How ES­PORTS be­came the global game

Video gam­ing has en­tered the realm of big money and su­per­star play­ers. But its rise is caus­ing harm to many in­volved, finds Si­mon Hat­ten­stone

The Guardian Weekly - - Weekly Review -

If you had been away from the planet for the past quar­ter of a cen­tury, one of the few things you might find com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar on your re­turn is the world of sport. While the dig­i­tal revo­lu­tion has trans­formed the way we shop, chat, date, do pol­i­tics and con­sume cul­ture, sport looks largely un­changed. From foot­ball to cricket to golf, it’s still the same old sta­ples, hit­ting a ball into a hole or goal or over a bound­ary. There hasn’t been a ma­jor new sport in­vented for more than a cen­tury. Or has there?

In the East End of Lon­don, Sam Mathews is hold­ing court at Fnatic’s HQ, oth­er­wise known as the Bunkr. A pop-up shop that opened last De­cem­ber, it is mar­keted as the “world’s first eS­ports con­cept store”, and is as know­ingly hip as its Shored­itch sur­round­ings. Here at the Bunkr, you can buy eS­ports equip­ment, meet play­ers, view streamed events and even watch matches live.

You need nim­ble fin­gers and a fast brain to suc­ceed at the wide va­ri­ety of video games that make up eS­ports. Just as with tra­di­tional sports, fans fol­low teams, watch matches and at­tend cup fi­nals, cheer­ing on their favourite stars from around the world. Mathews founded Fnatic 13 years ago and has built it into one of the world’s most suc­cess­ful teams, com­pet­ing in more than 600 tour­na­ments glob­ally, in games such as Counter-Strike, Dota 2, Call of Duty, Over­watch and League of Leg­ends. Fnatic’s team in the lat­ter won the first world

cham­pi­onship in 2011, and its Counter-Strike team is con­sid­ered one of the best of all time, though few of the play­ers are Bri­tish. In truth, Bri­tish play­ers are not yet good enough to com­pete at the top level. “This is the first world sport out­side of foot­ball that is truly global,” Mathews says.

The rev­enue from eS­ports is ex­pected to rise from $130m in 2012 to $465m this year, ac­cord­ing to New­zoo, the eS­ports data ex­pert. The global au­di­ence will reach 385 mil­lion this year, made up of 191 mil­lion eS­ports reg­u­lar view­ers and 194 mil­lion oc­ca­sional view­ers. In Ka­tow­ice, Poland, a record­break­ing 173,500 peo­ple at­tended this year’s In­tel Ex­treme Mas­ters fi­nals – the near­est thing eS­ports has to an (an­nual) Olympics. More than 36 mil­lion view­ers watched on­line (up 33% on last year). Stars such as the South Korean player Faker, who has just turned 21, are paid up to $2.6m a year, not in­clud­ing bonuses and spon­sor­ship.

It’s Fri­day night in Seoul, and I’m spend­ing it the way many Korean young­sters do: at a PC bang. PC bangs are gam­ing cafes; by 9pm this one is packed. Many of the young­sters here will play through the night. The hun­dreds of com­puter screens are all busy. Most peo­ple are play­ing the hugely com­plex League of Leg­ends; some, sim­pler first-per­son shoot­ers such as Counter-Strike; oth­ers are play­ing the foot­ball game Fifa. You can buy en­ergy food and drinks, hot meals, al­co­hol, and there is a smok­ing room.

The teenagers and twen­tysome­things are too ab­sorbed in their games to chat to each other. How­ever, some play team games that in­volve talk­ing an­i­mat­edly to strangers in dif­fer­ent parts of the world. PC bangs were ini­tially opened by the South Korean gov­ern­ment, keen to pro­mote the in­ter­net and gam­ing. Apart from taekwondo, South Korea did not have a na­tional sport, and eS­ports was an area in which they could ex­cel (the coun­try has one of the fastest and most de­vel­oped broad­band net­works in the world). To­day, PC bangs are not just cafes; they are the parks and play­grounds of South Korea.

