Rachael Joo on South Korean Domination in Esports

Rachael Miyung Joo is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, USA. She is trained as a cultural anthropologist who also works in the field of cultural studies. She published a book, Transnational Sport: Gender, Media, and Global Korea (Duke 2012) that focuses on the significance of transnational sports in defining global Koreanness in the 21st century based on field research in Seoul, South Korea and Los Angeles, California. Her current book project focuses on the role of golf in shaping a sense of global Koreanness with particular attention to the social and environmental consequences of this sudden and extraordinary rise of interest in the game of golf by Koreans throughout the world. Her new book investigates Korean golf in South Korea, the United States, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

Ava Liao CMC '23 interviewed Dr. Rachel Joo on September 11, 2020.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Rachel Joo.

The esports industry has grown rapidly with the introduction of gaming to mainstream popular culture, and is projected to become a $1.5 billion industry by 2023. What do you think has led to the extraordinary growth of competitive gaming?

More people, and especially young people, are spending more and more time on video games. They also watch movies, listen to music, and play physical sports. However, in the past few years, the video game industry overtook movies and music combined in terms of revenue. More kids are learning to program by themselves. They have more opportunities, and by the time they reach university, they can get a degree in video game design—it’s not only a hobby, but also a viable career. Although there are still some people who think that it’s a waste of time, that stigma is fading and now it’s considered more of an everyday activity: because of that, it can be made into a competition, and be commercialized and monetized. 

Not all video games are sports, though. Esports are the video games that require physical and mental dexterity, rapid movement, strategic playing and endurance. Being defined as a competitive sport requires physical training and skill. There are other sports that are heavily dependent on technology, such as car racing and yachting. Baseball and golf depend on “technologies” such as bats and clubs. Even a ball is “technology,” so a technologically-assisted sport is nothing new—it’s just the technologies themselves changing.

The problem of recognition in esports stems from the slow-to-the-take sports media and news media. In the United States, video games are still seen by older people in media outlets as something that’s done by adolescent boys. These people in the media have a bias toward things they are familiar with—but this will change as the video game generation becomes professionalized, and esports become part of regular sports programming on ESPN or reported on regular news. The most streamed YouTube videos are gaming videos, and U.S. mainstream media outlets are slow to understand that you can make a lot of money by putting all this together into a television channel with celebrities, journalists and personalities, like in Korea. Sports tend to reflect the times. Boxing and baseball used to dominate, and now football and basketball dominating. With the pandemic and the loss of live content, more people are becoming aware of esports, or are playing and watching more esports during this time.

The esports industry owes much of its evolutionary framework to the corporate franchising of sports. Much like the Premier League or FIFA, world championships and game-specific “leagues” have become common in competitive gaming, along with high player salaries and multi-million dollar buy-ins. Do you think that the future of esports is tied to conventions found in more traditional sports?

Yes. Celebrity culture and branding are important, and fandoms tied to individuals and teams are being cultivated by leagues. Sometimes these leagues are based on national identity, or corporations, but fans drive sports, at least in terms of its moneymaking dimension. Fandom is fairly personality-driven. That’s important because it gives you a personal connection to that sport, and makes it exciting. The difference between esports and a lot of other competitive games is that people have an emotional connection to a person or a team, and it’s not all about gambling or betting on the best player. Professional sports in general have always had that element of spirituality, and it’s the unpredictability of a live game played by a human being that makes sports, and esports, so much fun. 

Another similarity to traditional sports is the audience has the actual experience of playing the games themselves. With so many people growing up on video games, they can really appreciate the training and work that goes into being a professional player. Those who have not played video games will never really get how much work and skill it takes to be a professional. Kids who grew up playing high school or college basketball can recognize how exceptional NBA players are. Similarly, kids who grew up with video games can follow the games closely, and understand what’s going on emotionally. Also, having professional reporters who can offer play by play, color commentary and expert analysis helps build excitement during a game. If you’re watching on YouTube or Twitch and someone’s showing you what you should be looking out for—using replays, getting excited about a certain moment in the competition—it makes it more exciting. That infrastructure is something that’s growing in esports. Once there are more regularized television channels in the U.S., which I think will happen, even the commentators will become famous in their own right.  

