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Cross Sections of Culture and Class: The Prevalence of South Korean Pro Gamers

From the Olympics to the World Cup, sporting and competition have an established track record of breaking down international barriers. With the globalizing force of the internet and the advent of the esports industry, this is a tradition that has entered a new era in terms of competition, an era closely observed and analyzed by a global fanbase-slash-marketplace ever-eager to understand and capitalize on trends and statistics of all kinds. One noticeable trend would have to be the number of successful pro gamers hailing from South Korea. As with anything, the number of factors that lead into such trends developing, in esports and beyond, are many. With the ever-increasing attention on the global esports industry, it’s well worth considering what factors are at play when it comes to the example of South Korea’s successful track record of producing champions.

South Korea
Image Courtesy: The Economist

We previously discussed in our piece the “O.G.’s of Esports” that the esports industry as it exists today has roots in a variety of economic factors in East Asia during the mid-to-late 90s. This is particularly true for South Korea. As we wrote in that piece: 

“Following the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, large numbers of newly-unemployed people with a lot of extra time on their hands flooded into internet cafes and LAN gaming centers across East Asia, setting the stage for the founding of the Korean Esports Association, or KeSPA. This branch of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism is dedicated to regulating esports and was founded in 2000.”

Considering one of the very first official government esports associations began in South Korea, it’s fair to assume that the country has been taking gaming seriously from the start. However, there’s more to it than that. 

While the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis kickstarted the esports industry, a number of today’s young champions were literally born in a different millennium than that in which it occurred. They came into gaming in a world shaped by the same course of events that led to the founding of KeSpa, yet their experience is vastly different than the gamers that made up that first generation of esport pros. In an expansive and insightful piece for Wired, writer Jonathan Lee delves into some of the common denominators among today’s crop of champions hailing from South Korea.

In his piece, entitled “Why So Many Esports Pros Come From South Korea,” he starts off by reflecting on his career’s worth of conversations with Korean gamers. “From all those conversations, a curious pattern emerged: virtually every Korean pro gamer I spoke with told me they came from a working-class family.” Upon noticing this “curious pattern,” Lee proceeded to speak “with over a dozen sources, including academics and Korean players and staff in the Overwatch League,” ultimately arriving at some interesting findings. 

Jonathan Lee – Image Courtesy Twitter

Lee starts off by establishing some facts; namely, that South Korea has one of the most educated populations in the world. With over 70% of students continuing on with their education after high school and an extremely competitive “academic environment,” if a family is unable to afford extra tutoring or cram schools, their students are unlikely to score well enough “on the Suneung, South Korea’s nationalized college entrance exam.” Although tutoring and supplementary education is extremely expensive, the long-established internet cafes are extremely affordable. Lee notes that “PC bangs—gaming cafés where you can rent a PC and play popular games for hours on end… charge about ₩1,000 an hour, which roughly comes out to $1.” Ultimately, this sets the stage for a large number of working class students with free time that their peers from higher income households do not have. When this demographic utilizes that free time affordably accessing games, they become some of the most highly skilled gamers in the world. 

Still, the phenomenon isn’t as simple as a bunch of young people with free time gaming because there’s nothing better to do. Gaming represents something a lot more important than a hobby or mere way to kill time: it represents an escape. Among the people Lee spoke to was one of the coaches with Overwatch team the Seoul Dynasty, Kim “WizardHyeong” Hyeong-seok. WizardHyeong went to the sort of high school known to act as a stepping stone leading to the South Korean equivalent of the Ivy League in the U.S. However, WizardHyeong’s home life was made difficult by poverty, a single mother dealing with handicaps, and an oft-incarcerated father. WizardHyeong was able to use gaming as a way to escape from the hardships of his childhood, something common for a lot of young people in similar situations: “He confirmed that he knows several other Korean OWL players who plunged themselves into gaming to cope with problems at home, financial instability, or the pressure of living in a society that views academic excellence and a college education as the only legitimate avenue for a good life.”

Image Courtesy of the Seoul Dynasty

Lee notes the similarity between aspiring baseball players in countries like Dominican Republic and aspiring gamers in South Korea. In both instances, young people can use either sports or esports to escape their station in life. One interesting difference between gaming in South Korea and the United States is how income levels prohibit accessibility when it comes to gaming. In the U.S., low-income families aren’t able to afford PCs and gaming consoles, making access to gaming for individuals with less-disposable income nearly impossible. In South Korea, due to the popularity of gaming cafes, the opposite is true. In an article called “Why are Koreans Good at Games? – The Story Behind History and Culture” from Inven Global.com, writers Jaehoon “Laffa” Jeong and David “Viion” Jang discuss how this difference came about. As mentioned previously, one of the aftereffects of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis was the increased popularity in gaming cafes. However, according to Jeong and Jang, the prevalence of those cafes came about specifically because, “to overcome the crisis, the government invested in the IT industry to create high-value businesses. This made the price of PCs go down drastically and high-speed internet lines were supplied throughout the country.” Even beyond the cafes, access to PCs and high-speed internet became extremely accessible, regardless of income. That level of accessibility is not the same for the U.S..

Jeong and Jang go on to discuss other cultural reasons for the success of South Korean Gamers. According to them, a key element comes down to the same competitive environment that exists with the South Korean academic structures. “The reason students spend so much time at school is because of the competitive atmosphere in Korea’s society. Korea is a country that has a high youth unemployment rate and the standard of ‘work’ is based on high-tech industries rather than primary industries… So naturally, students begin to compete amongst themselves… and many pro gamers became professionals through this process.” Jeong and Jang speculate that the same highly-competitive environment that keeps them from being able to afford the pursuit of higher education carries over to their success in gaming. 

In the rest of Lee’s piece for Wired, he goes on to remind readers that, more than anything else, gamers are people. Since they’re from South Korea and are operating on a global platform, these South Korean pros are being viewed by global and Western audiences. The result is that often, something gets lost in translation. On top of that, especially in the West, racist preconceptions can negativley affect the way these players are viewed and treated, feeding into stereotypes and assumptions. One of the things Lee is able to convey through his piece is the value of understanding where these players are coming from on a cultural level. As he writes, “Understanding them as more than just a bad translation is to humanize them with the same courtesy that Western players are given.” 

Esports as a global industry has so much potential to connect people and break down barriers. It can only do so if people remember that on the other side of the screen is a person holding that controller. Regardless of where a player happens to be from, there are a variety of factors that bring competitors together. By understanding these factors and recognizing our cultural similarities and differences, gaming can humanize us all.

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