Jeong Hyeon-seok is a 28-year-old maths teacher who is about to leave for Amer­ica to do a PhD in brain sci­ence. He comes here three or four times a week, stay­ing for two to four hours each time; oc­ca­sion­ally, he stays overnight. Jeong says it’s cheap com­pared with other forms of en­ter­tain­ment, and ex­hil­a­rat­ing. Like many men, he says, he is re­served and awk­ward in con­ver­sa­tion, but here he feels happy, un­in­hib­ited.

Why is there such a high pro­por­tion of male to fe­male play­ers? “Girls pre­fer chit-chat­ting in a cof­fee shop. Boys don’t do much chit-chat­ting,” Jeong says. Play­ing a team game at a bang pro­vides a re­lease. He can hook up with strangers and share a com­mon goal: de­feat­ing the enemy. Jeong is trans­formed when he starts play­ing Over­watch, a team game that in­volves trans­fer­ring goods to dif­fer­ent ar­eas and, of course, killing. He speaks fast and ex­citably, bark­ing in­struc­tions to anony­mous team­mates. When he fin­ishes, he looks ex­hausted and is out of breath. Does he feel good? “Yes. You feel good if you’ve won a foot­ball match. It’s like that.”

Ahyeon poly­tech­nic high school takes stu­dents who have strug­gled in the main­stream. When prin­ci­pal Bang Se­ung-ho re­alised that many stu­dents were skip­ping school be­cause they had spent all night play­ing games, he opened a PC bang in the school. So long as stu­dents stud­ied reg­u­lar sub­jects in the morn­ing, they could play eS­ports to their hearts’ con­tent for the rest of the day. Bang be­lieved that hav­ing a PC bang on tap would prove an in­cen­tive for stu­dents to at­tend school. It did. “It was in­cred­i­ble to see how good their at­ti­tudes to­wards the classes be­came,” he says. “Once you em­braced those kids, recog­nis­ing what they are good at, their men­tal­ity changed. They started study­ing as well.”

Bang be­came some­thing of a star in the process. He had al­ways con­sid­ered him­self a singer-song­writer, side­tracked from his destiny, so he wrote a song about eS­ports ad­dic­tion. Don’t Worry be­came a hit in South Korea. Mean­while, at his school, the young­sters be­came bet­ter and bet­ter at games as they trained with a tal­ented peer group. Be­fore long, Bang re­alised that the school was be­com­ing a train­ing ground for fu­ture pro­fes­sion­als.

He takes me to the PC bang where the stu­dents (all boys) are too ab­sorbed to look up. How many want to be­come pro­fes­sion­als? Now they look up. Ev­ery­body raises their hand in­stantly. How many hours a day do they need to ded­i­cate to games to suc­ceed? The very min­i­mum, they agree, is 10 hours a day. So far, seven or eight of Bang’s stu­dents have turned pro­fes­sional. “I al­ways say, ‘You have to give me a per­cent­age of your earn­ings’, but they never do!” He grins.

Bang does not like to use the word ad­dic­tion for prob­lem users; he prefers overindul­gence. I ask if he would rather be re­mem­bered for cur­ing overindul­gence or for cre­at­ing eS­ports stars. “Both. The school can cure the stu­dents and train them to be­come a pro­fes­sional be­yond the cure.” But if he had to choose one? For once, Bang is lost for words. Fi­nally, he an­swers: “If I re­ally have to choose be­tween cur­ing and train­ing to be­come a pro­fes­sional, it would be the lat­ter.”

The Sangam eS­ports sta­dium in Seoul looks like a cross be­tween a cin­ema and a con­ven­tional sports sta­dium. One of the big­gest eS­ports teams, SK Tele­com (owned by the tele­coms op­er­a­tor), is play­ing a qual­i­fy­ing League of Leg­ends match, and I can’t hear my­self think for ex­plo­sions. The huge screen is a dizzy­ing ar­ray of elec­tric pinks, blues, pur­ples and yel­lows. League of Leg­ends fans tell me that it took them months to un­der­stand it. It’s a strat­egy game set in a fan­tasy arena with three or five play­ers on each side, which in­volves de­stroy­ing tow­ers and killing op­po­nents, but there is no ob­vi­ous way to dis­tin­guish the two teams. I can­not tell who is at­tack­ing whom, though the neon score­board keeps me abreast of what is hap­pen­ing. The crowd are young and more than 50% fe­male. This is sur­pris­ing, be­cause League of Leg­ends, like all eS­ports, is male-dom­i­nated.

