The Gaming and eSports Industry in Korea
If you’ve paid attention to anything related to popular sports in the past five years, then I’m sure you’ve noticed the growth in eSports. However, if you’re still out of the loop, then I will inform you of this: eSports is a professional sport with a highly competitive atmosphere. And that’s not just in one country, that’s globally. For the sake of narrowing the large playing field down (haha, playing field… get it?), in this article I will talk mostly about the gaming and eSports industry in Korea.
Not only is eSports one of the most popular sport choices in South Korea, but it is also one of the most rapidly changing industries. The games I talk about within this article will shift and lose popularity, the most famous players will change, and even the teams will become something completely different within the following years. Some will even change within the following months. We can never predict when things will shift again in this industry. But, if you ask me, this is one of the more redeeming qualities of the gaming industry. It’s always exciting, always something new, and never sorry for it.
What is Gaming and eSports in Korea?
For a quick description and clarification, though the words gaming and eSports are interchangeable, gaming is the act of playing games whereas eSports is the actual sport of gaming. To be even more specific, eSports are when games are competitively played—usually in a tournament—with individuals and teams.
This is what eSports looks like on a basic level. But what is it in Korea? Well, it technically is this. However, Korea is one of the largest eSports location. This means that eSports is not only really big in Korea, but it is also more acceptable to have a career in gaming in Korea. Whereas, if you look somewhere else, like the US, you won’t see this level of acceptance for the gaming world. Like, at all.
The sport itself has been progressing rather slowly in countries that aren’t quite as technologically based. For instance, the US rarely mentions eSports, even though it’s not impossible to make it into the gaming world there. And it is even less welcoming as a career path in the eyes of everyone else. Even though it’s considered a professional sport now, you won’t be able to find it televised in the US any time soon (unless, of course, it’s a pay-per-view channel or one of the side sport channels that is very rarely used).
In Korea, however, eSports is a really popular. It’s been televised in Korea for the past twenty years and is one of the most popular career choices for teens and young adults. There are multitudes of tournaments every year for the sport and many bring in thousands of views. And, from here, the sport only grows bigger.
Popular Games They Play in eSports in Korea
1. League of Legends (LoL)
If we talk about popular games, then we should start off with the most popular game in the Korean eSports industry today: League of Legends (often written as LoL).
LoL is a multiplayer battle arena game where teams face off against each other in lengthy combats. On each team, five players battle with their own uniquely skilled character and try to reach the other team’s “base” on the other side of the map. They do this while protecting their own base. Though there are slight variations to the game mode, most follow very closely to this.
LoL came out in 2009 from Riot Games, but was first introduced to eSports in 2011. Since 2011, the game has quickly grown to be the top played throughout the world of eSports. In fact, the top players in the South Korean eSports industry today are all LoL players.
Another vitally important game to the eSports industry is Overwatch. Though Overwatch isn’t quite as popular as LoL is now, it was once the highest played game throughout the Korean eSports teams. In fact, some teams still play it (and one of the teams I mention later on in the article is strictly an Overwatch team).
This team-based multiplayer first-person shooter game brought people together to have fun. There are range of characters you can choose to play as and an array of skills each character has. Each team plays with six players and tries to accomplish whatever objective the map has (each one having different options) all while trying to shoot down the other team and protect their own teammates.
Though Overwatch wasn’t originally for eSports, the sport soon added the game to the mix a few months after its release in 2016. It reached its peak of popularity when it came to South Korea and swept through gaming cafes. At the time, it was even bigger than LoL—which was on the rise at the moment, but definitely not where it is today. With LoL picking up popularity, after a few years, Overwatch found itself slowly backing out of the limelight.
Overwatch’s company, Blizzard Entertainment, announced their own league for teams to participate in. This league began January of 2018 and still persists today.
Truly, this would not be an article about the Korean eSports industry if I didn’t mention StarCraft. This game was the game. The game that truly kicked off the popularity within eSports in Korea and truly lit passion for video games in so many people for eSports.
Originally released in 1998, this game swept the entire world. It was a real-time strategy game that you could play either by yourself or with a team. This science-fiction game had you following along a storyline with battles against various creatures. And, truly, I can’t even begin to explain what it’s all about—it’s that big of a game.
If you want to get into the statistics of popularity: in 2001, just three years after its release, StarCraft had over four million sales worldwide. Half of which were in South Korea alone. And furthermore, in 2009, StarCraft became the best-selling game for personal computers with over eleven million units sold. Again, many of which were just in South Korea. This game was huge. This game kicked off competitions that led to where eSports is today.
If there’s any game that you want to attach the popularity of eSports in Korea to then it better be StarCraft.
Popular Gaming/eSports Teams and Individuals in Korea
1. SK Telecom T1 (SKT T1 or T1)
While scanning through various articles about South Korean eSports, I always saw SKT T1 mentioned. This team, established in 2003 by T1 Entertainment & Sports, has won multiple leagues and championships over the course of its existence. Today, it holds some of the most popular players in the entire sport (which I’ll mention later).
It began as a StarCraft team that transferred from another company and it has since grown to a multi-game supergroup of a team. By this, I mean that there’s not just one team within this team, but there are multiple different ones for each game in eSports. Including LoL, Fortnite, PUBG, Hearthstone, and so much more.
This team has players from all over the world, but most are from South Korea. As more games grow in the sport, I’m sure SKT T1 will grow as well. This team has become so grand now that it’s almost hard not to see them mentioned when you talk about Korean eSports.
