Having managed an offshore business consultancy and contributed actively to Korea Business Central, Eun-Shil has a passion for entrepreneurship. Based on over twenty years in an international environment, she is now focusing on setting up new ventures, import/export, consumer related ICT, market implementation and others. In addition, Eun-Shil plans to continue to serve a mentor/investor for lean start-ups in and out of Korea/EU and to continue young professionals in their career paths. She expects to publish her first book about foreign SMEs in Korea next year, both online and offline.
March 19, 2013
"Play or Die: A Story About a Young Professional Korean Gamer"
By Eun-Shil Park
A while ago I invited a senior executive from Samsung to share lunch at my place. While pouring the drinks, I asked him the usual things, such as, “How is your family doing?” and other small talk. He replied sheepishly, “I have an issue with my eldest son.”
When I asked him what the issue was, he exclaimed, “Gaming! He plays games all the time instead of applying for a place at one of the Ivy League colleges that his mother and I would love to see him attend”.
We all know how much Korean parents are spending on education at hagwons and other extra English courses to prepare their offspring for an excellent future which often includes study abroad at one of the top universities in the USA. My guest at the lunch table would not have had a different view when he sent his son to the finest Saturday school before the age of 5(!).
While we were enjoying our food and drink, I couldn’t help but be completely flabbergasted about the pain and sorrow it caused this Korean upper class family. How did gaming became such a nuclear bomb that it threatens to split up the whole family?
After his visit, I did some research about the phenomena and I found out there is a whole industry in Korea which brought in gazillions of dollars (US$24.75 billion, to be exact) in 20111 pumped up around selling games2 and causing adverse side effects such as gaming addiction and more. There are professional gamers who are paid to participate in gaming competitions in huge stadiums with audiences, and massive screens are used to introduce new games or gain even more popularity for existing games3.
The son of my friend is one of them; he is paid to show off his advanced skills on stages around the world, in places from Busan to Paris to Las Vegas4. He is one of a team that shares a coach (“sports agent”) who guides them as a manager, providing them with everything they need, and at the same time functioning as a high-paid “shrink” to take the place of “mum & dad”. They really do drink, eat and live together.
These teams are paid by companies (1800+ manufactures, suppliers and retailers)5 who are developing new and/or current products and services to serve as a PR-outlet. Also, companies that want to connect with younger customers are seeking new channels for their products and services.
Of course, I was more than curious how much money was spent on each team so that they can afford these sky-high travel, salary and living costs. It comes to millions of dollars! Besides travelling, hotels and everything else, these very young Koreans earn an average of US$100K to US$250K per YEAR! This doesn’t even include the prize monies for winning tournaments and lucrative sponsorship deals. This young “fella” was earning more than his dad!
And here arises the problem. How does one plan a “normal” job career in this situation? Why in the world would a 20-year old get a job with a starting salary of US$35K if he can make six-figures right now?
A couple of months later I met this young “fella” while he was on his way to Spain for a gig at a huge gaming convention. I picked him up from the airport and spent lunch together as he sat down in the same chair as his dad.
I couldn’t hide the smile on my face when I saw his barely grown up posture and his tiny little goatee above of pair of Converse sneakers. Shy and polite, he ate his lunch. Then he looked up and asked:
“Are my parents still mad at me? I know my dad talked to you.”
Then he started to describe why he chose a different career path. He explained how he felt lost among other Korean students at high school and became hooked on games like Doom and later on Starcraft. How he made new friends online who were not judgemental towards him. Access to play the games was easy as his mother bought the games for him, including the updates. She had no idea how much these games influenced him and it happened that he spent more time playing than studying for his exams. In the end, he had to take an extra year to graduate and still his parents had no clue.
When online, he got higher and higher on the rankings of Starcraft and he was invited to come over and play for a real audience. He said to his parents that he wanted to visit a school friend but instead went to the gaming venue... and the rest is history.
Within two months, he was playing first in a small team for some pocket money; then the real cash came in when he moved to a professional team. Not only was he rewarded with a substantial salary but he also got introduced to other players who were sponsored by companies to wear their logos on their shirts.
With the game also came fame and he found for the first time that girls among his audiences showered him with presents and affection. These girls gave him his first nickname,6 which he still uses today.
When I asked him about how he sees the future of the gaming industry in Korea, my young guest said:
“Gaming will not disappear no matter what the Korean government7 does to control the business. I acknowledge that gaming addiction is a problem. It’s in our blood and in our system, so to speak. PC rooms are all over the place in Korea 24/7, so you don’t need to tell anything to your parents about what you’re doing if they don’t allow you to play at home. If I have to choose between getting drunk like so many of my dad’s colleagues or playing games, I prefer the second option. I hope I can retire within a few years with money in the bank and then I will think about my future.”
Having said that, was took off back to the airport so he could head to Spain. While waiting in the VIP business room at the airport, he confided to me that he would never forget his duties as the eldest son, but he needed space to breath and his current job brought the opportunity to travel around the world, meet lots of different people and stay outside his parents’ home. Currently he lives in a house provided by his employer which is shared with his team members.