Most of the girls are here to see Faker, SK Tele­com’s star mid-laner (sta­tus-wise, the equiv­a­lent of a cen­tral mid­fielder in foot­ball). The team has the ap­peal of a boy band. Faker is not just SK Tele­com’s lead­ing player, he is the big­gest star in League of Leg­ends, full stop. Even I can tell he has some­thing spe­cial about him; he tends to score and as­sist with more kills than other play­ers. But there is some­thing else: he is de­cep­tive, sub­tle, ap­pear­ing out of nowhere to strike with a swirling flour­ish. The crowd roars and claps him on. He might be a su­per­star, but he looks like most eS­ports play­ers: be­spec­ta­cled, spotty, ex­hausted and pasty-faced. You sense he might not have seen the sun for years.

I fol­low Faker past the crowds of selfie-chas­ing girls to a pri­vate room. He wears a stylish red-and­white jacket with his nick­name in­scribed on the back in cap­i­tal let­ters (his real name is Lee Sanghyeok: “I thought Faker sounded cool,” he says). He is a sweet and som­bre young man, deter­mined to an­swer every ques­tion as fully as he can.

I ask whether it is his re­ac­tion speed that makes him such a good player. “No. Ac­tu­ally, my re­ac­tion ve­loc­ity isn’t so good. What’s more im­por­tant is con­cen­tra­tion.” In some

‘The top-ranked ad­dic­tion among young peo­ple is game ad­dic­tion, and 90% of the ad­dicts are male’

ways, he says, League of Leg­ends is like chess or the ab­stract strat­egy board game Go, but in oth­ers it re­sem­bles tra­di­tional team sport games. “It is like foot­ball and bas­ket­ball, in that strate­gies be­come more im­por­tant than in­di­vid­ual skills as you go to a pro­fes­sional level.”

Faker en­joys his fame. He re­cently went to Seat­tle and be­gan to un­der­stand the scale of his suc­cess when he was recog­nised in the streets. That gave him a buzz, he says. Is it true that he will only marry a girl who is as good at League of Leg­ends as he is? He smiles. “What I said about my ideal woman was a joke, but peo­ple ac­tu­ally be­lieve it now, which makes me worry about my fu­ture.”

How many hours a day does he put into League of Leg­ends? “I prac­tise a min­i­mum of 12 hours a day. Some­times 15 hours a day when it’s close to a match.” Does he get bored? “I am still en­joy­ing it, but prob­a­bly not as much as I was be­fore I be­came a pro­fes­sional. Yes, I do, I get a bit bored.” But, he says, that is a small quib­ble. He knows how lucky he is.

Does Faker think of him­self as a sports­man? “You don’t al­ways have to use your phys­i­cal mo­bil­ity in sport,” he says. “So, to that ex­tent, I think it’s a sport – apart from the per­cep­tion that eS­ports dam­ages your health.”

Is that a fair per­cep­tion? “As you sit for long hours with­out much move­ment, in­evitably it can­not be good for your health, but I do be­lieve it con­trib­utes to brain de­vel­op­ment.”

It’s 10pm and the world’s lead­ing League of Leg­ends player has to re­turn to the team house. When I get back to my ho­tel, I turn on the tele­vi­sion. The first chan­nel I flick to is show­ing to­day’s SK Tele­com match. There are end­less re­plays, anal­y­sis of Faker’s form, in­ter­views with the play­ers. Sud­denly, the scale of League of Leg­ends hits me. This chan­nel shows eS­ports for 24 hours a day.

It has not been easy to get time with the chair­man of the Korean eS­ports As­so­ci­a­tion. Jun Byung-hun is a busy man. He is also the chair­man of the In­ter­na­tional eS­ports Fed­er­a­tion – pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant man in this world. Fi­nally we meet at his of­fice in Seoul. He is wear­ing a smart black suit and shoes you can see your re­flec­tion in.

