Inside the ‘Deadly Serious’ World of E-Sports in South Korea

SEOUL – Students ate lunch in silence before gathering in a dimly lit room full of high-performance computers. There, the trainers helped them outmaneuver opponents in a digital fantasy world full of ambushes and monsters. School was over at 5 p.m., but individual training continued well into the night – all in a hard day’s work for students at one of South Korea’s many esports academies.

“I only sleep three or four hours a day,” said Kim Min-soo, 17, a college student who wore an orthosis around his right hand to relieve the pain from so much play. “But I want to be a star. I dream of an e-sports arena full of fans who are enthusiastic about me. “

Students like Min-soo have brought the same intense competitive energy often associated with South Korean education to their training at esports academies. South Korea is believed to be the birthplace of esports, but the highly selective multi-billion dollar industry is still frowned upon by many in the country. The academies have worked to change that image and give thousands of young people the chance to develop careers in a place where gaming has long been considered a way of life.

“In South Korea, players have to do homework on their game before playing, because if they disrupt the efficiency of their team, they can be excluded,” said Jeon Dong-jin, Korea chief of American video game developer Blizzard Entertainment. during a recent forum in Seoul. “South Korean players are dead serious.”

Online gaming found its way into South Korea earlier and faster than anywhere else in the world. When the country began adopting high-speed internet in the late 1990s, there was the proliferation of 24-hour gaming cafes called PC bangs.

These dark, often subterranean salons became breeding grounds for gaming culture and eventually hosted informal tournaments. In 2000, the South Korean cable channels were the first in the world to broadcast online gaming competitions.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Education last year, esports is now the fifth most popular future job among South Korean students after athletes, doctors, teachers and digital content creators. It will soon be part of the Asia Games in 2022.

Top players like Lee Sang-hyeok, who goes by the game name Faker, deserve as much fame and fortune as K-pop idols. Millions watch them play live on stream. Before the pandemic, fans crowded into esports arenas that looked like a mixture of a rock concert and a pro-wrestling stadium.

The stimulus can be hard to resist. Parents dragged children to counseling centers because of gambling addiction or to rehab boot camps. When conscientious objectors ask for exemption from conscription in South Korea, officials will investigate whether they are playing online games with guns and violence.

Notes fall. Sometimes students drop out of school to spend more time playing games. But only a few will get the chance to make it big.

The 10 licensed professional esports teams in South Korea taking part in League of Legends, the most popular game here, only hire 200 players in total. If you don’t make the cut, you have few alternatives.

Without good grades – and often without a high school diploma – gamers will only have limited career prospects. And unlike some American universities, South Korean schools don’t offer admission based on esports skills.

When Gen.G, a California-based esports company opened its Gen.G Elite Esports Academy in Seoul in 2019, it wanted to address some of those challenges because “this is where the most talent is from,” said Joseph Baek. , Program Director at the Academy Gen.G. “South Korea is still considered the Mecca of e-sports.”

The school trains young South Koreans and other students on how to become professionals, and helps gaming fans find opportunities as streamers, marketers, and data analysts. Together with education company Elite Open School, it has launched an English-language program that offers students the opportunity to earn an American high school diploma so they can apply for esports scholarships at universities in the United States.

One recent morning the sleep deprived teenagers walked into the Elite Open School wearing masks and branded T-shirts and hoodies. Divided into classrooms named after American universities like Columbia, MIT, and Duke, they studied English, American history, and other compulsory subjects. Some commute to school for two hours every morning.

“My challenge is to keep them awake and engaged during class,” said Sam Suh, an English teacher.

The real work began in the afternoon when two buses took the young players to a modest concrete building in a residential area for another intensive training session at the Gen.G Academy.

Anthony Bazire, a 22-year-old former Gen. G Academy student from France, said he chose South Korea as his training location because he knew the country had some of the best players. Today, the grand winners in League of Legends, Overwatch, and StarCraft II are mostly South Koreans.

“When you see people working hard, it drives you to work hard,” he said.

The Gen. G program, the first of its kind in South Korea, has even helped some high school students convince their parents that they have made a smart career move.

In 2019, his sophomore year in high school, Kim Hyeon-yeong played League of Legends 10 hours a day. His skills improved as he ventured through the digital fantasy world. That summer he decided to become a professional in esports and dropped out of school.

“My parents were totally against it,” said Kim, 19. “I told them I wouldn’t regret it because the only thing I wanted to try in my life was to throw everything I got into it.”

His mother, Lee Ji-eun, 46, was so distressed she lay in bed moaning. Ms. Lee finally decided to support her son after one day he asked her, “Mom, what dream did you have when you were my age? Did you live this dream? “

Mr. Kim researched the Gen.G program, which costs $ 25,000 a year, and took his mom to the academy to convince her that he could do well as an esports professional. He cleared a huge hurdle for his dream this year by gaining admission to the University of Kentucky due to his online gaming skills.

Mr Bazire, the French player, joined Gen.G’s League of Legends team as a trainee player in March. He and other trainees receive modest salaries as well as board and lodging in a shared apartment in Seoul. They train up to 18 hours a day, 60 to 70 percent more than players he knew in France, he said.

But becoming a trainee is not much more than securing a permanent position. Apprentices must quickly advance through the second division to the major division, where League of Legends professional players receive an average salary of $ 200,000 per year as well as prize money and sponsorship deals.

As younger and nimble talent catch up, most esports athletes in South Korea end up before their 26th birthday.

Min-soo, the student who dreams of becoming an esports star, first felt the electrifying atmosphere of an esports arena when he was in middle school. Since 2019, he has been getting up at 6 a.m. every day and taking a two-hour bus and subway ride to the Gen.G Academy. He returns home at 11:30 p.m. and then continues practicing, rarely going to bed before 3:00 a.m.

This year he was finally considered good enough to start his exams as a trainee in a professional team.

“It’s a hard and lonely life because you have to give up everything else like friends,” he said. “But I’m happiest because I do what I enjoy most.”

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