He admits the gaming business is like stepping into a “Galactica Extraordinaire”, with their rules of engagement. But hey, is not football/soccer also a business wherein you get sponsored from head to toe and get paid for it? Nobody says a bad word about that!
Then my young guest opened his cabin luggage stuffed with high-tech in-ear mics, a custom-made keyboard and other stuff, all provided by companies who will bring these products to market sometime in the future when we “earthlings” will be allowed to buy them in a local department store.
Despite negative press about the dangers of gaming among young people around the world, maybe we have to reconsider our opinions. As we are about to enter World 3.0, as so profoundly written about by Prof. Pankaj Ghemawat8, we need more solid research into the numbers to determine how much gaming really is a problem to our society, compared with drugs, alcohol or gambling.
Maybe we are not yet used to the fact that our world is changing more rapidly than we can cope with at this moment and that these youngsters are the new archetype citizens of the future.
1 Such as Sony, Nintendo, Ubisoft, etc.
2 The NPD Group/Games Market Dynamics US
3 Starcraft, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Assassins Creed, Pokemon Black, etc.
4 WCG (World Cyber Games)
6 His nickname is still being used as his professional gaming name, therefore the writer keeps this private
7 The Korean government spent so far around US$10 million.
This is an interesting insight about what is called "eSports" (the proper label, which wasn't mentioned a single time).
This young gamer is as (un-)"representative" of young people his age today as any recent rising NBA or football star.
eSports, especially in Korea, is highly competitive, highly regulated (by KESPA) and while many so-called "pro-gamers" sure earn a decent salary, six figures p. a. are still the exception. The majority of money in gaming is made by companies, in the casual game sector (e.g. "Anipang", "DragonFlight" etc.), i.e. anyone not playing professionally (and thus full-time!) won't claim noteworthy amounts of royalties. (Most small / independent gaming tournaments outside the WCG/GSL/MLG etc. pay only a few hundred dollars to the winners bracket, which rarely covers even - potentially arising - basic travel expenses.)
The reason I mentioned not all the proper terminology was to keep the article readible for the non-gaming readers. That was my choice as a writer;) At this moment professional gamers are developing more and more in the direction you see in professional soccer. Next to the actually gaming they are more and more "used" as a PR-tool to support the roll out of new or exsisting games e.g. I can tell you there is where the real money is being made! Last year a respected French program made an inside-docu over these type of professional gaming. I think that gives you a much more reliable perspective than a documentary subsidized by the gaming industry itself. The business model for this industry is the same like anywhere else. They want to maximize the profit and the way they are doing that is to stir up their products=games by getting prospect buyers interested as much as possible. With a turnover from roundabout 25 billion(!) per year you cannot say this business is still in a "amateur" field, not only for the industry neither the gamer itself.
Its true it raises eyebrows how these "kiddo's" make their money. But I try not to condemn them too early on. As a writer I just come from a different age;) And you are absolutely right these type of teams they do have a serious business structure with a teammanager, CFO e.g. You gave a good example likewise child actors etc..
Without digging in too much in all different type of games, it is interesting how this type of business has been developed the last 5 to 10 years. As like for instance the food industry, they try to regulate their own business in order to provide better service to the public, likewise not to use any toxic ingredients etc., at the same time they do whatever they can to avoid this same regulations/rules of engagement. There is simply too much money going around... I got an interesting inside view on this industry provided by previous employees of EA e.g. I think the (korean)public do not even know 10% what is going on really behind the screens. It would be interesting to see where we are heading the coming 3 to 5 years.
This is both sad and heartbreaking situation. It is so, because of the conflict between what parents wants to do for their children and what the children want to do for themselves. It appears parents are losing control and guidance of their offspring...as the offspring have become somewhat a rebel and want to chart their own destiny...causing lack of understanding and communication between the two.
I know a family in a similar situation. The kid happened to be in middle school, and very recently, the father and the kid had a fight over a similar issue...and the father violently hurt the kid. The kid does well in school, but the parents, particularly the father thinks he can do better. But the kid is obsessed with games...particularly 'The Legend of.......', and he tells me he has reached level 25; and is well aware of the financial benefit discussed in the article from becoming a 'pro gamer', which is the direction he is aggressively heading. If he could have his way, the kid has no use for school, specially the Hagwon, and wishes to be left alone by his parents, who in his view fail to understand him. This seems like making a risky investment by the kid against a riskless investment (or with a known risk) by the parents on the future of the kid. What should parents do?
I showed the names of these games to my son, who is in 6th grade of elementary school here in Korea and is as connected to the computer game scene as any of his other classmates... He'd heard of only about half of the games mentioned here, which surprised me. I guess he's still a few years away from "graduating" to the high school and adult games. That's probably not a bad thing...
Here's an interesting discussion elsewhere online about this article - http://www.reddit.com/r/starcraft/comments/1awiyu/play_or_die_a_sto...
Thanks to Wally Nes for bringing this one to my attention.