Last semester, I was fortunate enough to have a once in a-life-time opportunity of studying abroad in Korea, my motherland. Born in Korea but having lived most of my life in the United States, I consider myself to be more aligned with American customs and lifestyle and as a gamer, I am well-cultured in American games. So on a trip to dabble in Soju, Korean rice wine, and explore my roots, one of my main goals of studying abroad was to also educate myself in the Korean gaming culture.
When considering the possibility of culture shock, one usually imagines having to adjust to a foreign country’s language, food, and other cultural practices. For example, many of my friends had trouble adjusting to Korea’s numerous delicacies. While most of them were already introduced to the basic Korean barbecue (Galbi, Bulgogi) many of my friends had trouble eating raw seafood, like live octopus legs that stick to your throat. Luckily, in my case, I had no problem with Korean food. However, I was unprepared for the major differences I would find in Korea’s gaming culture.
First, to understand Korean gaming culture, I found that we have to consider games not only as gaming commodities but also as sports. Like a sports team, professional gamers in Korea join teams that are sponsored by companies and becoming a professional gamer in Korea is more of a career choice. With tremendous support and sponsorship from entrepreneurs, professional gamers can earn a steady income. Therefore, it is common to see professional gamers promote their companies’ products or serve as spokespeople on television ads. It is also common to see the face of a professional gamer on consumer goods such as energy drinks, cup noodles or other snacks. Prominent Korean gamers acquire a huge fan base. When I was at a shopping mall observing a competition between two Starcraft gamers, I was astonished to see a group of girls cheering as if they had just seen the pop sensation, Justin Bieber.
E-Sports, also known as electronic sports, receive a lot of media coverage in Korea. While E-Sports compile of numerous video games, the Starcraft franchise draws the most coverage and fans. The Starcraft franchise is the most recognized game and product in Korea. Kids, teenagers, and adults of all ages know about this game not necessarily just because they have played them, but because Korea has a reputation to produce the best professional Starcraft players. With multiple TV channels dedicated to gaming, broadcasts of live or recorded Starcraft games are narrated by announcers and analyzed by game enthusiasts. Similar to John Madden and the NFL, announcers in Korea share the same enthusiasm and passion for E-sports. Moreover, announcers provide play by play commentaries, professional opinions, and in-depth critiques. Other programs include interviews, reality shows, and variety shows that star and feature professional gamers.
From my study abroad trip, I was surprised by the extent gaming was socially accepted and even applauded in Korea. Seeing that one can make a living by playing video games and getting a look at how mainstream media covers video games in depth, I realized that gaming in the United States is not as widely followed and celebrated. Professional games are celebrities in Korea. They have a strong fan base, reality TV shows, and media coverage that give recognition to their profession. Moreover, because professional gamers are seen on TV or on consumer goods, an average consumer can easily recognize a professional gamer. However, in the United States, gaming is still considered a leisure activity that does not fall in media’s agenda. It’s fair to say that E-Sports has a more tight-knit following in the United States rather than the mainstream following in Korea. Because narrated Starcraft games are almost never televised in the United States, fans rely on the internet as the primary way to find coverage of E-Sports. Moreover, the only people in the United States who watch E-Sports or recognize professional gamers are fans who actively seek and follow E-Sports. Because of the limited mainstream coverage, professional gamers in the United States do not receive the same recognition and fame as professional gamers in Korea. More or less, it seems almost impossible that we would see the face of a professional gamer on a cereal box or a soda can in the U.S.