South Korea: Where Gaming Is More Than a Hobby

These days, it’s just a given that gaming is a huge thing in South Korea. It’s accepted as the norm there and globally it’s seen as a view into the future for eSports fans and gamers alike. South Korea is a truly unique country when it comes to gaming, and what happens there might not necessarily happen anywhere else though.

How Did South Korea Become So Obsessed With Computer Games?

The crowd from a South Korean eSports event
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South Korea is often called the birthplace of eSports. Professional gaming has grown in popularity around the world, but it all started in the 1990s in South Korea. The country was actually struggling financially, so the government decided to invest in technology, particularly internet infrastructure.

Broadband internet became the norm, as did smartphones and other technology that would eventually spread worldwide and this led to a rise in gaming. At the same time, there was a surge in new TV networks and stations, thanks to the cheap technology and government support.

With gaming becoming more popular, a few television networks took a chance and started broadcasting some of the gameplay and tournaments. This was aired in the same way that you might see football or other sports on TV, making it more and more mainstream.

It really grew into eSports thanks to a partnership between the government and game developers at Blizzard. They worked together to organize events centered around the popular game of StarCraft. Starting in gaming rooms and growing to hotel ballrooms and even stadiums, soon thousands of people were coming together to watch these championships.

Since then, gaming has continued to be more than just a pastime in South Korea – it can also be a dream job and path to celebrity status.

People talk about professional gamers the same way that they do about major actors or politicians. They are celebrities, household names in most South Korean homes. Kids might have posters of their favorite eSports players or teams on their walls, and players can even have groupies or stalkers.

Just How Popular is Gaming in South Korea?

South Korea is now home to 25.6 million gamers, making it the 6th biggest gaming market in the world. With a total population of 51.26 million, that means almost half of the country’s population is playing games, with 43% of the gamers in South Korea women.

What makes South Korea unique is that a large portion of society also watches video gaming content. So, even people who aren’t playing are watching other people play video games.

A LAN party for the huge multiplayer game, Tree of Savior
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In fact, going to gaming clubs to watch tournaments is just as common for couples as going to the movies on dates.

Since the heyday of StarCraft, other games have grown in popularity in South Korea. Currently, the PUBG craze has swept over South Korea, getting 40% of the player base in the country.

League of Legends continues to be very popular, although Blizzard titles, particularly Overwatch, have also grabbed a lot of gamers’ attention. This is particularly interesting because traditionally, South Korean gamers have snubbed first person games, preferring instead the real time strategy titles like StarCraft or the MOBA titles like League of Legends or Dota.

Thanks to the popularity of other Blizzard titles like World of Warcraft and StarCraft, as well as MOBA like Dota and League of Legends, it’s actually been a perfect storm for Overwatch’s recent success.

Pro Overwatch player Ji Soo found the diverse gameplay, characters and teamwork reason enough for her to master the new genre. Plus, with tons of lucrative tournaments popping up around the country and the world, it’s a worthwhile game for professional gamers to start playing.

Where People Play

PC Bangs are internet cafes where South Korean's can go to play games
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In other countries, people are increasingly playing from their own homes, thanks to fiber internet connections and improved infrastructure. In South Korea gaming continues to be something that people do in gaming clubs, called PC Rooms or ‘PC Bangs’. These internet cafes offer gamers of all ages the chance to play on high-powered PCs, playing their favorite games on fast internet connections.

PC Bangs can also be host to smaller competitions and tournaments, as well as being a venue for gamers to talk about the latest events and debate which players are best.

Part social club, part internet cafe, part gaming venue, these PC Bangs can be found in the largest cities and smallest towns, with over 40,000 of them spread across the country.

The PC Bangs culture also promotes a more intense approach to gaming than you’ll find in other countries. Seth King, an eSports shoutcaster in Seoul, explained how they breed an “environment for competition and gaming”.

“Getting access to games you wouldn’t normally be able to play is fairly addictive and when you’re spending money to play them, you’re more likely to take them seriously and try to improve quickly,” King explained.

How Much Can Professional Players Earn?

Professional South Korean team competing at an event
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Even a decade ago, big brands started investing in esports. Much like traditional professional sports, players and teams had a direct line into people’s homes, with spectators tuning in to watch players compete in tournaments or even train using live streams. As a result, brands like Samsung, Red Bull and Coca-Cola sponsor teams who live together in team houses and often train for 12 hours a day.

It’s worth training like that when the prize pools are in the millions of dollars, though. Dota 2’s The International frequently has multi-million dollar prize pools, with the 2017 edition breaking all the eSports records with a total prize pool of 24,687,919!

Beyond the fact that tournaments can end up giving teams and players huge payouts, the real money comes from other forms of sponsorship.

Just like other sports, eSports organizations have team owners and partnerships that often provide professional players with housing, water and electricity, coaches and trainers, as well as food and gaming hardware.

eSports teams will often work with sponsors by letting them advertise on player jerseys, or even create social media campaigns. Players might use certain keyboards or headsets depending on their sponsors, making certain peripherals seem like the best products for any gamer looking to go pro.

Many eSports professionals are paid salaries by their teams, but there isn’t the same transparency in eSports as there is in football, so it’s hard to know exactly how much the players are paid.

Some articles have sited tournaments or teams promising a minimum of $12,500 during a match season, or $2,000 – $10,000 during playoffs. Best guess estimates seem to place average player salaries in the $25,000 – $30,000 range, excluding all benefits like free food and housing, as well as bonuses and payouts that come from winning tournaments.

The Social Cost of Gaming

A treatment center where gamers can go to deal with their addiction
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According to experts, the celebrity status of gamers as well as the constant availability of technology has led to internet addiction. One in ten Korean teenagers are considered addicted, with many being sent to government-run addiction centers for treatment. Some of the treatments can even include something similar to shock treatment.

This can sound rather extreme, but the reality is that gaming in Korea can be equally extreme.

There have been a few cases of teens and young adults dying after spending more than 12 hours playing video games. There was even a horrifying case of a three-month-old baby dying of malnutrition because of gaming:

“Her death attracted international attention once police revealed its cause: Sarang had slowly starved due to negligence. Her parents, both unemployed and living in relative poverty, would leave her alone for six to twelve hours at a time while they visited local PC cafes to play Prius, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) role-playing game that was popular in the country at the time.”

According to the addiction experts in South Korea, anyone playing video games for more than two hours a day could be considered to be addicted. Meanwhile, across South Korea and the rest of the world, many gamers choose to play for much longer than that without displaying the signs of addiction, compulsion or self-harm.

Addiction in any form is largely a personal matter and can’t be diagnosed or identified in such sweeping generalizations.

Gaming is much more than a simple hobby in South Korea. It’s a passion for half the population, and a potential career for those who excel at it. For some, it might lead down a path of destruction, while for others it can become a dream job or a path to success.