Jun’s am­bi­tion is to make eS­ports as pop­u­lar world­wide as it is in South Korea, and he sees lit­tle stand­ing in his way. “Older peo­ple think games poi­son the youth and take time from their stud­ies, but this is wrong,” he says. “It is like stop­ping the flow of a river. The sup­port pol­icy should be to help the wa­ter not to flood, and lead them in the right paths. By do­ing so, we can max­imise the ef­fec­tive­ness of the reg­u­la­tions.” In truth, Jun i is not a fan of reg­u­la­tion. B Back in 2011, the Korean gov­ern­ment ac­knowl­edgedac­knowled that the coun­try hadh a prob­lem with youngyou peo­ple ad­dicted to gam­ing and in­tro­duced th the Cin­derella law, which for­bidsf chil­dren un­der th the age of 16 to play comp com­puter games be­tween­be­twee mid­night and 6am. Jun is con­temp­tu­ousco ofo it. “The Cin­derel­laC law is anachro­nis­tic. I’ve been vig­or­ously cam­paign­ing to erad­i­cate it. Games should be es­tab­lished as a leisure cul­ture within the fam­ily. Try­ing to re­strict them cre­ates big­ger side-ef­fects.” He looks at his watch. His min­ders say he has to leave.

Be­fore he does, I ask if eS­ports should be in the Olympics. “Yes, of course. It should have the same sta­tus as sport.” For the chair­man, it is not a ques­tion of if, but when: eS­port is al­ready set to be­come a cat­e­gory at the 2022 Asian Games. “In the dig­i­tal era, eS­ports will not just be es­tab­lished as a ma­jor sport, but also the most beloved sport.”

At the Na­tional Cen­tre for Men­tal Health in Seoul, Dr Lee Tae-kyung knows ex­actly why the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the Cin­derella law. Lee is in charge of the ad­dic­tion de­part­ment at the gov­ern­ment-run psy­chi­atric hos­pi­tal. He used to deal mainly with drug and al­co­hol ad­dic­tion, but to­day it’s all about gam­ing. Prob­lems typ­i­cally emerge, he says, when chil­dren en­ter mid­dle school, at the age of 11. They lose in­ter­est in aca­demic work, friends and fam­ily; they stop sleep­ing; they eat poorly or hardly at all. “There was a young man who im­mersed him­self with­out sleep­ing or hav­ing meals, and fi­nally he died af­ter fin­ish­ing his game,” Lee says. “Peo­ple asked whether we should ban in­ter­net gam­ing or re­strict play­ers’ times af­ter this case. But the harsh reg­u­la­tions de­press the in­dus­try.”

Does he think the gov­ern­ment is do­ing enough to tackle ad­dic­tion? “No. I sup­port the Cin­derella law, but it is not enough.” He de­scribes the in­dus­try’s lack of sup­port for ad­dicts as “im­moral”.

Lee treats his pa­tients with a pro­gramme he has cre­ated called Hora, af­ter a char­ac­ter in Momo, a fan­tasy novel writ­ten by the Ger­man au­thor Michael Ende in the 1970s. Momo is about a girl whose life is ru­ined by the ar­rival of a species of para­nor­mal par­a­sites that steal time from hu­mans. Momo and the hu­man race are even­tu­ally res­cued by their saviour, Hora, who re­turns time to them. For Lee, the story of Momo is the per­fect metaphor.

Choi is an ad­dict and an in­pa­tient at Lee’s hos­pi­tal. He is 31, but seems younger. He talks gen­tly and mov­ingly about how his ad­dic­tion alien­ated him from the real world and his job as­sist­ing an in­te­rior de­signer. He says he played at PC bangs for four to six hours every night, and stopped eat­ing prop­erly.

Did his habit af­fect the qual­ity of his work? “Very much. My work could be quite dan­ger­ous, be­cause some of the ma­te­ri­als are very sharp and need spe­cial at­ten­tion, but I was feel­ing so sleepy, the de­signer was wor­ried about me.”