2. kt Rolster
Founded in 1999, this is one of the oldest teams from South Korea in this list. Of course, this team originally began with StarCraft. It held one of the most successful—and richest—StarCraft teams in all of the league. Currently, it holds one of the most popular LoL teams of the league.
Like SKT T1, kt Rolster also has players for various games, but does not have as many. Their main focus is LoL currently, so there’s no more than three players for the few other games the team plays. However, if you take into account that they have one of the best teams in the league at the moment… it’s probably a good thing that they focus so much on LoL.
3. Seoul Dynasty
While most teams do vary from league to league depending on which game is popular at the time, Seoul Dynasty is a team built up around the game Overwatch. Meaning, they only play Overwatch.
Built in 2017, this team is one of the league’s twelve founding Overwatch teams and also the only Overwatch team in South Korea. In its first couple years, Seoul Dynasty was one of the most popular teams in the league. Though it’s still widely popular, it’s slowing down in the ranks, too. It’s worth noting that they changed head coaches in late 2019, so I’m sure things are changing for the team itself.
1. Faker (aka Lee Sang-Hyeok)
At only twenty-four years old, Faker (Lee Sang-Hyeok) is the highest paid player in the South Korean eSports industry. Faker is one of the best LoL players of all time—literally, you don’t want to mess with this guy in the game. He’s that good.
He began his gaming career in 2013 when he was only sixteen/seventeen years old. He was revealed in SKT T1’s first LoL team with other members Impact, bengi, Piglet, and PoohManDu. They were considered the underdogs in their first OnGameNet tournament in 2013, but quickly overcame that title and placed third overall in the tournament. Not a bad way to make an entrance into the gaming world.
Faker made his own impact when he continuously beat out players thought to be leagues better than him—beating them in virtually every single match. And that was only in his first year of being a professional. Today, Faker is one of the most well-known names in the eSports community.
Over the course of his career, Faker has earned more than 1.2 million dollars, making him the highest earned player in South Korea.
2. Duke (Lee Ho-Seong)
Another powerhouse in the LoL game, Duke (Lee Ho-Seong) has played since 2013. He’s played with a multitude of teams—including kt Rolster Bullets, NaJin, SKT T1, and Invictus. Though it seems he no longer plays (he stopped in the beginning of 2020), he has the second most earnings in the South Korean eSports industry today.
At twenty-six years old, Duke has earned 954.6 thousand dollars in total—making him the second highest paid in South Korea. He has won first place in tons of LoL Championships across his entire career and left the sport on a high note.
3. Rogue (Lee Byung-Ryul)
Moving away from LoL for a moment, if we look to the StarCraft II game, one of the top earned players is Rogue. He first joined gaming in 2012—when he was eighteen—and is still playing today. His previous gamer ID was “Savage.” Currently, Rogue plays for Dragon Phoenix Gaming—a Chinese StarCraft II team.
Throughout his entire gaming career, Rogue has only played StarCraft II professionally. He is one of the highest paid players with a total of 884.7 thousand dollars from nearly 170 tournaments.
Tournaments for Gaming and eSports in/out of Korea
One thing to know about eSports is that the tournaments are fairly different than that of other sports. Like, there’s no overall championship that occurs every single year within eSports. Well, there is, but it’s different than what you’d expect.
Since eSports is always changing, that means that the championships are changing as well. Instead of a static champion every year, the eSports league has individual game championships. Like, for instance, the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK). Like the name suggests, this is a championship for only LoL. However, if LoL happens to get less popular over time, I’m sure the tournament will disappear.
Much like Overwatch. When Overwatch was in its prime, there were tons of tournaments for the game. However, now the tournaments for Overwatch rely mostly on the individual league set up by the game’s company. The same can be said for any other game in eSports.
Another popular tournament going on in Korea is the LoL KeSPA Cup. However, compared to LCK, it appears that this tournament shifts to accommodate the popular game at the time. The 2020 KeSPA Cup was the sixth year that LoL had been played for the tournament.
If you’re looking for a tournament to watch with gaming and eSports, it would be far easier to choose a specific game’s tournament. From there, you’ll be able to find plenty of tournaments to fill your time with.
Careers in Gaming and eSports in Korea
The biggest question that comes with the eSports industry is always: can you make it a career? Even to this day, people have a hard time grasping the fact that you can make a living from playing video games (well, you have to be able to play them extremely well, but those are details).
And, to answer this question… YES! You can absolutely make a career out of gaming. Especially nowadays. Now that it’s a professional sport, there’s a higher chance of it becoming a career choice for people. In South Korea, this industry is just as highly regarded as that of idols (though, it might not be that popular yet, it’s still widely known throughout the country and only growing bigger). When you start training to be an eSport player, you’re giving up everything to solely focus on this career. And, though most gaming careers end mid-to-late 20s, most professional players continue as coaches and trainers after their retirement from the sport.
So, if you’re able to get into gaming, then you’ll be more than able to make a career out of it. (Given that you’re exceptionally good at the game and continue to be so.)
Where will gaming and eSports go from here?
Well, eSports is on the rise. And with the way the world is now, with the pandemic still looming over our heads, gaming is only picking up speed. In 2019, the eSports industry made over 1 billion dollars worldwide. And it’s predicted that it’ll only earn more moving forward.
So, in the upcoming years, you might start catching more about eSports throughout the regular sport news. And possibly, we might end up seeing more of a career being built within the industry. There’s limitless possibilities for the gaming world at this time, so we’ll just have to wait and see where it goes.
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