If there’s a competitive mode, you'll find Korean players at the top of the charts. But the reasons have less to do with esports and more to do with culture and class.
The San Francisco Shock, shown here celebrating its 2019 Overwatch League Grand Finals win, is just one pro esports team with a roster heaviy reliant on South Korean talent.
I’ve been reporting on esports since 2011, and over the years, I’ve had the great privilege of interviewing dozens of Korean pro gamers. Outside of press interviews, I often spoke with these players casually in Korean during lunches, smoke breaks, and after parties. 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.
When I brought this up to Korean coaches and players I spoke with in the Overwatch League, many of them were surprised. None of them had considered this common thread they may all share, nor how it might’ve contributed to their decision to join the esports industry. But upon reflection, most of them agreed that it was true. When I asked them how many Korean players they could think of who are the children of college graduates, they could only name a handful of exceptions.
“We don’t really talk about our parents a lot,” Pan-seung “Fate” Koo said, who is currently the main tank of the Florida Mayhem. “But from what I can gauge, there are barely any people who fit that description.”
I spoke with over a dozen sources, including academics and Korean players and staff in the Overwatch League to find out why. What emerged from those interviews was a story about how a high-risk endeavor like esports has traditionally attracted a certain class of competitors who come from families that have the least to lose and the most to gain.
Going Pro and the Promise of Escape
Jung “Xzi” Ki-hyo of the Paris Eternal grew up as the son of a bus mechanic. At the New York Excelsior (NYXL) Homecoming in 2018, Park “Saebyeolbe” Jong-ryeol told me he was working as a barista before going pro and that his father was a cab driver. Even Fate, who was described by his peers as an outlier since his father runs his own law firm, resisted the assumption that he grew up financially stable.
Much of their decisions to go pro hinged upon schooling. South Korea is a famously well-educated country where roughly 70 percent of students pursue higher education after high school. However, the academic environment is also intensely competitive, to the point where cram schools are a given for most Korean students who hope to score well on the Suneung, South Korea’s nationalized college entrance exam.
For Korean students whose families can’t afford private tutors or cram schools, the odds are stacked considerably against them. PC bangs—gaming cafés where you can rent a PC and play popular games for hours on end—however, are innumerable and very affordable. Most PC bangs charge about ₩1,000 an hour, which roughly comes out to $1.
So here’s the math: South Korea is the most fiercely skilled gaming region on the planet, but that’s because it has a bunch of working-class kids with little social mobility and a lot of free time (no tutoring, no cram school) with ubiquitous access to dirt-cheap internet cafés. South Korea’s gaming infrastructure and culture is what gives Korean kids the means to become the best players in the world, but the country’s structural inequality is a big part of what drives them to go pro in the first place.
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Kim “WizardHyeong” Hyeong-seok, a coach with the Seoul Dynasty, is a product of both these worlds. He’s an alumnus of Daewon Foreign Language High School, an elite feeder school that prepares students to enter a “SKY school” (an acronym for the big three of Korean universities—Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University—and other prestigious institutions abroad.
But he also described a difficult childhood with a mother who was handicapped and a father who was in and out of prison.
“At many points,” WizardHyeong said. “My family was so poor that we couldn’t even pay the electricity bill, so I had to take a cold shower in the fucking winter.”
For WizardHyeong, gaming offered an escape from a reality so hellish that as a 9-year-old, he stood over the edge of a building and contemplated suicide. While his case is extreme, 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.
Sports, Esports and Aspiration
Photograph: Hunter Martin/Getty Images
In this sense, it seems esports isn’t too dissimilar from traditional sports like baseball where Dominican kids train in Major League Baseball-sponsored camps with the hope of making it to the big leagues one day. Esports, particularly the Overwatch League, seems to be another arena run by American corporations where young men of color are disproportionately represented as the dominant competitors, to the point where they are appraised as the best on the planet.
When I asked Albert “yeHHH” Yeh, general manager of the Florida Mayhem, about the biggest differences he’s noticed between the western players and Korean players he’s worked with, he said the biggest distinction was their motivation.