In Western countries, esports tournaments are usually broadcasted through internet live streams on sites such as YouTube and Twitch. In South Korea, there are multiple channels on cable television dedicated to esports tournaments. Has this format made competitive gaming more integrated into Korean culture, and more “acceptable” as a career than it is in the West?

This will change rapidly in the United States as esports becomes a viable industry. At this point in the U.S., gaming careers are treated more like engineering: necessary, but invisible; where playing is thought to be a kind of private act, despite being a huge industry. It is less public than in a place like Korea, but that is changing in the U.S. There are still a lot of people who see games as “rotting” their children’s brains, who will limit their “screen time,” and do not see it as a worthwhile skill in terms of creating a career. Getting a job in game design requires technical skill and creativity, and it is also a safer bet with better job security than being a marine biologist, for example. Attitudes are changing fast, and young people understand that there are lots of jobs, and will continue to be lots of jobs in the video game and esports industry—if not as a player, then in the support and media realm.  

In terms of Korean culture, there were a number of ways that it became much more acceptable.  PC bangs, or PC rooms, became very popular. These are places open 24 hours a day where you can pay to play per hour with friends and strangers, where you can have your cup ramen or drinks delivered to your PC, so you never have to leave the game. There are famous cases where this kind of intense focus on the game has led to people dying of heart failure, or dying after playing for three days straight. But what normally happens in these PC rooms is that people get together and play on their own; if someone is really good, then everyone stops and gathers around that player. Everyone gets excited about this person getting to the highest level or competing at this extraordinary level. People would get reputations for being really good, and they would join local competitions. This informal practice then became formalized and commercialized.

Playing video games is considered an acceptable after-school hobby. At the same time, it can also become a social problem, too, because after school or work, kids will go and spend all night in PC bangs. They even enacted a law to prevent anyone who was under 18 from being in a PC bang after 10 p.m. A lot of kids will lie and say they went to hagwon, which is the cram school, and instead go to the PC room. Some of them have become great esports players! Some parents even support it, because in Korea—if you’re not on top of your academics, then you’re not going to go to college and you probably won’t get a good job. Video games are an alternative. Some parents see it as a way to strategize for their children’s future, so they encourage them to play. 

South Korea is often regarded as an especially strong competitor in most esports (most notably League of Legends and StarCraft 2) It is also the first country to establish a government body, the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA), to manage the industry. What led to the rise of competitive gaming in South Korea, and how has it become so dominant internationally?

There are many reasons related to history, culture, investment in infrastructure, and government policy. South Korea in particular has awesome internet. It invested in the infrastructure for universal broadband two decades ago, and now has virtually universal wireless 5G. The government encouraged the widespread adoption of digital communications as a way to promote the technology industry, and also as a way to make the workforce and economy more globally competitive. South Korea had some foresight in that regard. They also invested in culture industries, which many people call “hallyu,” or the “Korean wave.” 

In other words, the government invested a lot of money in helping support video game industries. In fact, video games have always made far more money than the other more high-profile culture industries like K-pop, drama, and film, but it’s rarely mentioned. 

In addition, the games that are most popular are massive multiplayer online games (MMPOGs), rather than console games, which tend to be popular in Japan.  Culturally speaking, you could also say that Korea is an extremely competitive society, where “being the best” is the only place to be.  The culture celebrates whoever is the best at MMPOGs, or esports, in PC bangs. The entire national atmosphere, the availability of PC rooms and PC games, and government funding for internet infrastructure all support this. Previously Korea had informal competitions, which became formalized leagues. The government’s really supporting it, which is why there’s a Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA)—something that doesn’t exist in the U.S. Also, even when the leagues themselves are being sponsored by corporations, there is still a sense of Korean national identity, while in the U.S. everything is very much divided by individual preference, or by access to high speed internet.

