by STEVE HAN
FC Seoul, one of South Korea’s most popular professional soccer teams, collected about $500,000 in prize money in 2012 after winning the K-League, the country’s top flight soccer competition. Last week, Samsung White, a team of professional video gamers (yes, video gamers), took home $1 million for its win at the world championship for League of Legends, one of the world’s most popular PC games, which was held at the Seoul World Cup Stadium — home of the South Korean capital’s professional soccer team.
South Korea’s top professional gamers are regarded as national stars among its younger generation. The popularity of “e-sports” has long surpassed the likes of traditional sports such as soccer and baseball in South Korea. While FC Seoul’s average attendance per home game at the Seoul World Cup Stadium this season is 18,183, the same venue was filled with more than 40,000 spectators, who came to cheer on Samsung White as its players went on to defeat rival Star Horn Royal Club, a team which consists of three Chinese players and two Koreans.
Professionalization of e-sports has steadily made its way to the U.S. and Europe in recent years. At last year’s League of Legends world championship, around 11,000 people flocked to Staples Center in L.A. while an estimated 32 million streamed the games on various online platforms, including ESPN3.
But e-sports’ popularity in South Korea, where the phenomenon was born in the late 1990s, is unmatched. Naver, the Korean equivalent of Google, has its own section on the sports news page that’s solely devoted to covering the results of various competitions and other developing stories of the star gamers.
“Pro gaming exists in its current form and size in large part thanks to the people who made it possible in South Korea,” Dutch pro gamer Manuel Schenkhuizen told the New York Times. “Other countries took years to catch up and are to this date trying to mimic some of their successes.”
The quirky phenomenon of e-sports in South Korea was sparked by its government’s effort to recover from the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. Then President Kim Dae-jung and his administration saw an opportunity in Korea’s growth potential in telecommunications and Internet infrastructure. As Korea’s Internet technology developed exponentially, online gaming became mainstream among young people, thanks to the increase in broadband availability and high connection speed that made it all possible.
By the early 2000s, PC bangs (Internet cafes) were introduced in the corner of nearly every neighborhoods in South Korea and became a popular hangout, especially for teenagers. It was the PC bang culture that cultivated a community of gamers, a phenomenon that’s comparable to professional basketball players whose journey started as street ballers in New York or street soccer players from South America
Professional leagues for PC games, mainly Star Craft, soon took off, and the Korean E-Sports Association was founded with the backing from the government. Korea’s TV stations began covering the games and developed an avid following to make e-sports a legitimate brand, so much so that the country’s leading conglomerates, such as Samsung, began sponsoring the gamers.
South Korea’s method of promoting e-sports, which started by fostering a local community of gamers and their supporters, could even become a reference point for many of its traditional sports, including soccer. While soccer remains a popular sport in Korea, the country’s national soccer team is often criticized for failing to meet the public’s expectations at international tournaments like the World Cup. In addition, there is a lack of organization and support for the sport’s growth at the grassroots level in terms of investment and strategic planning.
Today, e-sports has become such a big part of the daily lives of South Korea’s young people that it’s something many teens follow just to “fit in” and maintain their sense of belonging. Some have taken the culture to extreme measures, as evidenced by occasional news about young gamers dying of exhaustion after playing their favorite PC games for too long without resting. Alarmed by their addiction, the South Korean government began enforcing a law that prohibits children under 18 from playing online games at PC bangs after 10 p.m.
But Korean E-Sports Association chairman Jun Byung-hun told the New York Times that rather than frowning upon young people’s incessant passion for e-sports, it’s important for the older generation to make an effort to embrace the culture of their children. Jun recently took the initiative to help parents understand that e-sports isn’t necessarily detrimental to their children’s studies by convincing Chung-Ang University, one of Korea’s top colleges, to start admitting students based on their successful gaming careers.
“The best way to avoid addiction is for families to play games,” Jun said. “In Korea, games are the barometer of the generation gap. The best way to avoid addiction is for families to play games together.”
Featured image courtesy of Game DongA