTV Music Award for Gangnam Style, but “Faker” Lee Sang-hyeok. When he said he knew Faker, I asked him how. He eyed me curiously, saying that anyone who knows League of Legends knows of Faker.
For those in the dark, Faker is a professional League of Legends (LoL) player in SK Telecom T1, an eSports team based in South Korea. ESPN has dubbed him the “Unkillable Demon King” and covered him in a special feature. A Twitch live stream broadcast that began at 11:55 pm on the night of February 5 this year attracted 240,000 viewers, a record number. People from all around the world including China, North America, and South America have seen Faker play.
This can seem strange to people who don’t know much about video games. How can a professional Korean gamer who plays games in East Asia be known across the planet? How did he end up so famous that when non-Koreans think of Korea his name is the first to come to mind? It’s true that not everyone is a fan, but the Korean eSports scene is well established and well known worldwide.
Korean gamers’ achievements are seemingly “unbeatable”. Let’s take a look at the Korean teams’ performances in LoL, the most popular eSports game. Korean teams won three consecutive titles in the LoL World Championship, the game’s most important international LoL tournament. Top teams in the national leagues in South Korea, Brazil, and countries in Europe, North America, and Southeast Asia compete in the championship, and Korean teams have won three consecutive titles from 2014 to 2016. Since the tournament was created in 2011, Korean teams have won four titles and finished runner-up once.
That’s not all. In the Mid-Season Invitational, the LoL equivalent of the Confederations Cup in football, Korean teams have made remarkable achievements. The tournament features the champions of the spring season leagues, and Korean teams have won two of the three tournaments and finished runner-up once.
International tournament success in itself doesn’t mean that a professional sport is healthy though. Pro sports are ultimately a story of money, after all. So, how much are Korean pro gamers getting paid?
Faker is the most successful pro gamer in LoL. His 2017 salary is estimated to be in the region of 3 billion won (2.7 million US dollars). That is twice the amount earned by Kim Tae-gyun, the highest-paid professional athlete in Korea in 2016, and higher than the amount earned by Lee Dae-ho, the highest earning professional Korean baseball player today. In 2014, a Chinese professional team offered Faker several million dollars to play for them, but he refused, and his team SKT T1 rewarded him with a 3 billion won salary, which doesn’t include prizes or profits from streaming games.
Faker isn’t the only player making over 100 million won. According to data released by KeSPA (the Korea e-Sports Association) in 2015, one in four LoL pro gamers made more than that. The average salary for pro gamers at the time was in the high 60 million range. And given the subsequent growth of tournaments and the additional player funding from the developers of LoL, Riot Games, it’s safe to say that average earnings today are likely even higher.
Korean LoL pro gamers are highly competitive to the point that people say the winner of LoL Champions Korea is the winner of the LoL World Championship. As a result, foreign teams often recruit Korean pro gamers, offering them high salaries. Namuwiki has called the transfer of Korean pro gamers to foreign teams, which began in 2014, the “Korean exodus”.
The overseas salaries offered to the pro gamers are humongous. Gu “Imp” Seung-bin, who transferred to the Chinese league received, about 8 million yuan, or about 1.3 billion won. Jang “MaRin” Gyeong-hwan, who was recruited by a Chinese team for his achievements in the Korean league and later returned to Korea, also received about 1.1 billion won after tax in the Chinese league.
The growth of the Korean LoL professional game scene is mostly down to the game’s developers, Riot Games. In order to guarantee a minimum salary of 20 million won to pro gamers in the first league, Riot Games provided a 100 million won grant for each team. And in 2017, Riot Games began to provide 50 million won grants to eight teams in the second league in order to promote its growth. The second LoL league in Korea is the only secondary league in the world of eSports to receive investments.
Although I’ve only mentioned LoL, there are a variety of others games in Korea’s pro gaming scene, including StarCraft and Overwatch. It has been more than 19 years since the release of StarCraft I, but individual competition leagues are still going strong. With its overwhelming support, the league, which mainly takes place on video streaming platforms, continues to serve its fans.
The same is true for StarCraft II. Because Korean pro gamers were significantly more skilled, StarCraft II World Championship Series adopted a quota for Korean players. Of the 16 spots in the WCS, eight were reserved for WCS Korea. This wasn’t a measure to protect Korean players. Koreans accounted for 15 of the 16 competitors in the 2013 WCS, and all 16 in 2014. The quota was adopted to limit the number of Korean players, who were gnawing their way through foreign leagues. Although the WCS no longer features team tournaments, there are regular individual competitions that offer Korean pro gamers the chance to shine. According to KeSPA, the average salary for StarCraft II pro gamers is in the high 40 million won range.
At this point, we come to a common question: Why is it that Korean gamers dominate every game and region of the world of eSports? But a good answer requires a good question. And this one is in need of reexamination.
The question has several errors. First, Korean gamers aren’t always the best in “every” game. Unlike for StarCraft II and LoL, where Korean teams make the news for not winning tournaments, merely qualifying for the International tournament for Dota 2 is enough to put a Korean team in the headlines. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is another game that Korean players aren’t very good at. In other words, Korean gamers only perform well in games that are popular in Korea. Second, Korean gamers are not always dominant in the games they are good at. In LoL, for instance, the Korean league was not the world’s best until 2013. The winner of the 2012 World Championship was TPA, a Taiwanese team, and the European league and the North American league were in no way inferior to the Korean league. Korean teams were often defeated by European and North American teams.
