Last year’s NBA Finals saw LeBron James beat Steph Curry’s record-breaking 73-win Warriors in a historic seventh game which drew over 31 million viewers, the most for an NBA Finals in 18 years. Just nine months before, a PC game called League of Legends (LOL) held their championship and drew a record 36 million viewers. Giant e-sports tournaments regularly outperform both the NBA Finals and World Series in viewership — and most people have no idea.
E-sports seem like a niche industry, but the numbers tell a different story. The viewership is huge; most of it online through websites like Twitch.tv, but with TV networks like ESPN testing the waters. Amazon just bought Twitch for roughly $1 billion and traditional sports teams, athletes, and executives are beginning to invest. This year’s The International, a big DOTA 2 competition in Seattle, awarded over $20 million in prizes.
What are E-Sports?
Electronic sports first took off right here in South Korea about twenty years ago when the government looked to stimulate its reeling economy with heavy investments in IT infrastructure. That decision gave rise to the ubiquitous PC Bang (PC방 or PC Room) around the same time that a company called Blizzard released the game Starcraft. The Korean gaming community took to Starcraft unlike anywhere else in the world and set the table for today’s e-sports phenomenon.
Now there are numerous games available to play competitively online. Riot Games’ League of Legends (LOL) is currently the most popular, but there’s a myriad of other titles, each with their own subcultures.
But it is fair to call it a sport? How one answers this question can reveal a lot about how much they know about e-sports.
E-sports Event Coordinator Eliot Miller, from ToBeGosu.com, thinks that competitors should be classified as athletes because they train and live like athletes. “They’ll have team houses where [they] will live and practice together, as well as having a personal chef… there’s even fitness instructors for some teams.”
An avid LOL gamer I met with here in Seoul, Dan Cornwell, echoed Eliot’s feelings. “My favorite team, TSM, train 14 hours a day, six days a week. I don’t mean they’re sitting in front of a computer clicking; I mean they’re going to the gym in the morning, then they go home and play three hours of games, then they sit with their team and analyze their games, then they play three more hours, [analyze] again, and then play three more hours…. Korean teams are worse.”
“ESports is here to stay,” Eliot adds, in regards to the skeptics and doubters. “Regard it as another sport, because that’s what it is. There are teams. There are leagues. There are people who dedicate their whole lives to commentary as well as people who train everyday to be the best.”
E-Sports in Seoul
Seoul is undoubtedly the Mecca of e-sports and South Koreans still dominate many of the games. This in due to Korea’s blazing internet speeds, the PC Bang culture, and Korea’s competitive spirit.
According to e-sports think tank NewZoo.com, over 25 million people in South Korea play games, and Korean gamers spend more money per player than anywhere else in the world. Korea has developed the reputation for being the most competitive and competent gamers in the world, too. “With a lot of ESports,” Eliot says, “the South Koreans are considered the unbeatable gods.” Although the rest of the world is slowly catching up, South Korea was the first country to broadcast e-sports on television and they still have the best competitors, studios, and commentators (known as “casters”) in the world today.
“In Seoul, there’s a duo called Nick Plott and Dan Stemkoski who are known by their aliases Tasteless and Artosis,” said Eliot. “They are regarded widely in the e-sports world as the greatest commentators. And even if you don’t follow [Starcraft], they are hilarious. People will flock to events that they do here in America or Europe, pay through the nose to go to an event to see that, but for free you can see them most weeknights in Seoul.”
Nick “Tasteless” Plott has made himself a comfortable living, and earned a level of fame, by being an entertaining expert in Starcraft. And that probably couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world today.
“I kind of came out here with a little bit of an existential crisis,” Tasteless explains, “where I was like, ‘I really like Starcraft and I grew up playing this game in tournaments, I was one of the best players in the United States and [now] what do I do with this thing that I have? Well I guess I’ll move out to Korea.’”
Korea is the only place that nurtures this kind of industry, so far, because there’s just so many fans, players, and interest. “One advantage that Korea has over the rest of the world,” Tasteless says, “is that there’s just a ton of great gamers in Seoul. So you can run [an e-sports] studio pretty effectively because everyone’s in the neighborhood.”
Although Seoul is the nexus of e-sports, with the best English commentators, trying to find information on an event in Korea can be daunting if you don’t understand Korean. In that one way, here in Seoul, the e-sports life is not so much different than regular expat life.
“My advice would be to learn Korean or get to know a Korean.” Dan Cornwell says this while playing LOL at his favorite PC Bang near Seoul National University Station: a clean, spacious, wood-panelled basement room that could be mistaken for an organic cafe if not for the armada of high-end gaming PCs.
PC Bangs can be daunting for a newcomer. Dan found two friends, Moon Sungdok and Lee Sora, who showed him how to get a PC Bang account and log-in to play the game. And I found the three of them on Meetup.com. Without that support, one must rely on Google Translate and saintly patience.
As big as e-sports are in South Korea, it’s only the tip of the iceberg. The PC Bang is what’s underneath the surface, holding it up. PC Bang gaming is so prevalent that slang terms used in games have permeated the general language of young people. Dan explains that “even on TV Shows people will use terms in Konglish like “hard-carry” (used to describe someone independent and strong, like a character that doesn’t need much support from their team); or “feeding” (used to describe an idiotic action, like a character that gets killed a lot and ‘feeds’ the other team money which makes them stronger).”
I wanted to learn how to play League of Legends myself, but Dan was hesitant. “Here’s how you learn LOL: you play for a year and you get wrecked every single day. Doesn’t that sound fun? I’m surprised you haven’t heard anyone yelling swear words in here.”
“It sounds ridiculous,” added Sunghok, “but you should study [laughs]. And you need to have some endurance. Korean people are really competitive.”
But it’s that competitiveness that draws gamers here from around the world. If you want to test yourself against the best of the best, Dan explains to me, you need to be here to play on the Korean servers.
“The pulse of e-sports is what people are playing in PC Bangs.”
If you’re an expat who is curious to find out more, Tasteless recommends you check out a PC Bang or a live stream on Twitch first. If you get excited seeing row after row of serious gamers, or enjoy the commentary and competition of the world’s best on a live stream, then get up close by checking out a live event.
If you’re a tourist and want to check out a live event, you have to dig. Search Reddit, AfreecaTV, or OGN Global. Luckily, most of the studios are free to attend and AfreecaTV even offers English-language headsets.
And if you’re still skeptical about e-sports, you’re not alone… yet.
“I was just on BBC,” Tasteless told me, “and you can just tell that they’re so caught up in, like, ‘Is this really a thing?’ when it’s so very much a thing.
“What’s strange is that it’s already bigger than a lot of sports that are in the mainstream.”
Rob Shelley is a freelance writer and editor who writes about beer, culture, MMA, and more. Check out his work at www.coldcalc.com.
OGN E-sport Stadium
AfreecaTV Studio (GSL)
Story By: Rob Shelley
Photos by: Robert Evans