He says he be­gan to con­fuse his own iden­tity with char­ac­ters in the games he played. He stopped

I ask if he will give me the most pow­er­ful elec­tric shock he gives pa­tients. I can still feel it hours later

re­lat­ing to peo­ple. At the hos­pi­tal, he has un­der­gone mu­sic and po­etry ther­apy. Choi talks about a par­tic­u­lar poem that has had a pro­found ef­fect on him, in which the poet sends a let­ter to a loved one on a let­tuce leaf. He smiles as he thinks about it. “When I was play­ing games in which I was only killing, break­ing, at­tack­ing, I was not re­ally liv­ing, not think­ing about my fam­ily. I re­alised it would be beau­ti­ful if I could re­turn to nor­mal life.”

Choi has no in­ten­tion of giv­ing up games, but he hopes that when he leaves the hos­pi­tal he will be able to play in mod­er­a­tion. Lee’s con­ser­va­tive lit­er­ary ther­apy seems ef­fec­tive, but he is not overly op­ti­mistic. “Choi is in re­mis­sion, but the temp­ta­tion will al­ways be there.”

Other ther­a­pies are more rad­i­cal. The Easy Brain Cen­tre in down­town Gang­nam is a pri­vate clinic, ap­par­ently modelled on easyJet; it even uses a sim­i­lar orange-and-white mo­tif. This is where des­per­ate par­ents with money bring their chil­dren when they have run out of hope.

Dr Kim Hyun-soo is less for­mally dressed than doc­tors at the gov­ern­ment-run hos­pi­tal. He talks about how pat­terns of ad­dic­tion have changed in South Korea. “In the 1990s, the ad­dic­tion is­sues were as­so­ci­ated with glue or gas. In 1998, in­ter­net games were com­mer­cialised, and in 2000 I started see­ing gam­ing ad­dicts. Many of the glue and gas snif­fers moved on to gam­ing. Since then, the top-ranked ad­dic­tion among young peo­ple is game ad­dic­tion, and 90% of the ad­dicts are male teenagers.”

Kim has a kindly face and a gen­tle laugh that be­lies some of the ter­ri­ble sto­ries he tells. He talks about the ad­dicts he has seen who wear nap­pies so they don’t have to leave their game to go to the toi­let; the gamers so ob­sessed that they stop eat­ing and sleep­ing al­to­gether. And then there are the hor­ror sto­ries, those that made the news all over the world. He says he was one of the psy­chi­a­trists on a com­mit­tee that in­ves­ti­gated the case of a game­sad­dicted young man who killed his mother be­fore killing him­self. “There have been many tragic so­cial cases that are re­lated to game ad­dic­tion.”

Kim dis­cov­ered there were dif­fer­ent types of gam­ing ad­dic­tions: some peo­ple were ad­dicted to mov­ing up the ranks; some to the money-mak­ing as­pect; and some to that sense of be­long­ing to the gam­ing com­mu­nity. Those ad­dicted to the money side, he says, are most dif­fi­cult to treat. Gam­bling in eS­ports al­ready seems more ad­vanced than in tra­di­tional sports. Pro­fes­sional play­ers have been banned for bet­ting on them­selves to win matches or, more com­monly, to lose. Last year one of the big­gest names in Star­craft, Lee “Life” Se­ung-hyun, was im­pris­oned af­ter be­ing con­victed of match fix­ing. He has been banned for life from eS­ports in South Korea.

Dr Lee says younger and younger peo­ple are be­com­ing ad­dicted. He has seen six-year-olds re­fus­ing to go to school be­cause they are ad­dicted to smart­phone games. He treats his pa­tients with “talk­ing ther­apy”: ad­dicts talk out their prob­lems and hope­fully reach a so­lu­tion. If they are ad­dicted to the com­pet­i­tive el­e­ment, Lee might sug­gest an ana­logue sport that would suit them; if they play be­cause they are lonely, he might sug­gest they join a small com­mu­nity less prone to ad­dic­tion. It is a moderate ap­proach to treat­ing ad­dic­tion.

