The Calm before the Korean Storm

This past month the wider Overwatch community got to spectate the two largest online tournaments to date – The OG Invitational, and Operation Breakout, with $25,000 and $15,000 prize pools respectively. In both of these tournaments the playoff bracket and group stage was dominated by North American sides and European mixes. All of these teams have either big North American organisational backing (in the form of Cloud 9, Team Liquid ect), or are more home-grown with the existence of the organisation being centred around the performance of their Overwatch roster (Rogue, Misfits, Creation esports ect). Both sides of this coin NA or EU, big or small, are currently competing within the confines of  international online play, or on scattered domestic LANs, and from this limited talent pool a clear top group has emerged from the rest. These elite level teams are rarely challenged by any of the other sides below them due to a lack of commitment in practice as the scene is yet to gain lucrative financial prospects, or because of frequent roster changes that make forming a cohesive practice structure an unattainable dream. However these top sides may only remain at the top of the pack for a relatively short period of time, as Overwatch gains popularity in the East, and more specifically in South Korea, they can only pray that historical Korean dominance in video games that prove to become cultural phenomena, doesn’t apply to Overwatch.

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SK Telecom taking the Season 3 League of Legends World Championship with ease. Photo Credit: redbull.com

From every variation of Starcraft to the scale and magnitude of the League of Legends scene worldwide, the South Korean influence on esports has been vast. It seems as well, based on recent statistics concerning Overwatch overtaking League of Legends as the most popular game in PC cafes around Korea, for the first time in years, that Overwatch could quickly gain ground as the premiere competitive title in Korea. Furthermore based on the popularity of Korean streams on twitch, and the surfacing of clips of Korean players doing godlike things on characters like Widowmaker and Zarya, receiving acclamation and praise from the community at large, that there is already a well acknowledged Korean presence within the scene. The real question however will be how long before this minority within the community will start to impact the current majority of Western teams. Unfortunately for any prospective teams within Korea the thought of trans-national tournament play might remain a lofty dream. With the European sides struggling as is with server connection and ping issues in the American online tournaments that currently reign supreme as the predominant format, Korean teams will not be able to reasonably play over a vastly greater distance. So until the scene starts to gain momentum and more money allows for international LAN tournaments to be held with invites/qualifiers given to teams from Asia, the Western teams will not have to experience any extraneous force from outside the East. It can be easy to dismiss this Korean presence as nothing else than another smaller region within the wider Overwatch community, and to draw historical comparisons between Korean teams in other FPS titles. Whilst on some level these assumptions and dismissals can hold merit, to ignore the cultural Korean work ethic when it comes to esports, and more importantly what a popular game within Korean PC cafes can do to an entire scene would be ignorant.

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Solo and his team E-STRO in 2008. Photo Credit: hltv.org

Although it is often cited the weakness of Korean’s within the genre of FPS, this is often only applied to the Korean influence of CS:GO, CoD and Halo, and whilst this is true the saturation of these games within the Korean scene is completely negligible. Furthermore if you look back to the days of CS 1.6, you’ll find an era in 2008, where the Korean team ‘E-STRO’ was considered a top 3 team in the world and contained one of the greatest players in the history of 1.6, solo. With the E-STRO lineup having little to no resources to work with, and being only able to utilise a fraction of the 1.6 player base on a cracked version of Steam, the Korean work ethic had to shine through and a complete dedication to practicing in empty servers around the minutia of the mechanics of the game itself helped elevate them above and beyond what any team should expect given what they had to work with. If this same level of passion and desire is in any way shape or form applied to the Overwatch scene – which given the popularity of the game seems likely – then it is not unreasonable to expect well practiced Korean teams to take the West by storm. Furthermore Overwatch is unlike any other FPS that is currently a popular esport. Significantly more face paced than many titles out there, whilst relying heavily on a well read bank of knowledge in regards to hero match-ups and team compositions, means that comparing Korean performance in other FPS games is comparing apples to oranges.

So even looking beyond the scope of the genre of FPS and just gaming as a whole in Korean, as a general rule, the games that have been most popular in Korean PC cafes (League of Legends and the Starcraft series) has had Korean players and teams at the apex of those titles. It is a tangential story line to every game that tries to expand into the Korean market – games that have a high Korean player base will have some form of Korean dominance within their game. Whether it be due to the insane work ethic of Korean culture, years of esports infrastructure built up to not only accept but support pro gamers, or a pre-existing high level of gamers with raw mechanics that can be transferred from game to game unlike anywhere in the world, the Korean storm is brewing, and it’s only matter of time before it hits the shores of the west.

Written by Max Melit – @max_melit

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Max Melit

I write CS:GO and Overwatch content for Break the Game. Outside of writing, watching, and thinking about esports I listen to far too many podcasts, study full time as a student and watch my local Rugby Union side lose every Saturday.