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'Center of esports' S. Korea looks to sell technical knowledge abroad

OGN General Manager of Esports Lim Tae-ju explains the history of South Korea's professional gaming world in Seoul on June 1, 2018. (Mainichi)

SEOUL -- Among the tall buildings of the Digital Media City here is the CJ E&M Center, the location of cable television channel "OGN" that has gathered attention as the hub of the competitive gaming -- or esports -- industry.

The same year that OGN was founded in 2000, the company also established a professional league for esports players, and OGN has grown to the extent it is called one of two "major leagues" of esports along with the terrestrial television and radio giant Minhwa Broadcasting Corp. (MBC).

Professional league matches are held in a stadium built exclusively for esports by the company and broadcast on the channel, and OGN rakes in the profits from admission, broadcasting rights, league sponsor fees, advertisements and more. This is OGN's business model.

Lim Tae-ju, general manager of OGN's esports team, says that the existence of "PC Bang" (computer rooms), the Korean equivalent of internet cafes, was pivotal in the popularity that esports now enjoys in the country. PC Bang became a place where young people could enjoy online gaming, and there are over 10,000 such cafes in South Korea. Amateur competitions began to be held at PC Bang, and television broadcasters who caught onto the entertainment value of those competitions developed them into professional leagues.

Of course, a super star was needed to launch the industry. The start of the esports world came in the form of Lim Yo-hwan, 37, who began playing professionally at age 13 and enjoyed popularity that approached that of celebrities, and Sin Ju-yeong, who became the world champion in playing the computer game StarCraft in 1998. Sin's activities in particular caught the interest of young people, showing that one could become a world champion in video games.

"Different from conventional sports, esports take place on a virtual stage," Lim explained in a stadium at the center, which seats 800 people. "That is why special technology is required to broadcast the competitions live. The quality is affected by the editing skills (of the broadcaster)."

Even for a game played between two teams of six, the action of the game must be shown on a single screen. The ability to have two producers working on the scene as well as a camera that closes in on the important action is of the utmost importance, Lim explained.

Now, there is a movement to sell to abroad South Korea's technical knowledge about how to operate an esports league and amass profits from the broadcast of those league matches. OGN is receiving observing parties related to the Japanese and U.S. professional baseball leagues and Europe's soccer clubs that are looking to involve more young people.

(Japanese original by Kazuyuki Hyodo, Digital Editorial Group)

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