“I don’t want to dumb it down,” Yeh said. “But to generalize, they’re very money-motivated. Their contract matters a lot to them, like their salary, whereas I think for western players a lot of the time it’s more passion-focused.”
Yeh attributed this to the looming obligation of mandatory military service that all Korean men must fulfill. Many Korean players see conscription as the unofficial end of their esports careers. While some have returned to the industry as commentators or coaches after finishing their service, very few have come back to compete as players again.
But Yeh also confirmed that some of his players send money back to their families. After signing with the Overwatch League, they became the primary breadwinners for their respective homes, which seemed to track with my hypothesis that many Korean pros come from working-class backgrounds.
I shared this hypothesis with Tara Fickle, author of [The Race Card: From Gaming Technologies to Model Minorities](https://english.uoregon.edu/publication/race-card-gaming-technologies-model-minorities) and a professor at the University of Oregon. In her book, Fickle explored the role that games have played in shaping America’s “fictions of race,” and how Asian Americans have had to “fit the roles, play the game, and follow the rules to be seen as valuable” in the country’s racial hierarchy. This idea of playing the game to move up the social ladder seemed to apply more literally in the case of Korean pro players.
“Something that I’ve found in studying games, and this predates video games,” Fickle said, “is that games involving chance, professionalization, or monetization are often aspirational discourses. They can provide alternatives for people for whom education or family inheritance isn’t an option, almost like a social trampoline. Players might think, 'I don’t have the money or time or ability—often because of inequality and injustice—to ascend the ladder step by step: to be put into schools that would lead me to take the entrance exam that would lead me to college and a white-collar job and so on. Of course, while gaming seems like an alternative to meritocracy, it still reinforces the idea that if you work really hard, you will succeed.”
The Myth of Esports as Pastime
If this story seems so prevalent among Korean players, then why hasn’t it been discussed and studied by now? Media scholar and professor Jin Dal Yong, author of the seminal esports scholarship text Korea’s Online Gaming Empire, confirmed with me that “going to gundae” (the colloquial Korean phrase for conscription) is indeed a soft form of retirement. However, he couldn’t say anything about the backgrounds of these players, since his research was focused on how the global economy and Korean government policies fostered the growth of esports in the country.
Some other sources I spoke with offered a simpler culprit that I’ve long suspected: good old fashioned stereotypes.
When esports were rapidly growing in North America and Europe during the 2010s, the western press ran stories with colorful headlines such as “Korea’s National Sport” and “For South Korea, E-Sports Is National Pastime.” I have yet to meet a Korean who would agree with either of those headlines.
Korea’s most beloved sports have always been baseball and soccer, and they will remain so for the foreseeable future. An esports superstar such as Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok (who is possibly the greatest competitor to play in any esport) may be very popular and well known in Korea, but the Korean pros I spoke with said that not even he is on the same level of sports celebrities like figure skater Kim Yuna or Tottenham Hotspur forward Son Heung-min, who are both revered across the country as national heroes.
But this mythologization of the place of esports in Korea has often been encouraged by esports organizations, because it’s good for business. Lisa Nakamura, author of Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity, and Identity on the Internet and a professor at the University of Michigan, suggested that the glitzy presentation of esports tournaments and the model minority stereotype could have contributed to a presumption that Korean players must come from well-off families.
“There’s an assumption that pro players are rich,” Nakamura said. “They look at the league production values on TV, and they’re kind of imitating football, and you think, ‘Oh, well, they’re getting football salaries, right?’ The idea that anyone is getting paid at all I guess is a new thing. But I think it is similar in some ways to why people of color end up in pro teams. There’s this idea that Black people are stronger and faster because of slavery. That it’s not socioeconomics. It’s not that there are no other opportunities for people of color to go to college, that their parents can’t afford it.”
Even within esports, there have been assumptions about which games that Korean players could or couldn’t be good at. During the genesis of the professional Overwatch scene, Western players were often asked about their thoughts on the burgeoning Korean Overwatch scene. Nearly all of them dismissed the idea that the Korean teams would ever be a threat.
