Seoul – South Korean teenager Yoon Ki-chan gets just three hours of sleep a day but spends more than three times that playing online games — with the blessing of his parents and teachers — as he dreams of becoming a top pro League of Legends player.
Yoon and his peers are the next generation of gamers in South Korea, a fast-growing esports powerhouse whose players have won Riot Games’ League of Legends World Championship six times since the most-watched esports event began in 2011.
They will also benefit from the country’s announcement in August that it will abolish a decade-old law which bans those below the age of 16 from playing online games on computers from midnight to 6 a.m, due to growing consensus youths are increasingly using their mobile phones instead.
“I suffered a lot from the shutdown law,” said Yoon, who estimates he can play at least four more hours now since turning 16 this year. “I typically don’t sleep a lot, so I studied different things during the shutdown hours. If it weren’t for the law, I could have been a better player by now.”
South Korea’s move is in contrast to that of China, the world’s biggest esports market, which in late August drastically limited the amount of time those under 18 can spend on video games to a mere three hours a week.
Esports will feature as a medal sport for the first time at the Asian Games in Hangzhou next year.
“China’s game regulation could be a rather good opportunity for us to build strength and regain the esports initiative,” said Park Se-woon, vice president at Seoul Game Academy, which offers program to help develop pro gamers.
Park said the private academy has seen a thirtyfold jump in daily consultations since starting its program in 2016.
Despite the growing international status and interest among prospective professional players, government support for the esports industry, estimated in 2020 to be worth around 17.9 trillion won ($15.2 billion), has been lackluster, according to experts.
Esports and the gaming sector received 67.1 billion won of the 604.4 trillion won national budget for next year.
The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism wants to do more, especially ahead of organized competitions such as the Asian Games, an official said without giving details.
In the meantime, the space has been filled by investments from big businesses and private academies.
Instant noodle maker Nongshim launched its professional League of Legends gaming team, Nongshim RedForce, late last year, joining other South Korean conglomerates that have seen the potential in of industry.
Among them are SK Group’s SK Telecom Hyundai affiliate Kia, Hanwha Group’s Hanwha Life Insurance and KT Corp.
“The esports industry continued growing, but the state-led support measures have been weak, with corporate sponsorships and private academies mainly having driven the industry,” said Oh Ji-hwan, CEO of Nongshim E-Sports.
Oh said businesses consider the esports scene as a platform to reach younger generations and improve their brand image.
T1, the SK Telecom-backed team that is home to “Faker,” the most famous League of Legends players of all time, opened its esports academy last month. The 20-week program costs 5.6 million won, but its says applications are flooding in.
Currently, there is only one school in South Korea that has esports on its academic curriculum. Yoon makes a two-hour round trip to Eunpyeong Meditech High School every day to bolster his pro gamer chances.
Nongshim’s Oh says support for gaming talent from both the government and the private sector is paramount as South Korea’s market will never be as big as that of the United States or China.
“Focusing on talent is the key,” he said. “The buildup of talent development knowhow should be our strength.”
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