Gaming has achieved an unprecedented milestone by being selected as an official medal sport for the Hangzhou Asian Games in the form of esports, but participating in the competition holds significant importance – and possibly life-changing implications – for some players.
For South Korean male participants, winning a gold medal in the Asian Games or Olympic Games not only brings honor but also grants them a military exemption.
Military service is compulsory for men in South Korea, with almost all able-bodied persons required to serve in the army for 18 months by the age of 28.
However, South Korean law allows men who are deemed to excel in sports, popular culture, art or higher education to defer their service until the age of 30.
The law has impacted the careers of some of the country’s biggest names, including global superstar music group BTS. Three BTS members are currently serving in the military, with band member Suga having begun his service on September 22.
However, the mandatory duty can be waived for some athletes, in particular those who win an Olympic medal or a gold medal in the Asian Games.
Son Heung-min, captain of Premier League soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, received an exemption from his mandatory military conscription in 2018 after winning gold at the Asian Games with South Korea.
For esports players, achieving success on the international stage could lead to the same outcome and the possibly unusual situation of Korean men earning a military exemption for playing a video game.
While exempt athletes are still required to undertake a three- or four-week period of training, this recognition is a significant step forward for the gaming industry in South Korea.
Military exemption for athletes based on their performances has been divisive in South Korea.
In a 2019 survey run by the country’s poll agency, Realmeter, after the 18th Asian Games, 55.2% were supportive of gold medal-winning athletes getting the exemption while 36.6% opposed it.
“Times have indeed changed. It seems right that esports should receive the same legal consideration for military service exemption,” Shin Min-gu, a Seoul resident in his 20s, told CNN Sport.
“Considering that esports originated here, it’s fitting for the country to extend these benefits to players.”
“As our nation has witnessed significant advancements in sports, and with esports now recognized as an official event, it’s logical that military service exemption benefits be equally extended to these players,” Kim Sa-hee told CNN.
However, there are those who hold a different perspective on providing military service exemption as a perk for successful athletes.
“I believe that everyone should fulfill their national defense duties. While I acknowledge that athletes winning gold medals at the Asian Games elevate our country’s status, I think their achievements should remain distinct from military service,” Lee Kyung-dae, a 35-year-old business owner in Seoul, told CNN.
With its final taking place on September 27, FIFA Online 4 could provide the historic first gold medal in esports for South Korea, with a Korean winner earning their automatic military exemption.
When asked if they thought about the prospect of a military exemption for winning gold, 22-year-old FIFA 4 player Kwak Jun-hyouk told CNN Sport: “It would be a lie to say that I don’t think about it at all, but it’d be a burden to think about the outcome of a gold medal first, so I think about putting my best effort now.”
Kwak, who is in the Losers’ Bracket final, still has a chance at gold if he wins his first match and then defeats Thailand’s Teedech Songsaisakul in the grand final.
The League of Legends (LoL) – one of the most popular esports titles and video games in the world – final will take place on September 29, providing South Korean LoL player Lee Sang-hyeok, better known as Faker, who is 27 years old, a final opportunity to secure military service exemption.
Faker, who won a demonstration sport silver medal in the Asian Games in Jakarta five years ago, told a press conference ahead of the Hangzhou Games: “I have set my goal to do my best in the process and to achieve that, I will win a gold medal.”
Seventeen-year-old Park Ki-young, who was representing South Korea in FIFA 4, though was clear before his competition began: “I have a greater desire to win the prestigious gold medal than getting the military exemption, which is the biggest prize of participating in a big competition like the Asian Games.”
Whatever the implications of military service exemptions, industry experts believe that more South Koreans may be drawn to esports and certain games in particular due to their inclusion in internationally recognized sporting events like the Asian Games and, potentially, the Olympics.
The momentous decision to include esports as an official medal event marks a historic juncture for the industry, as the Asian Games – which kicked off on September 23 and run until October 8 – become the first major international sports event to fully embrace esports as a recognized discipline.
Video games have been a beloved form of entertainment worldwide for decades. However, since the late 1990s, the status of gaming has been elevated to a new level, with some games establishing professional leagues and earning the title of esports.
South Korea has often been hailed as the country that played a pivotal role in turning what was once minor competitive gaming in pockets around the world into the global professional industry of esports as we know it today.
This transformation can be attributed to various factors, including the sensational popularity of Blizzard’s StarCraft, a real-time strategy game released in 1999 which was known for its incredible player-versus-player (PvP) gameplay.
A government-backed fast broadband network, a gradual cultural acceptance of gaming as a profession and well-organized professional leagues were other factors that helped in its rise.
Michael Chow, the CEO of The Believer Company and former Vice President of Riot Games – the creator of League of Legends – agrees: “The level of performance of South Korean players has made a huge impact on elevating the games to the sport … They would not be the sports that they are today [without them].”
While StarCraft leagues and competitions have since faded into a lower tier esport, LoL has taken up the mantle and remained one of the most popular games for over a decade.