Brandon “Seagull” Larned, a former OWL player turned professional streamer, didn’t agree with his peers. He saw early on that the Korean scene already had 20 skilled teams constantly scrimmaging against one another, which was significantly more than the number of teams in the North American and European scenes. It was only a matter of time until Korea would start producing much of the world’s best players.
Prior to Overwatch, there was also a widespread belief that Korean players were inexperienced with first-person shooter games and therefore wouldn’t be able to excel with some of the aim-intensive damage characters in Overwatch. Seagull referred to this belief as “a little bit ignorant,” pointing out that CrossFire has a thriving esports scene in Korea, even though it doesn’t get much exposure in the west.
“There’s a lot of different levels to that claim,” Seagull told me. “The first is the implication that aim is something that is truly important in Overwatch, where the vast majority of the cast are not necessarily aim-dependent, outside of hitscan DPS. And the other part of it is assuming that it would take them a long time to catch up, which obviously is not the case, because catching up implies they were behind to begin with. Ultimately, it just never sounded right to me.”
The Story Is Just Beginning
Much has been written about Korean players in regards to their talent (which they have plenty of), their training (which they are famously intense about), and the prevalence of PC bangs (which can be found all over the country). But little reportage has been devoted to unpacking their personal histories and the context in which they compete. Esports, like everything else, is inextricably tied to questions of race, class, and structures of power.
Korean players in the West are still subjected to the racist stereotype of the emotionless gaming drone who is imbued with superhuman skill but no personality. Few people seem to take into account that these young Korean men are competing in foreign countries, entertaining foreign audiences, engaging with a foreign culture, and being interpreted through a foreign language. Understanding them as more than just a bad translation is to humanize them with the same courtesy that Western players are given.
There is still more reporting to do and more threads to follow. Kim “NineK” Bumhoon, general manager of Paris Eternal, observed that while many Korean pro players profess a working-class background, most Korean coaches have attended college.
Kim “KuKi” Dae-kuk and Jade “swingchip” Kim of the Florida Mayhem told me that in the old days of the 2016 Overwatch APEX scene, the highest-paid players only received $500 a month. Swingchip wondered if that attracted a certain type of player who was grateful to have their food and board covered, even if they were paid a pittance. This is a far cry from the Overwatch League’s current minimum salary of $50,000 a year with health care, retirement savings, and paid seasonal housing.
It also begs similar questions for prospective players in the West. Who gets to compete, and who makes it to the pros? After all, there is no PC café culture in the United States that’s on par with what exists in Korea. How does a working-class Western kid make it in esports without immediate access to high-speed internet, a fast computer, and a vast network of talent to grow their skills?
During our interview, Seagull shared that his father was a firefighter and his mother worked in retail. The topics I brought up were subjects he was thinking about in regards to his own career in esports.
“It’s interesting to talk about opportunities and family economics in esports,” Seagull said. “Not that many people look into it.”
Seagull described his entire gaming career as a series of lucky breaks. Growing up, he shared a computer with his brother, and his family didn’t have enough disposable income to afford any upgrades. When he was 13 he was playing Half-Life 2: Deathmatch and vented to a friend that his old computer was only able to pull 25 frames per minute. That friend responded by mailing Seagull $500.
With that $500, Seagull upgraded his computer and was able to compete in Team Fortress 2. Living at home allowed him to invest his tournament winnings to upgrade his rig piece by piece over the years. After he graduated from high school, he was attending community college because he couldn’t afford four years at a university. He had just transfered to Washington State when a game called Overwatch came along—and he got into the beta.
Armed with an arcade FPS skill set that transferred neatly over to Overwatch (which he also described as serendipitous), Seagull skyrocketed in popularity and became the face of the game. His decision to take his spring semester off to give this streaming thing a shot ended up being a wild success that led to fame, an OWL contract, and now a lucrative career as a variety streamer.
And it all started with that one friend’s investment.
“I was just talking about this recently on my stream,” Seagull reminisced. “I was thinking to myself, I wonder how my pro career would’ve been like if he never did that for me.”
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