When the record-breaking heat wave swept across Korea on a Saturday afternoon, three different types of big events took place at the Jamsil Sports Complex in southern Seoul on August 20th. One was a professional baseball game at Jamsil Baseball Stadium, another was an electronic dance music concert hosted by a local beer firm at Olympic Stadium, and the third was an online game competition at Jamsil Indoor Stadium.
What made 5,000 spectators gather at the indoor stadium was the final match of the computer online game League of Legends (LoL). The product of U.S.-based Riot Games is a five-on-five online game allowing two teams destroy the other’s base and it has been one of the most popular e-sports online games here since its official introduction in Dec., 2011.
In the top flight professional LoL competition league in Korea, popularly known as LCK, two gaming organizations advanced to the championship after completing the months-long summer season in the 10-team league. The background story for the championship was perfect to draw attention as the first-place Tigers were challenging for their first-ever title after having been runner-up in the previous LCK seasons three times and also in last year’s world championship. It also feels like David versus Goliath as the Tigers haven’t been sponsored by a big firm while the Rolster are backed by local telecom conglomerate KT.
After a fierce best-of-five bout, the Tigers finally clinched their first LCK title and fans at the stadium, and those watching the match via live stream, were thrilled when Tigers’ player Lee “kurO” Seo-haeng embraced his teammates and broke into tears. “I have been playing LoL for years, and came to the stadium to support the Tigers. It was one of the most glorious moments I ever witnessed in my life,” said a Tigers fan in his twenties.
Seoul was not the only place to witness the growing popularity of eSports
A week ago to the LoL match in Seoul, tens of thousands of spectators gathered at the Haeundae Beach in the southern port city of Busan to watch the championship match of the local online game “Blade & Soul.” Titled “Fever Festival,” the online game’s developer and publisher Ncsoft hold a combined festival of online game competition with music concert for four days from Aug. 12 to 15. During the festival period, a total of 30,000 spectators packed the country’s most bustling beach to enjoy the competition and music concerts featured A-list artists including Girl’s Day, Zion. T, BewhY and Kiha & The Faces.
Korea’s eSports scene was created in the late 1990s after the boom of Blizzard Entertainment’s online games “StarCraft” and “Warcraft” franchises. Nearly 20 years passed after, the fan base of e-sports has been getting bigger, there are perceptions that it is a festival of their own, though.
In Korea, e-sports already secured its status same as traditional sports as the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) decided to put e-sports in the second-tier category with floor-ball and “baduk,” or go, last year. With the accreditation, the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSpa) can take part in various kinds of events organized by the KOC and is also allowed to open e-sports clubs in schools.
According to a 2015 data from industry tracker SuperData Research, the market size of global e-sports market was estimated at $621 million. Among them $374 million come from Asian markets especially in China and South Korea but the market size in Europe and North America is also growing. The numbers of e-sports fans are estimated at 134 million as well and a research firm Newzoo said an estimated 47 million North Americans will watch e-sports this year.
Amid heightened interest in eSports, local governments here have come up with various plans to nurture eSports in Korea. The Seoul Metropolitan City Government and Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism opened a world’s first e-sports only complex in Sangam, western Seoul, last April. The two organizations invested 4.3 billion won ($3.8 million) for the complex called “Seoul OGN e-Stadium,” which has a seating capacity of 1,000.
Commemorating the opening of the complex, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon said the Seoul Metropolitan City will take every measure to host various kinds of global e-sports events to make the city as a mecca of eSports. The Gyeonggi Provincial Government will host one of the world’s major e-sports event “Intel Extreme Masters” in Goyang on Dec. 16. Sponsored by U.S.-based chip giant Intel, the event will feature popular online games like LoL, StarCraft II, and Counter-Strike Global Offensive.