So let me rephrase the question: How did Korean pro gamers become the world’s best so quickly in games that were popular in Korea?
What makes for best
The answer is simple. Korea may not have the biggest eSports market, but it has pioneered the transformation of gaming into a professional sport. The shift can be traced back to the 1990s and the rise of PC bang—Korean internet cafes (literally “PC rooms”). The first PC bang held StarCraft tournaments, and the winners became assets to the PC bang that hosted the tournaments. Owners would lure gamers to participate in the tournaments and let winners play for free. It was a type of marketing, and kids flocked to PC bang to see local stars. The best players in a neighborhood would end up at the same PC bang, playingStarCraft for days on end.
A League of Legends amateur tournament at a PC bang in Seoul.
They entry of conglomerates such as KT, SKT, Samsung Electronics, and Orion secured further development of the Starcraft gaming scene. This corporate backing led to the very first StarCraft team tournament, in 2003. In order to maintain the team league, players needed to be paid steadily, which led each team to adopt a training program to identify and recruit the well-known Battle.net players. Quality was as important as quantity and with competition intensifying, each team developed their players through challenging regimens. Players split all their time between their apartments and training centers, constantly and repetitively working on their gameplay. Coaches were hired to better players’ skills, and were later joined by strategists and tacticians.
This team training culture came to be known as “chicken cage” training. The teams in the first league practiced non-stop, while the second league teams washed dishes and did laundry for those in the first. Players turned professional at a young age and many would soon retire, exhausted. The game results manipulation scandal that surfaced in 2010 was to be expected. Accepting extra money was a rational choice for a young pro gamer trying to survive in the highly exploitative professional gaming environment.
The “chicken cage” culture had a huge impact in the eSports industry even after StarCraft I, and the training culture that began in StarCraft I teams spread to the pro teams of other games, including WarCraft 3, LoL, StarCraft II, and Overwatch.
With their years of experience to build on, Korean teams were quicker at recruiting and training than teams in other nations. Korea swept international tournaments within two years of the launch of the LoL World Championship, reached the top within a year for Overwatch, and has yet to relinquish its lead in StarCraft II since the release of the beta.
This success has led to foreign gaming teams scouting Korean gamers, yes, but also coaches. Cloud9, a professional North American LoL team, recruited Bok “Reapered” Han-gyu, a former Korean pro gamer, as a coach. Son Dae-young, the former coach for CJ Entus, is also now coaching for I May, a Chinese LoL team. Former CJ Entus gamers, such as Jung “RapidStar” Min-sung and Ham “Lustboy” Jang-sik, have coached for teams based in China and America, respectively. And Choi “Paragon” Hyun-il who was a player on the LG-IM team is currently the coach at Misfits, a European team.
The PC bang culture has also played a key role. Unlike in foreign countries, where gamers play by themselves at home, Koreans go out to PC bang to play against their friends. This competition breeds further competitiveness, which in turn leads to more competition. Yelling and practice in PC bang is what led to the birth of quality pro gamers.
The final component in the growth of Korean eSports has been the involvement of broadcasting companies and game developers. Indeed, for developers, investment in eSports is no longer a choice but a given. With LoL, for example, Riot Games took a cue from the tournaments of other professional sports. With the aim of promoting LoL in Korea and elsewhere, Riot split the income made from sales of broadcasting rights with the teams themselves. Along the same lines, Blizzard has announced the adoption of region-based leagues in hopes of transforming Overwatch into a professional eSport. OGN laid similar foundations for eSports in Korea by hosting tournaments for various other games.
Streaming platforms: the future of eSports
PC bang sowed the seeds; professional gaming teams created the culture; and developers and broadcasters laid the groundwork. These were the stories behind the Korean eSports scene. Which leaves us with one question left to ask: how will the Korean eSports scene change in the future?
The changes in the ecosystem depend on the emergence of new stakeholders. It will be external stakeholders that bring about changes in the Korean eSports ecosystem, like pebbles making ripples on the still surface of water. So let’s rephrase the question again: What kind of businesses will enter the Korean eSports ecosystem in the future? And what kind of changes will they bring?
Video streaming is one new stakeholder to emerge. AfreecaTV and other streaming platforms started investing for the same reason that football clubs like Germany’s Wolfsburg and Turkey’s Fenerbahce have started their own eSports teams: the arrival of millennial viewers.
Compared to traditional professional sports, broadcasting fees for eSports are cheaper and the audiences are younger. Video streaming is the most cost effective way of attracting millennials. Statista, an online statistics and market research portal, predicted that eSports markets would be valued at 1.5 billion dollars by 2020. Facebook signed a contract with ESL, a company that organizes eSports competitions, to live stream tournaments through Facebook Live. YouTube secured a similar deal with ESL for the exclusive rights to the Counter-Strike: Global Offensive professional league. Twitch is organizing competitions itself and sponsoring teams. Korea’s AfreecaTV is also investing in games like StarCraft I, WarCraft III, and Tekken 7. eSports is the killer content for video streaming platforms.
Investments in eSports and its streaming platform have already brought huge changes. Viewers from South America now watch Faker, and viewers in Korea watch the Chinese eSports league. In the past, eSports games were held country-by-country and were only watched by the (often few) viewers in each country. But things have changed. Video platforms have connected the people across the world as one. Korea has exported its pro gamers, its pro teams, and even its gaming culture. And in this era of mobile and video streaming, eSports represents the best path to millennials.