Once upon a time, ambitious teens were advised to play sports: the teamwork inculcated was a plus for corporate leadership, while the brawn and physical courage required were admirable assets for military service.

Today, in an era when corporate work involves sitting in front of a computer, and when warfare has gone push-button, field sports may be less appropriate personal asset builders than their 21st century equivalent: e-sports.

And now, in an historic development, e-sports has been given the seal of approval from that bastion of traditional sport, the International Olympic Committee. At the ongoing IOC-recognized 18th Asian Games in Indonesia, e-sports are to be contested for the first time as a demonstration event from August 26-31.

Six games are on the Asiad program: “Arena of Valor,” “Clash Royale,” “Hearthstone,” “League of Legends,” “ProEvolution Soccer” and “StarCraft II.”

South Korea is widely seen as a global leader in online gaming and Koreans will do battle in Jakarta in StarCraft II and League of Legends. In League of Legends – the most popular online, multi-player game in the world, with the longest run of all the e-sports to be featured at the Asiad – fans are confident that their national champ, the  “Unkillable Demon King,” will seize gold.

An e-sports Mecca

On the eve of South Korea’s squad of super-geeks jetting off to do battle in Jakarta, an e-sports “Hall of Fame” was inaugurated at a computer gaming center in Seoul. The hall, and its attendant museum, opened on Tuesday in the S-Plex Center in Digital Media City – a cluster of futuristic-looking buildings housing media companies and digital ventures on the northwestern outskirts of Seoul.

The museum tells the story of e-sports in Korea – with the focus being on the various games’ pro-stars.

When South Korean bureaucrats first heard about the “Information Superhighway” being touted by then US-Vice President Al Gore, they decided they wanted a piece of the action. When it came to seeding the country with high-speed broadband network, they had several national advantages: Not only did South Korea have a small land mass and an urbanized population, it had a high density of apartment complexes, which were easy to wire.

With South Korean parents being manically focused on education, such frivolous objects as game consoles never stood a chance. However, parents did buy their children PCs to do their homework on.

The personal keyboard of an e-sports star is one of the exhibits. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
The personal keyboard of an e-sports star is one of the exhibits. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Armed with broadband connections, children could, after closing their bedroom doors, play online games on their PCs. Also taking advantage of the broadband backbone, a nationwide network of “PC Bangs” – ultra-high speed internet cafes – sprang up. These became refuges for schoolchildren escaping the high-stress educational environment to play single- and multi-player science fiction and fantasy games.

The first gaming league – for StarCraft – appeared in 1999. South Koreans have been mainstays in the global gaming community ever since.

On the walls of the museum are giant cut-out images of super players with nicknames like “Bengi,” “Bisu,” “PraY,” “Storm Zerg” and “Emperor or Terra.” Many have donated items such as personal keyboards and gaming uniforms. Online gaming teams now enjoy sponsorships from such high-profile blue chips as electronics giant Samsung and South Korea’s leading carrier, SKT.

First-generation StarCraft hero Kang Doh-gyung poses with his exhibit at the Hall of Fame Museum. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
First-generation StarCraft hero Kang Doh-gyung with his exhibit at the Hall of Fame Museum. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

S-Plex contains two e-sports stadia, representing a US$40 million joint venture between league operator OGN and Seoul City. One stadium is for individual players, one for mass games; the latter arena’s field of play can accommodate 100 players, while giant digital screens relay the action to up to 1,000 spectators in the stands.

OGN staffer talks visitors through the e-sports stadium. Team player booths are in the background. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
OGN staffer talks visitors through the e-sports stadium. Team player booths are in the background. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

OGN, originally On game net, was founded in 1999 and acquired by CJ Entertainment and Media – one of South Korea’s leading film production firms and Cineplex operators – in 2006. OGN promotes game leagues, broadcasts matches and carries out related marketing and promotional work.

