As young South Koreans navigate an increasingly competitive education system and job market, a growing industry has presented a new opportunity: esports. No longer only viewed as a pastime or casual hobby, video games have opened a field for many to develop their skills and even attain superstar status. Esports is valued globally at $1.38 billion, with an estimated 495 million around the world following tournaments and competitions. The systemic growth of esports—both in terms of public reception and lucrative potential—is projected to further contribute to more opportunities in the industry.
South Korea is a leader in video games, both in public consumption and competitive play. The proliferation of ubiquitous PC-bangs (LAN cafes) and high-speed internet expanded accessibility to video games. The widespread accessibility and institutionalization of professional gaming was brought about by a long-term investment and infrastructure created by the South Korean government and private companies. In 2000, the government created the Korea Esports Association, which is the primary governing body for esports and oversees major events. The private sector quickly caught on as broadcasters created dedicated gaming channels, and companies such as Samsung and SK Telecom established their own gaming teams.
It is, then, no surprise that South Korea produces so many professional esports players. As of 2022, 4,274 players hailed from South Korea. These players earned a total of $117.8 million in prize money, third globally only behind the United States and China.. South Korean players are often regarded as some of the best in the international community. This is not only due to the advanced IT infrastructure and accessibility to games, but also the result of a high-performing environment that has increased the overall skill level. The global recognition and demand for such an environment is demonstrated by the number of non-Korean players who travel to South Korea to practice with Korean players.
Take, for example, the team-based game League of Legends, the most played game title in Korea and most-viewed esports game worldwide. South Korean teams have consistently performed at world championships, which drew foreign teams to recruit South Korean players. While the average earnings of esports players remain largely a secret, the demand for South Korean means top players can be offered contracts that pay from $700,000 to even $20 million. Beyond contract deals, tournament prizes, sponsorships, and streaming present yet further profitable opportunities for esports athletes.
While recruiting for esports athletes largely depend on each team’s business model and the type of game, esports academies have been one popular way for esports companies with professional teams to develop talent and allow young players to hone their skills. For example, the esports company Gen. G launched its Seoul Elite Esports Academy in 2019. Outside of game coaching, the program also provides an English language education and an American high school diploma by graduation, allowing Korean graduates to pursue higher education in the United States and join U.S. collegiate teams. Esports academies not only create a direct avenue to becoming a professional player, but also expand educational opportunities for all who attend regardless of professional status.
Collegiate level esports are also growing in South Korea, but universities have been more proactive in bringing esports into the academic environment. In 2014, Chung-ang University officially recognized esports players as student athletes, which meant prospective students could be admitted based on their gaming performance rather than strictly academics. Universities have also recognized the importance of the esports industry and infrastructure. Hanshin University established a graduate school where students receive an education on esports’ relevance to information technology, regulatory policy, and technology innovation. Increasing acceptance of esports as an interdisciplinary industry could translate to more future careers for young South Koreans in this field.
This year, esports will debut in the 2022 Asian Games in Hangzhou with eight medal events—the first time that video games have appeared as a contest alongside traditional sports. There are high expectations for South Korea. Players aim to receive a gold medal as this would exempt male players from military service that could interrupt their careers, but the industry as a whole are excited for what the growth of esports will bring. Continued success and renown in the Asian Games and beyond will buttress the popularity and legitimacy of esports in Korea and around the world. This is another reason for South Koreans to see a future in the industry.
Jae Chang is an Intern with the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
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