I grew up the youngest of four siblings. I was teased, tickled, and spent ample time watching people play video games. I never imagined one of those would someday be among the fastest growing industries in the world.

That industry is eSports and South Korea is its reigning king. ESports are exploding in popularity all over the world, but Korea is five steps ahead. There are prize pools that reach into the millions of dollars and fans who swoon over players as if they were Elvis.If I wanted my year in South Korea to be a complete experience, I had to find out why so many people pay to watch others play video games. I had to see an eSports game.

I went Friday after work with Yoana, my friend and my translator. The game we would see is called League of Legends. There were twenty other people already waiting when we arrived, including another foreigner. I sat next to him and he introduced himself as Joe, an American G.I. from South Dakota.

He was new to Korea and was stationed south of Seoul. He said it was overwhelming to go from South Dakota to navigating the subways of Seoul. But when he reserved his ticket from OGN’s website, the site gave him all the information he needed.

I didn’t know about the website before talking to Joe, and I wish I had. I got lost. If you plan to go, the stadium is on the 9th floor of the I-Park Mall, which is attached to Yongsan station (Line 1). This season, OGN hosts games Wednesday through Saturday. They start at 5pm, except Thursday which starts at 2pm.

korvia image photo esports gamer - A Day at the Games: eSports in South Korea

I told Joe that ESPN recently made some of its viewers angry by airing eSports. Fans called in, complaining that eSports isn’t athletic enough for ESPN.

“I don’t know if it’s athletic, but it’s still a sport,” Joe responded. “It’s competition.”

The front door opened and Joe left to find his seat. He also got a radio to listen to the English casters. The radios are free rentals with a 10,000₩ deposit. Headphones not included.

Before the game started, Yoana and I talked to a college-aged girl named Lee Seul. She told us she comes to see every game CJ Entus plays. She said she likes the team because of their playstyle, but also because the players are kind to their fans.

I asked, “Why do you watch the games here instead of online?”

“I come because you can feel the energy from the players and the casters,” she said. “Also, the winning team has a fan meet after the game, so I can talk with the players and give them a gift.”

The games were about to start, so we wished her luck and found our seats.

It was more like a presentation hall than a stadium. Chairs fanned out from an elevated stage at the front where the game casters sit. A projector screen lowered and the countdown began. It was the first live event I had been to where you look up once the action begins.

korvia image photo esports ipark stadium inside - A Day at the Games: eSports in South Korea

The Korean casters roared onto the scene, dominating the room’s energy. I couldn’t tell what they were saying, but damn it if this wasn’t exciting. I put in my headphones to listen to the English cast and found much calmer voices talking about the matches to come. I spent the rest of the evening with one earphone in and the other ear drinking up the ambience of the Korean scene.

The announcers introduced the two competing teams, IM and Anarchy. Finally the players themselves took their seats in the team booths at the front of the room. They stoically listened as their coaches paced behind them discussing strategy.

League of Legends has a novel’s worth of depth when it comes to strategy, but the foundation of the game is simple. Two teams battle to destroy each other’s base. I offered to explain some of the strategy to Yoana so she didn’t feel lost, but her attention was already held in a more personal story.

“He proved he wasn’t finished just yet.”

One of the players, “Expession,” had just come out of retirement and this was his first game back on stage. The enemy team took advantage of his nerves by gaining up on him, but Expession’s team came to support. By the end of the game, he had become an unstoppable force that carried his team to victory. He proved he wasn’t finished just yet.

During a break between games, I spoke with Susie Kim. Susie works for OGN as a caster and translator. I asked her what she thought about the different energies the Korean and English casters have.

“It’s in the language,” she said. “Korean has a lot of filler words that are exciting. When you say them, it adds hype.”

She asked me what my article was about. I told her I wanted to experience video games as a mainstream form of entertainment.

She shook her head. “It’s not mainstream,” she said. “I see eSports like WWE was a few years ago. Most people don’t pay attention to it, but people who love it really do love it. But it’s not mainstream.”

korvia image photo esports fans - A Day at the Games: eSports in South Korea

Later, the fan meet for IM, the winning team, started. I didn’t know any of the players, but I still got in line.

Yoana strolled around while I waited. When she returned, she said, “The girls are fixing their make-up in the restroom before meeting the players.” These gamers are Elvis Presley.

After getting an autograph from a player, I somehow managed to speak with IM’s owner and manager, Donghoon Kang.

Donghoon is a busy man, so I got straight to the point. “Why do people watch eSports?”

He said, “ESports is the same as basketball, volleyball…but eSports makes more money in Korea. Young people—students—watch eSports. It’s exciting and cathartic.”

I worried that he thought I was mocking eSports because he answered in a defensive tone. I wasn’t mocking, but I can’t blame him. This is a man who helped build this infant of an industry and fought for every step it’s learned to take.

“This is a man who helped build this infant industry and fought for every step it’s learned to take.”

Yoana and I went inside as the second set of matches began. This was the show match between CJ Entus and Jin Air, two teams tied near the top of the bracket and closing in on the end of the season.

The first game was an hour long back and forth battle. Fifty minutes in, CJ Entus was pushed back into their base with all their defenses destroyed. They were powerless and appeared to be waiting for Jin Air to execute them. But CJ saw a small vulnerability in the enemy team’s positioning and took advantage of it, driving them back step by step to the anthem of their fans’ deafening cheers.

I took off my headphones. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand the language. Comeback stories are universal and energy surged through the audience. Whether it’s on a field or on a screen, competition is competition and this was exciting.

Book your tickets (5,000₩) for League of Legends here.

Article edited by Yoyin Adenusi

 

Featured images courtesy of Piotr Drabik (one, two)  & Michael Smit