But that is only half the story. Next door, his part­ner, Dr Lee Jae-won, sits in a room full of ter­ri­fy­ing, hi-tech gad­getry. When talk­ing does not work for young­sters, he turns to elec­tric shock treat­ment. One ma­chine de­liv­ers ba­sic shocks to stim­u­late the frontal lobe; the other pro­vides tran­scra­nial mag­netic stim­u­la­tion, a less bru­tal ther­apy. These treat­ments, par­tic­u­larly the first, are con­tro­ver­sial, es­pe­cially when used on young peo­ple. But he in­sists his treat­ment is much more so­phis­ti­cated than the crude elec­tro­con­vul­sive ther­apy of yes­ter­year. As he talks, he reg­u­larly flicks a switch, gives him­self an elec­tric shock and twitches. He seems un­aware that he is do­ing it.

How old are the youngest peo­ple he treats? “There are kids who are ob­sessed be­fore they en­rol in their el­e­men­tary school. With gam­ing, it is the frontal lobe that de­gen­er­ates. And it is the frontal lobe that makes hu­mans act like hu­mans. So hav­ing it dam­aged makes them an­ti­so­cial, im­pul­sive and un­happy.” The elec­tric shock stim­u­lates the frontal lobe, he ex­plains. I ask if the brain zap is ran­dom. Yes, he says, but it does not mat­ter. “If one part of the brain is stim­u­lated, the sur­round­ings will get stim­u­lated ac­cord­ingly, too.”

I ask if he will give me the most pow­er­ful shock he gives pa­tients, on my hand. It’s only a sin­gle zap, but the im­pact is vi­o­lent. My bones res­onate as if struck by a tuning fork. I can still feel it hours later. These shocks are meant to be ap­plied to the head.

On the way out, I see a lit­tle boy, maybe nine years old, in the wait­ing room with his mother. The boy has a League of Leg­ends tat­too on his arm. This is a cul­tural taboo in Korea, where tat­too­ing is il­le­gal, and a clear sign that the boy is far gone. I won­der whether he will get the talk­ing ther­apy, elec­tric shock or both. This is the flip side to the glam­orous world of Faker, the packed-out sta­di­ums, the fans and the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar deals.

Ian Smith, the Bri­tish first head of the eS­ports In­tegrity Com­mis­sion (Esic), says that the eS­ports world is ex­cit­ing, largely un­reg­u­lated and ripe for ex­ploita­tion. It’s his job to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Smith, for­mer le­gal di­rec­tor of the Pro­fes­sional Crick­eters’ As­so­ci­a­tion, has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence of deal­ing with cor­rup­tion, not least spot- and match-fix­ing. In eS­ports, cheat­ing is rel­a­tively easy, he says. You can slow op­po­nents down us­ing tech­nol­ogy that messes with their in­ter­net con­nec­tion, or take drugs to speed your­self up. Or you can sim­ply lose. And it is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly sus­cep­ti­ble to cor­rup­tion, be­cause so many peo­ple are bet­ting on matches. The casi­nos in Las Ve­gas are now stream­ing matches. In March, Esic signed a mem­o­ran­dum with the Ne­vada Gam­ing Con­trol Board to share in­for­ma­tion about sus­pi­cious bet­ting pat­terns. Next year the Luxor ho­tel will be­come home to the first eS­ports arena.

Is the in­dus­try sup­port­ive of Smith’s ethics code? “I have been ac­cused more than once of build­ing a high­way for cars that don’t yet ex­ist. The trou­ble is, I know the cars are com­ing, be­cause I’ve spent 20 years look­ing at them. Peo­ple want to wait un­til they’re run over by that car.”

Tom Jenk­ins

‘This is the first world sport out­side of foot­ball that is truly global’ … above, the Fnatic eS­ports ‘Bunkr’ in Lon­don; left, Fnat­ics play Mis­fits in a League of Leg­ends se­ries in Ber­lin

Tom Jenk­ins

eS­tars in their eyes … left, the In­tel Ex­treme Mas­ters fi­nals in Poland; right, Sam Mathews, founder of the Fnatic team in Lon­don; be­low right, Jun Byung-hun, head of the In­ter­na­tional eS­ports Fed­er­a­tion; be­low left, Faker, a South Korean su­per­star...

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