The pinnacle of competitive League is the “League of Legends World Championship,” which began with eight teams over three days in 2011 and has since expanded to a 22-team competition spanning over a month of games for the 2023 edition.
Faker, widely regarded as the greatest League player of all-time, boasts three world titles and 10 Korean domestic championships.
As a key member of esports giant T1 since 2013 – in the days when the team was known as SK Telecom 1 – Faker is one of the most experienced veterans in the game and one of only two players to have won the World Championship three times.
Faker’s impact on the world of esports is often compared to some of the biggest athletes in history, which has led to his wild popularity, not only in South Korea, but in esports circles around the world.
“He was one of the first players to treat the game with a level of seriousness that a lot of other athletes now have in this sport. The talent multiplied by hard work is very akin to Michael Jordan,” Chow said.
The 2022 grand final between Korean teams DRX and T1 set a new record for peak viewership, with over 5.1 million concurrent viewers tuning in across various platforms, surpassing the previous year by more than one million additional viewers.
Gaming is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the global entertainment industry, with a total revenue of $227 billion in 2023. This figure is expected to swell to as much as $312 billion by 2027, according to a recent report by PwC.
Tencent, the parent company of Riot Games, reported a revenue of $23.28 billion in 2022 and Microsoft Studios generated around $16.2 billion through Xbox Game Studios during the same period. As a comparison, the entire global recorded music market generated $26.2 billion of revenue in 2022 according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.
Seven games will be featured as official medal events at the 19th Asian Games, building on the success of the pilot event at the 2018 Jakarta-Palembang Games.
The games that will feature as official medal titles include EA Sports FC Online (formerly FIFA Online 4), PUBG Mobile (Peace Elite Asian Games version), Arena of Valor (Asian Games version), League of Legends, DOTA 2, Dream Three Kingdoms 2 and Street Fighter 5.
In total, there will be 21 medals up for grabs for esports competitors and teams.
The gaming events will be hosted in an expansive 82,000-square-meter stadium equipped with 4,500 seats and four large screens.
Additionally, a cutting-edge 5G Advanced digital network, claimed to be 10 times faster than the standard 5G gigabit network, will be installed to enhance the gaming experience for fans and players.
With its inclusion as an official Asian Games medal event, the possibility of esports becoming a part of the Olympic Games is a topic of growing debate.
In June, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) organized the Olympic Esports Series, signaling its tentative entry into the world of esports.
While this marked a significant breakthrough for the industry, the series featured virtual sports, dance, archery and other more obscure games that left existing fans with emotions ranging from indifference to outright anger.
Two-time Paralympic champion and esports enthusiast Rowan Crothers said in March that he was disappointed in the titles chosen for the Olympics.
“I’m a Paralympic champion and the fastest swimmer with disability in the world. But I’ll never be good enough to be an Olympic swimmer,” Crothers posted on X, formerly Twitter.
“In esports, I can compete at the highest level, with & against able-bodied players. But this isn’t esports. This is virtual traditional sport.”
Esports analyst Jess Bolden took it one step further, saying on X that the IOC “should be ashamed” and that “none of the featured games are actual esports.”
In response, the IOC posted a FAQ on its site for the first Olympic Esports Week, stating in regards to how the games selected were chosen: “The Olympic Games has always offered a diverse programme… In order to build a similarly diverse programme for the Olympic Esports Series 2023, we have partnered with International Federations (IFs), who in turn propose game developer partnerships.
“When considering proposals, it is important to the IOC that the featured games in the Olympic Esports Series align with the Olympic Values.
“This includes participation inclusivity, such as technical barriers to entry, the gender split of player base and avoiding any personal violence, against the backdrop of the IOC’s mission which is to unite the world in peaceful competition.”
While the criticism for the titles chosen might have dampened enthusiasm for some, for many within the industry, there is considerable hope for esports to be eventually included in the official Olympic program.
Chow believes that one of the critical factors for this change to occur is improving “the viewing experience for fans at home [for traditional esports titles],” ensuring that both experienced and inexperienced viewers can enjoy the games.
One such example of the difficulties Chow speaks of is the gap in complexity between certain games.
While it might be easy even for the most inexperienced viewer to follow a fighting game like Street Fighter or a battle royale shooter like PUBG, the depth in a game like DOTA 2 or League of Legends – with their five vs. five teams featuring over 100 possible characters, each with specific abilities – makes it difficult for even average esports fans to understand everything going on.
Another difficulty to overcome is the acceptance of esports across different generations and regions. Asia leads the global esports market, accounting for over 57% of it, according to Niko Partners. While the path to esports becoming an Olympic medal event remains uncertain, the gaming industry continues to grow, with an increasingly younger and more enthusiastic audience.
Young participants at the Asian Games are determined to play their part, showcase their skills and elevate the status of esports on the global stage, helping make that potential Olympic dream a reality.
As Kwak told CNN: “Esports, including FIFA 4, have never received so much interest and attention from so many people. If we get good results at the Asian Games, this level of interest and attention can continue, so we are putting a lot of effort in that regard.”