When the foundation for esports in Korea was established in the early 2000 with the launch of a StarCraft league, esports remained far from being considered among “real sports.” Pro gamer as an occupation was a new concept, and player wages were not sufficient to make ends meet. In fact, pro gaming was not considered an actual career in the beginning, as players had to pay additional taxes because their earnings were considered unearned income. Perceptions about esports have changed in the last 20 years and today it is recognized more as a real sport than ever before.
The Asian Electronic Sports Federation announced last month that the Olympic Council of Asia General Assembly approved esports as an official medal sport for the first time for the Hangzhou 2022 Asian Games. This came just four years after esports played as a demonstration sport at the Jakarta Palembang 2018 Asian Games. For the 2022 Asian Games, six games will be chosen. The decision not only opened doors for Korean pro gamers to be exempt from mandatory military service should they win a gold medal, but also showed that the perception of esports as a real sport is becoming widespread.
“We will work hard to make sure that Korea takes the initiative in making esports an official sport,” commented the Korea e-Sports Association in response to esports having been named a medal sport at the Hangzhou Asian Games. “With esports becoming an official medal sport, we expect discussion of esports as a sport will accelerate worldwide.”
The domestic esports market grew to 139 billion won ($128 million) in 2019 according to Korea Creative Content Agency. With the fast-paced growth and popularity among the younger generation, the government’s stance on esports has changed drastically over the past decade. The change was further accelerated last year when esports‘ resilience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic was brought to light.
Games were considered one of four addictions along with alcohol, gambling and drugs by the government in 2013, but the government announced in 2020 that esports will be a central cultural content for the new Hallyu, or Korean Wave. The Culture Ministry has built three new esports stadiums outside of the capital area to promote regional esports and created a standard contract for esports players last year.
The elevated status of esports can also be seen in players’ salaries and the influx of major companies as investors to the esports scene.
As League of Legends Champions Korea, the Korean professional league for LoL, transitions into a franchise system this spring, major companies have announced sponsorships of LCK teams. Korean companies such as Kia, LG, Nongshim, Kakao, SK Telecom, Hanwha and KT have sponsored teams, and foreign companies including Mercedes-Benz, Red Bull, Logitech, Nike and BMW have joined in sponsorships as well.
“We implemented the franchise system so that esports becomes an activity not just for one generation of audience,” Oh Sang-hun, CEO of LCK, told The Korea Herald. “LCK is a global content, with over half the audience international, and it distinguished itself from other sports by being able to continue during the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, numerous companies showed interest and are participating in the league as sponsors or team investors.”
The minimum player salary for the LCK is the highest of all professional sports leagues in Korea at 60 million won ($55,400), and the salary of Faker, the biggest star in LoL, is the highest among all professional athletes in Korea, according to the team owner.
While esports have come closer and closer to becoming sports in the traditional sense each year, several issues need to be addressed. The World Health Organization categorized game addiction as a mental disorder in 2019, infuriating the gaming community. Also, with the relatively short career life of pro players, creating careers for retired professional players remains a pertinent task. Further, many standards have yet to be established for the selection of players for the international stage and the protection of player rights has been a long-running issue.
“The association will establish standards for the game and player selection. We are contemplating other things on the checklist like creating an academy structure, nurturing professionals and creating ways for military service exemption, among others,” said the Korea e-Sports Association.
By Lim Jang-won (firstname.lastname@example.org