I’ve been reporting on esports since 2011, and over time, I’ve had the nice privilege of interviewing dozens of Korean professional avid gamers. Exterior of press interviews, I usually spoke with these gamers casually in Korean throughout lunches, smoke breaks, and after events. From all these conversations, a curious sample emerged: Just about each Korean professional gamer I spoke with informed me they got here from a working-class household.
After I introduced this as much as Korean coaches and gamers I spoke with within the Overwatch League, lots of them have been shocked. None of them had thought-about this widespread thread they might all share, nor the way it may’ve contributed to their choice to affix the esports business. However upon reflection, most of them agreed that it was true. After I requested them what number of Korean gamers they might consider who’re the youngsters of faculty graduates, they might solely title a handful of exceptions.
“We don’t actually discuss our dad and mom rather a lot,” Pan-seung “Destiny” Koo stated, who’s at the moment the principle tank of the Florida Mayhem. “However from what I can gauge, there are barely any individuals who match that description.”
I spoke with over a dozen sources, together with teachers and Korean gamers and workers within the Overwatch League to search out out why. What emerged from these interviews was a narrative about how a high-risk endeavor like esports has historically attracted a sure class of rivals who come from households which have the least to lose and essentially the most to achieve.
Going Professional and the Promise of Escape
Jung “Xzi” Ki-hyo of the Paris Eternal grew up because the son of a bus mechanic. On the New York Excelsior (NYXL) Homecoming in 2018, Park “Saebyeolbe” Jong-ryeol informed me he was working as a barista earlier than going professional and that his father was a cab driver. Even Destiny, who was described by his friends as an outlier since his father runs his personal regulation agency, resisted the belief that he grew up financially secure.
A lot of their choices to go professional hinged upon education. South Korea is a famously well-educated nation the place roughly 70 percent of students pursue higher education after highschool. Nevertheless, the educational surroundings can also be intensely competitive, to the purpose the place cram colleges are a given for many Korean college students who hope to attain effectively on the Suneung, South Korea’s nationalized school entrance examination.
For Korean college students whose households can’t afford personal tutors or cram colleges, the chances are stacked significantly towards them. PC bangs—gaming cafés the place you’ll be able to lease a PC and play in style video games for hours on finish—nonetheless, are innumerable and really inexpensive. Most PC bangs cost about ₩1,000 an hour, which roughly comes out to $1.
So right here’s the maths: South Korea is essentially the most fiercely expert gaming area on the planet, however that’s as a result of it has a bunch of working-class youngsters with little social mobility and a whole lot of free time (no tutoring, no cram college) with ubiquitous entry to dirt-cheap web cafés. South Korea’s gaming infrastructure and tradition is what offers Korean youngsters the means to change into the very best gamers on the planet, however the nation’s structural inequality is an enormous a part of what drives them to go professional within the first place.
Kim “WizardHyeong” Hyeong-seok, a coach with the Seoul Dynasty, is a product of each these worlds. He’s an alumnus of Daewon Overseas Language Excessive College, an elite feeder college that prepares college students to enter a “SKY college” (an acronym for the large three of Korean universities—Seoul Nationwide College, Korea College, and Yonsei College—and different prestigious establishments overseas.
However he additionally described a tough childhood with a mom who was handicapped and a father who was out and in of jail.
“At many factors,” WizardHyeong stated. “My household was so poor that we couldn’t even pay the electrical energy invoice, so I needed to take a chilly bathe within the fucking winter.”