One of KeSPA’s official goals is to make esports an “official sporting event.” In 2017, the International Olympic Committee issued a statement saying that competitive gaming “could be considered a sporting activity,” but currently have no plans to include esports in any of the upcoming Olympic Games. Do you think that esports will eventually be considered as a “traditional” sport, and what would have to change for that to happen?

While I believe esports is a sport, it will always be separate from traditional sports. Some people will never accept that esports are sports, just as some people don’t believe that horse racing or car racing are sports. Maybe you can divide it up in this way: sports, or traditional sports, are those that require a shower and a locker room.  Then there are esports, which require a persistent, reliable, and fast internet connection and powerful computers. It is simply a matter of what kinds of technologies you’re going to need, and also how you use your body.

The biggest South Korean esports teams include T1 (formerly SKT T1), Samsung Galaxy and KT Rolster—all backed by large Korean tech companies. How much has esports contributed to the technology industry in South Korea in its pivot to an “IT-driven economy”?

Esports has risen as part of this growth, but frankly, it is the hardware that drives IT growth in Korea. Infrastructure drives the IT growth in Korea. Korea, in terms of IT, is much more concerned about hardware and innovating things like hand-held cellphones to the point where devices can be faster and smaller, and have more bells and whistles. But in my opinion, video games, in terms of software, are one of the biggest components of Korean IT. The esports industry acts as an advertising arm for the software. The people who are making these devices with faster internet speeds are not intentionally trying to create better networks that make esports a bigger industry. It might be on the minds of engineers, but I don’t think that esports itself is really driving those decisions at this point. They might inspire some of those innovations, but currently it is still much more of an advertising vehicle for technology and software. That is why you see professional sports leagues sponsored by IT companies with lots of cross-marketing for things such as PCs, cellphones and communications devices. 

There is still a very strong sense of nationalism that drives innovation in Korea. Korean success here is not just a celebration of the IT companies, but rather a celebration of the whole nation. It is not about the individual being the best at whatever game it is: it’s about “being Korean means being the best at esports,” or that “Korea is great at producing technology.” 

After Korea, which countries are the ones to watch for the rise in the popularity of esports?

The rise of Korea has been based on investment in infrastructure and culture. I don't think it’s based on national attitude as much as on things like quality of internet, access to powerful computers, and a culture of players who have built up competitive skills around gaming. 

China, which has the most players, is already a major presence in esports. It has a large “gold mining” or “boosting” industry where people get paid to take over someone’s identity in a game so that they can sleep or go to work without losing their position at a certain level, or their progress in general. You can pay for different levels of skill, and that’s almost entirely a Chinese industry. There are just so many players, and there is the urban environment, with some places having great internet. 

In the U.S., universal broadband is not good because it is divided by region and concentrated in urban areas. Even fast internet connections are unreliable in places. Even if the U.S. figures out how to create better internet infrastructure, the country might still be a bit behind. There have been articles about people who live together in houses with coaches to get that intensive experience, similar to what is cultivated in PC bangs. They realized that you have to always be competing against the best players, and the best way to do that is to have everyone in a house and hire a maid, or someone to cook and clean for you, so you can just play games all day. That collective culture is essential to push players to be better. That is something that you cannot get online in your own room. There are some exceptions, obviously, with really good players that emerge out of nowhere who become stars. However, in esports—like with sports—you have to play against the best players to become better. This requires the technology to do that, and you need to be in a place where you can surround yourself with the best in the industry. 

Places like Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, which have good internet, have emerging talents. Japan has a lot of potential since many of their console games are now being networked. But Japanese culture is a little different. They are still console-oriented, and I don’t know if that’s going to change. It might, since there is money in esports. I don’t want to say it’s all about infrastructure, because Norway, which has the second best internet in the world, is nowhere near the top of the esports world. It’s not like Norwegians are encouraging their kids to be the best at their video games, or to get together and play, or have PC bangs and a collective gaming culture. A lot of it relies on the cultural acceptability of going somewhere and playing games for however long, which is more prevalent in Asian countries.

Ava Liao CMC '23Student Journalist


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