Inside South Korea’s “Deadly Serious” Electronic Sports World

SEOUL – The students ate lunch in silence before assembling in a dimly lit room filled with powerful computers. There, the trainers helped them learn to outsmart their opponents in a digital fantasy world riddled with ambushes and monsters. School was over by 5 p.m., but individual practice continued late into the night – all in a hard day’s work for students at one of South Korea’s many e-sports academies.

“I only sleep three or four hours a day,” said Kim Min-soo, 17, a student who wore a brace around his right hand to ease the pain from so much play. “But I want to be a star. I dream of an esports arena full of fans who all cheer me on. “

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

“In South Korea, players have to do their homework on their game before playing, because if they disrupt the effectiveness of their team, they can be sent off,” said Jeon Dong-jin, head of the US developer of Korea. Blizzard Entertainment video games, during a recent forum in Seoul. “South Korean players are deadly serious.”

Online gaming has taken off earlier and faster in South Korea than anywhere else in the world. When the country began to introduce high-speed internet in the late 1990s, it saw the proliferation of 24-hour gaming cafes called PC bangs.

These dark, often underground lounges, became hotbeds for gaming culture, eventually hosting informal tournaments. In 2000, South Korean cable channels were the first in the world to broadcast online gaming competitions.

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

The best players like Lee Sang Hyeok, who goes by the name of Faker, earns as much fame and fortune as the K-pop idols. Millions of people watch them play live. Before the pandemic, fans got carried away e-sports arenas which looked like a cross between a rock concert and a wrestling stage.

The allure can be hard to resist. Parents have taken children to counseling for gambling addiction or to rehabilitation boot camps. When conscientious objectors ask to be exempted from South Korea’s compulsory military service, authorities will investigate whether they play online games involving guns and violence.

The grades are dropping. Sometimes students drop out of school to spend more time playing. Yet few are those who will have the chance to succeed.

The 10 franchise professional esports teams in South Korea participating in League of Legends, the most popular game here, only hire 200 players in total. Those who do not make the cut have few alternatives.

Without good grades – and often high school diplomas – players will end up with limited employment prospects. And unlike some US universities, South Korean schools do not offer esports skills-based admission.

When Gen. G, a Californian esports company, opened its Gen.G Elite Esports Academy in Seoul in 2019, he wanted to take on some of those challenges because “that’s where most of the talent is,” said Joseph Baek, program director at Gen.G. “South Korea is still considered the Mecca of esports. “

The school trains young South Koreans and other students on how to go pro and helps game enthusiasts find opportunities as streamers, marketers and data analysts. In collaboration with the educational company Elite Open School, he opened an English-only program that offers students the opportunity to earn an American high school diploma so that they can apply to universities in the United States through esports scholarships.

One recent morning, sleep-deprived teens 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 required subjects. Some shuttled two hours each morning to get to school.

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

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

Anthony Bazire, a 22-year-old former French Gen.G academy student, said he chose South Korea as his training ground because he knew the country had some of the best players. Today, the big winners of League of Legends, Monitoring and StarCraft II are predominantly South Koreans.

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

The Gen. G, the first of its kind in South Korea, even helped some students convince their parents that they had made a good career choice.

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

“My parents were totally against it,” said 19-year-old Mr. Kim. “I told them I would have no regrets because it was the only thing I wanted to try in my life, put everything I had.”

Her mother, Lee Ji-eun, 46, was so upset that she was lying in her bed moaning. Ms. Lee finally decided to support her son after he once 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 drove his mother to the academy to convince her that he could be successful as an esports professional. He crossed a big hurdle to his dream this year by winning admission, based on his online gambling skills, to the University of Kentucky.

M. Bazire, the French player, joined Gen.G’s League of Legends team as a trainee player in March. He and other interns receive modest salaries as well as food and accommodation 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 an intern is little more than securing a foothold. Interns must quickly climb from the Second Division to the Main League, where professional League of Legends players receive an average salary of $ 200,000 per year, along with cash prizes and sponsorship deals.

With younger and more agile talents constantly catching up, the careers of most e-sports athletes in South Korea end before the age of 26, when Korean men at the end of the 20s feel compelled to start compulsory military service.

Min-soo, the student who dreams of becoming an esports star, first experienced the electrifying vibe of an esports arena when he was in college. Since 2019, he has been waking up every day at 6 a.m., taking a two-hour bus and metro ride to Gen.G. He gets home at 11:30 p.m. then trains more, rarely going to bed before 3 a.m.

This year he was finally deemed good enough to start taking tests to become an intern in a pro team.

“It’s a hard and lonely life, because you have to let go of everything else, like friends,” he said. “But I’m the happiest because I do what I love the most.”

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