It has sold the broadcasting rights to Korea’s world-beating leagues internationally, with buyers including companies in China, France, Malaysia, Thailand, the UK and the US, said Kim Beom-jin, an analyst at OGN’s Content Strategy Team.

In Korea, prime time is post-school hours: 7:00-10:00pm to capture the main target audience, Kim said. Live games in Korea garner some 30,000-40,000 viewers; finals can be viewed by upwards of 100,000 fans. Games are broadcast over multiple platforms including cable TV, YouTube and South Korean search engine Naver.

Kim is a 26-year-old whose first job was with OGN. “Asian parents are all, ‘You gotta study, not play games,’” he said. “But now, my dad is very positive about the e-sport industry.”

At the Hall of Fame opening ceremony, a line of government and industry officials held a ribbon cutting ceremony and vowed (perhaps over-ambitiously) to promote e-sports to the level of the English Premier League. Then the five inductees – who had been selected by popular vote – were introduced to a crowded press conference, one by one.

But while the event primarily welcomed retired, be-suited players, all eyes were on a slim, bespectacled youngster in the center of the front row. He was not wearing a suit. He was wearing a baseball jacket with his gaming nickname emblazoned across the back.

Faker: The ‘Unkillable Demon King’

“I feel very honored to be a star here and to be in the Hall of Fame,” said Lee Sang-hyeok – better known worldwide by his e-sport handle, “Faker.” “I want to develop e-sports via the Asia Games.”

Officials pose with super-gamer Faker, third from left, and his coach, fourth from left, at the e-sports Hall of Fame ceremony in Seoul today. Photo; Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Officials with super-gamer Faker, third from left, and his coach, fourth from left, at the e-sports Hall of Fame ceremony in Seoul. Photo; Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

He may do that very thing. “Faker” is a god in the online multiplayer game “League of Legends.” Created by California-based Riot Games and first released in 2009, it was named the most popular online game in the world by CableTV.com last year, and boasts an estimated 100,000 active players per month.

Set in a fantasy battle arena animated with elements of steampunk and horror, it is shot from a bird’s-eye view, making it ideal for spectators.

Faker is the mainstay on the SKT team that has won the Korean League of Legends championship six times and the world championship three times. Some have dubbed the 22-year-old maestro “The Unkillable Demon King.”

Gossip on the Korean internet has it that Faker earns about US$3 million per year and has received offers to defect to teams in China. Faker made no comment on these rumors – but obviously, never left home. Now, he has a mission to fulfill.

“E-sports is now in the Asian Games, and I guess there’ll be other chances like this one in the future,” he said on the sidelines of the award ceremony. “So I feel a responsibility to be a leader in this industry.”

His predecessors – though perhaps jealous of the horizons the Asiad platform may expand – are behind him. The biggest star in Korean e-sports, prior to Faker’s arrival, was “Terran Emperor” Yim Yong-hwan.  “One of my dreams was to participate in the Olympics and now the dream has come true – but not for me,” Yim said. “Faker will make my dreams come true.”

IOC President Thomas Bach has said that e-sports may eventually join the Olympics, and that the Asiad is a “first step” in that direction.

Like other members of the nerd-hood, OGN’s Kim is stoked at the viewer numbers who will watch online gaming over terrestrial, mainstream broadcasting at the Asiad.

“This is really, really important,” he said. E-sports, unlike offline sports, have customarily been a niche spectator event, given that the players “are sitting down, they are not sweating,” Kim said. But with the mass market sporting audience seeing it on terrestrial TV for the first time, “it’s a milestone.”

At least one of Faker’s estimated 600,000 fans is certain who will walk away with gold in Indonesia. “Faker is gonna win, without any doubt!” said Kim No-gun. “He is perfect at playing the game, is diligent and does his best for his own career even though he is young.”

Fans with their favorite player's image on their shirts have no doubt who is going to capture Asia gold in League of Legends. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times
Fans with their favorite player’s image on their shirts have no doubt who is going to capture Asiad gold in League of Legends. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times