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In the Beginning There was Everquest: Why MMO's Are Responsible for the Korean E-Sports Industry.

As I discussed last blog post, South Korea is the largest legal market in the world for e-sports. E-sports athletes in South Korea have the same kind of cache as professional football players have in the US. Meanwhile, in the US, watching e-sports and e-sports is increasingly popular, but the players themselves are mostly not. I say "mostly" there are exceptions. There's Cutie Pie and Ninja, and a couple of others, but for something that generates that many eyes and that much attention, it's largely bereft of stars.

I spent over an hour talking about why this is the case with a professional in esports marketing the other day. One of the issues has to do with the fact that there isn't necessarily the training and preparatory infrastructure necessary to prepare most e-sports athletes for the media savvy and press management skills necessary to become the type of star that really generates fans and attention. In short, those with the skill set to generate and manage the press tend to be influencers, not athletes, whereas those who are good at the games themselves become the athletes.


There isn't a minor league for e-sports in America.


But there's something else, and this is something that the gentleman in marketing was discussing with me. He believes that there is an issue story and narrative, that until there is more of a clear path to becoming a professional e-sports athlete, there will be a dearth of fans of individual athletes because it will be difficult for most people to really imagine themselves in the shoes of that person. It's an interesting idea. And it's not entirely wrong. People who are fans of football understand that football players generally play in high school, then play in college, then get drafted, etc. The path makes sense to them. Baseball is kind of similar, but people can get drafted out of high school and there are minor leagues people progress through (both upward and downward). There isn't a minor league for e-sports in America.

You can add to the complication the fact the difficulty in creating independent leagues for e-sports because, by their very nature, e-sports games are owned by companies that have proprietary rights to run servers, use the games' code, publish images and names of the game, etc. You can't run a League of Legends tournament server without a license from Riot Games. So there will probably never be an NEAA (National E-Sports Athletic Association--modeled after the NCAA) or its equivalent that transcends a single game or company. The companies would have to give up too much control.


What happened in South Korea that didn't happen here?


But there's something else: Video games are marginalized in the US. There is a social stigma around video games that simply does not exist in South Korea. In the US, playing Video games is a mark of being an other, not one of the "cool kids," whereas in South Korea, one can be a "cool kid" precisely because one plays video games and plays them well. Excellence in Video games is treated like excellence in any other endeavor, something to be admired. So how did Korea have a story, or something normal people could empathize with, or something else that the typical person "bought into" when the US hasn't? Why are video games marginalized here and normalized there? What happened in South Korea that didn't happen here?

The answer is two things, or rather that one happened at a precise moment in time. Remember in the late eighties and early 90's lots of things had labels that said "Made in Taiwan" but you don't see those labels much anymore? The reason for this is because of the nature of international trade. American multinational companies are always looking for the cheapest places to locate their manufacturing. This means that any country where manufacturing is centered will only remain a center for manufacturing for a limited time before it either specializes in a particular type of labor or work (like how India has become the place where people relocate IT support call centers), or American manufacturing just moves on (like how you just don't see that much manufactured in Taiwan anymore).


Everquest Mining was a violation of the Terms of Service, but it was an entire industry of selling fully leveled-up characters, experience points, magic items, and other things a player might want in-game for real money outside of game.


Well, in the late 90's and early aughts, the place to build your sweatshop was South Korea, and one of the emergent sweatshop types was was the Everquest Mining Facility. For those of you who don't remember Everquest, it was the first MMORPG, and like all MMO's, leveling up and getting the stuff you wanted was incredibly important. It also took forever. At its most difficult, leveling up to max level in World of Warcraft was on the order of 100 hours. At present, I've been told it can be done in around 20. It could take months of play to reach max level in Everquest. G-d Forbid you wanted to find the perfect gear for your character. Which is why Everquest Mining Facilities were born. Everquest Mining was a violation of the Terms of Service, but it was an entire industry of selling fully leveled-up characters, experience points, magic items, and other things a player might want in-game for real money outside of game. People would build facilities in Korea that looked a lot like LAN gaming centers and people would plug in for 10-12 hours a day and play Everquest, earning points and treasure for their clients in the US. Grinding in an MMO doesn't sound like my idea of a good time, but according to an NPR story on the rise of these places, many of the people who worked there, when they got off, would go to the internet cafe downstairs and play their own character, and the ones who didn't, were usually avid gamers of other games in other genres.

Everquest launched in March 1999. People started selling things in Everquest for real money within months and these facilities in South Korea were opening within a year of March 1999. In March 1998, Starcraft (one of the most popular e-sports in South Korea) was released. It was still popular and widely played in '99 and 2000.


About twenty years later...


So, in the late 90's an industry pops up whereby one can be a professional video-gamer. It isn't glorious. But you can feed your family and put your kids through school and its less hard on your body than working in a factory for the same wages. Around this same time popular competitive games from the US start becoming popular as the hardware to play them is getting more commonly available at cybercafes if nowhere else. About twenty years later a generation comes of age that grew up watching people play games for a living and playing competitive video games the same way that my generation played tag.

Not only are videogames not marginalized. They're a way people have generated wealth. They've become a way people mark status. I suspect it's how Starcraft raised to being something of a national pastime. And it all started with Everquest. I don't know how exactly that translates to video game culture here being normalized or if that can be duplicated. But I do know that if you follow that pattern of dots there is a series of points that tracks from Everquest to the fact that the best Starcraft Player in South Korea is dating a pop star. And it happened because it was fiendishly difficult and time-consuming to level up in Everquest.

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