The rise and rise of e-sports

E-sports are a national obsession in South Korea
E-sports are a national obsession in South Korea

Summary

  • Broadcasting gameplay has become a big business

Kim Kyu-min is an admirably dedicated student. Even in his winter break, the 18-year-old goes twice a week to a cramming school, where he has four hours of intensive tuition followed by four more of individual practice until 10pm. In a classroom furnished with desks for 28 students, he sits in quiet concentration as a teacher holds forth. The unusual thing is his subject of choice: not English or maths, but “Valorant", an online game.

At Seoul Game Academy, a chain of schools in South Korea’s capital, 3,000 students aged nine and up (roughly 99% of them boys) hone their skills at nine games in hopes of becoming full time “e-sports" athletes. The school, which charges about $500 a month for three sessions a week, advertises itself as “the quickest way to become a pro gamer". Gleaming trophies in the principal’s office show off recent successes at games such as “KartRider".

E-sports are a national obsession in South Korea, where Lee Sang-hyeok, a “League of Legends" player with the nom de jeu of Faker, reportedly earns more than any player in the country’s football league. Parents were sceptical when the Seoul Gaming Academy opened in 2011, says its director, Park Se-woon. Today they see gaming as a good living, not least since those who don’t make it as e-athletes often forge careers in game development. Parents are increasingly gamers themselves, says Mr Park. “Some even come in for lessons."

For game publishers, e-sports serve two purposes. First, broadcast and sponsorship rights to e-leagues raise money, as in any other sport. Riot Games, the California-based, Tencent-owned company behind “League of Legends", has sold five years’ streaming rights for its Chinese league to Huya, a Chinese streaming service, for a reported $310m. Its Korean league is sponsored by businesses ranging from a local barbecue-chicken brand to the jeweller Tiffany & Co.

Second, publicity from e-sports drives adoption of the game. One American rival of Riot says it designs games to be popular in South Korea, hoping they will be picked up by the e-sports crowd. Com2uS, a Korean developer of games including “Summoners War", says athletes’ fans are useful networks for promoting games. It is planning a “Summoners" match between teams from South Korea and Japan. In September the Asian Games, a continental sporting contest, will include digital games for the first time.

E-sports have yet to engage Western audiences quite as much. About 20% of Americans take an interest, according to a poll by Morning Consult—slightly less than follow horse-racing. Instead they soak up hours of other gaming-related content. In America 69% of Generation Z watch gaming videos, ranging from how-to guides to time trials or stunts. YouTube, which sells $30bn in ads per year, counts gaming as its second-largest content category after music. “Minecraft" is among the most-searched terms on TikTok, according to DataReportal, a research firm. On Twitch, a live-streaming service owned by Amazon which focuses on gaming, the most popular channels are not professional e-sports but general gaming chat. Epic Games recently launched Postparty, an app for sharing “Fortnite" clips.

Back at the League of Legends Arena in Seoul, a game is under way. After referees check their computers, ten slender, track-suited athletes do warm-up exercises with their mouse. As two-dozen sports journalists munch quails’ eggs and kimchi in the press room, Faker’s team, T1, proves victorious. Players pack up their keyboards and bow, while fans (mainly girls) wait outside with love-letters and flowers. Mr Kim, the gaming student, has known this is the career for him since, as a schoolchild, he saw a professional gamer lift a trophy in triumph. As his principal, Mr Park, puts it, “It’s not just about a game, it’s about a dream."

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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