Why So Many Esports Pros Come From South Korea

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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.

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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.

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.”

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