SEOUL – The students ate their lunch in silence before gathering in a dimly lit room with a powerful computer. There, coaches helped them learn how to outsmart their opponents in a digital fantasy world rife with ambushes and monsters. School ended at 5 p.m., but individual practice continued into the night – it was all a day of hard work for the students at one of the many e-sports academies. Korean.
“I only sleep three or four hours a day,” said Kim Min-soo, 17, a student who wears a brace around her right arm to relieve pain from playing games too much. “But I want to be a star. I dream of an eSports arena filled with fans for me. “
Students like Min-soo have brought the intensely competitive energy typically associated with a Korean education into their training at e-sports academies. South Korea is considered the birthplace of esports, but the highly selective multibillion-dollar industry is still scorned by many in the country. Academies have worked to change that image and give thousands of young people the opportunity to pursue careers in a place where gaming has long been seen as a way of life.
“In South Korea, players have to do their homework before playing, because if they derail the team, they can be expelled,” said Jeon Dong-jin, the home’s Korea head. video game developer Blizzard Entertainment, said, in a recent forum in Seoul. “Korean gamers are very serious.”
Online gaming developed earlier and faster in Korea than anywhere else in the world. When the country started introducing high-speed Internet in the late 1990s, it saw the rise of 24-hour gaming cafes known as PC bangs.
These often underground diners became hotspots for gaming culture, eventually hosting informal tournaments. By 2000, Korean cable channels were the first in the world to broadcast online gaming competitions.
E-sports is now the fifth most popular future job for South Korean students, after athletes, doctors, teachers and digital content creators, according to a survey by the Ministry of Education. education last year. It will soon become part of the Asian Games in 2022.
Top players like Lee Sang-hyeok, who goes by the stage name Faker, earn as much fame and fortune as K-pop idols. Millions of people watch them broadcast via live streaming. Prior to the pandemic, fans had been flocking to e-sports arenas that looked like a cross between a rock concert and professional wrestling stadium.
The charm is hard to resist. Parents have drawn children to counseling for gaming addiction or to rehabilitation camps. When conscientious objectors demand an exemption from South Korea’s mandatory military service, officials will investigate whether they played online games involving guns and violence.
Class reduced. Sometimes students drop out of school to spend more time playing games. However, the precious few will have the chance to make it big.
Ten professional esports franchises in Korea are competing in League of Legends, the most popular game here, employing only 200 players in total. Those who don’t make cuts have few alternatives.
Lacking good grades – and often a high school diploma – gamers will find themselves with limited job prospects. And unlike some American universities, Korean schools don’t recruit based on esports skills.
When Gen.G, a California-based esports company, opened the Gen.G Elite eSports Academy in Seoul in 2019, they wanted to tackle some of those challenges because “this is the place to be.” has most of the talent,” said Joseph Baek, program director at Gen.G academy. “Korea is still considered the mecca of e-sports.”
The school trains young Koreans and other students on how to be professional and helps game lovers find opportunities to become streamers, marketers, and data analysts. Together with the education company Elite Open School, it has opened an English-only program that gives students the opportunity to receive an American high school diploma so that they can apply to universities in the United States under eSports Scholarship.
On a recent morning, sleep-deprived teenagers applied to Elite Open schools with branded masks, t-shirts, and hoodies. Divided into classes named after American universities like Columbia, MIT and Duke, students study English, American history and other required subjects. Some work two hours every morning to get to school.
“My challenge is to keep them awake and engaged in class,” said Sam Suh, an English teacher.
The real work begins in the afternoon, when two buses carry young gamers to a modest concrete building in a residential area for another intense workout at Gen.G academy.
Anthony Bazire, a 22-year-old former Gen.G Academy student from France, said he chose South Korea as his training ground because he knew the country had some of the best players. Today, the top winners in League of Legends, Overwatch, and StarCraft II are mostly Korean.
“When you see people working hard, it motivates you to work hard,” he said.
Gene Program. G, the first program of its kind in South Korea, even helped some students convince their parents that they had made a smart move in their careers.
In 2019, his sophomore year of high school, Kim Hyeon-yeong played League of Legends 10 hours a day. His skills improve as he roams the digital fantasy world. That summer, he decided to become a professional esports player and dropped out of school.
Mr. Kim, 19, said: “My parents are completely against it,” I told them I wouldn’t regret it, because this is what I want to try in life, giving everything I have. “.
His mother, Lee Ji-eun, 46, was so distressed that she lay on the bed and groaned. In the end, Mrs. Lee decided to support her son after he one day asked her: “Mom, what did I dream about when I was your age? Have you lived that dream yet? “
Mr. Kim researched the $25,000-a-year Gen.G program and took his mother to the academy to convince her he could find success as an e-sports pro. He overcame a major hurdle to his dream this year by matriculating, based on his online gaming skills, into the University of Kentucky.
French gamer Mr. Bazire joined Gen.G’s League of Legends team as a trainee player in March. He and the other trainees received modest salaries along with meals and accommodation at an apartment complex in Seoul. They train for up to 18 hours a day, 60 to 70 percent more than the players he knows in France, he said.
But being an intern is nothing more than securing a foothold. The interns had to make their way through the second division to the main tournament, where professional League of Legends players were paid an average salary of $200,000 a year, along with bonuses and sponsorship deals.
With younger and more agile talent catching on constantly, the careers of most e-sports athletes in South Korea end before they turn 26, a period when men South Koreans in their late 20s feel pressure to begin military service.
Min-soo, a student who dreams of becoming an e-sports star, first felt the strong vibes of an e-sports arena when he was in middle school. Since 2019, he wakes up at 6 a.m. every day, taking the two-hour bus and subway ride to Gen.G academy. He comes home at 11:30 p.m. and then practices more, rarely going to bed before 3 a.m.
This year, he was finally deemed good enough to start taking the tests to become a trainee of a professional team.
“It’s a difficult and lonely life, because you have to give up everything else, like friends,” he said. “But I’m happiest because I’m doing what I enjoy most.”