China’s esports players challenge South Korea’s dominance

SOh 4,000 fans gathered on bexco Center in Busan, a major port city in South Korea, on May 29. Another 2.2 million tuned in online. They were there at the finals of the Mid-Season Invitational, a prestigious esports tournament. A dozen teams competed against each other over the course of three weeks to test their League of Legends (lOl), an online strategy fantasy game. Now only two remained: Royal Never Give Up from China and t1, represents the home team. As the battle raged t1 soon stuttered. The mood in the hall grew somber. Some fans left early. When the Chinese team, which locked themselves at home and joined virtually, emerged victorious, there were few left. Confetti rained down into a half-empty hall.

The excitement and crushing disappointment reflect the importance of e-sports in South Korean youth culture. The games are not only fun, they are a source of national pride. Since the 1990s, players have honed their skills pc pony (Internet cafes) where the kids went right after school. Games like StarCraft and lOl filled the time and fueled the spirit of competition like basketball after class in America or soccer in Brazil. The talent pool expanded and South Korean players dominated online gaming championships.

No longer. China is now on the rise. Chinese companies are at the heart of gambling around the world. The country’s largest tech company, Tencent, owns Riot Games, which has been thriving lOl, as well as 40% of Epic Games that make Fortnite. They are among the most popular games in the world. Interest in leisure activities has also grown. There are about 685 million gamers in China, including those playing on their phones, compared to 33 million in South Korea. In recent years, China has consistently beaten South Korea in major championships.

South Korea has plotted its own demise. “Skilled Korean players and coaches have played a role in cultivating the esports scene in China,” said Choi Eun-Kyoung of Hanshin University near Seoul. South Korean champions, attracted by big money, taught Chinese gamers the lessons of their success, establishing real-world gaming academies and systems for identifying and recruiting talent.

South Korea now senses a chance to catch up. Last year, China restricted under-18s to three hours of online gaming per week. Considering that serious gamers start as young as 14 and train about 70 hours a week, Chinese esports has to suffer. South Korea, meanwhile, last year scrapped a decades-old law that bans minors under the age of 16 from playing online games in the middle of the night. Local governments are investing in gaming academies. During an election campaign visit lOl Park, an e-sports venue in Seoul, Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s new president, asked gamers for ideas on how to improve the perception of gaming among parents who believe it’s addictive and a waste of time. “Our actions shape the future,” he said, quoting a lOl Character. China’s actions can also help.

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