Western pro-gamers shouldn’t want to be like Koreans

Those who have followed competitive StarCraft and League of Legends will have seen that acceptance of the Korean approach to professional gaming as superior is inevitable.

Those who have followed competitive StarCraft and League of Legends will have seen that acceptance of the Korean approach to professional gaming as superior is inevitable. Eventually, the trophies and top placings pile up so high that no amount of denial or blithe optimism can ignore the cold reality that the Korean system for recruiting, training and maintaining professional gamers has borne out as the most effective and successful in the history of esports.

With acceptance of this now inarguable fact, though, comes a lot of emotional baggage and frustration, on behalf of foreign fans of the game, which is often released in the form of criticism of Western professional gamers. They are bombarded with insinuations that they are lazy, care only about money and fame, don’t have the winning mentality and don’t want to win as much as Koreans. The follow-on from this kind of thinking, however far into those extremes one may go, is seemingly always the implication that Western pros should “buckle down” and simply copy, exactly, the Korean training method.

This trend in thinking is one I would like to address by making clear the kind of life-style Korean professional gamers endure and the expectations they live under, on a day-to-day basis. In making explicit the differences between the Eastern and Western cultures, I hope Western fans can see that it is unreasonable to demand from Western players that they force themselves to suffer the negatives of such a drastic cultural shift, when the positives may still be attainable by methods more suited to their own cultural upbringing.

The struggle

Let me set the scene for you, by out-lining how a Korean StarCraft: Brood War player lived, since BW was the first huge esports game in Korea and had a fully operational ecosystem, with top players earning hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary per year, for over a decade. The player in question has often begun practicing BW heavily as an amateur, usually aged 15-16. He plays every single day, often eschewing school work to allow himself to play, either for fun or simply in the drive to get better at the game.

If the player is lucky, he may be able to continue playing from home and attending school, while getting a try-out for a top team. Such trials involve playing matches against players from the professional team, losses in these early matches will very likely eliminate the player out-right and ensure his dreams of becoming a professional are either over or suffer serious setbacks. In BW, there was another route to get the attention of pro teams: winning the amateur Courage tournament.

Held roughly once a month, as I recall, this tournament picked a huge bracket of amateur players, who all attended the tournament in Seoul, and they would battle down to the final man standing, who would receive a professional gaming license from KeSPA (The Korean eSports Association) and very likely be given a proper trial by a pro-team.

Players who could not win Courage or get through a normal trial, might also attempt to keep their pro-gaming dream alive by joining a semi-pro team. These teams, sometimes run by reputable figures and sometimes by shady ‘used car salesmen’ types, hoping to get rich off some undiscovered talent found, would feature basic PC equipment, typically all stacked together in one room of cheap accomodation, and simply mattresses on the floor, again all in one room, for the players to sleep on. Players would play night and day, hoping to improve their skills and battle through amateur competition and again find some way to draw the attention of the pro-gaming scene.

Despite what many Westerners think, pro-gaming is not lauded as a respectable occuption in South Korea.  Until a player has made it to the absolute top and command a large salary, players will be looked down upon by relatives and chastised for not focusing their efforts on their education and academic excellence.  Becoming a pro will always mean moving to Seoul, so for some players means they will have to leave home at 15 or 16 and move to that city, if they don’t currently live near enough.  Once they join the team house, they enter the world of pro-gaming and will no longer have much contact with family members, with the team and its members becoming their new family.  This is an enormous commitment and gamble for any would-be star.  If he doesn’t make it, then he may well have jetissoned any chance at becoming a well-respected member of society, or at the very least it set back many years.

The point I’m making in out-lining the bottom end of the competitive scene, is that the great players like Flash, Bisu and Jaedong, are not the only cases to be considered when thinking about the way the Korean pro-gaming scene works. Those are merely the best-case scenarios, success stories the likes of which make the dream of being a pro-gamer so seductive and irresistable to young and talented players, much as the oscar winning actors inspire the runaways from Kansas and Kentucky to board those greyhound buses for Hollywood, with naught but $100 in their pockets and the dream that they too can make it and be acknowledged and appreciated for their talents.

The stars of BW

At the top of end of BW, things are not as glamourous as they might appear. In latter years, some teams did get better apartments and provide proper beds for their star players, but even great players had to work their way up through the team, sleeping in bunk beds, often 4 bunk beds to a room, with their team-mates. 15 year old Flash was having to go to sleep at the same time as his team-mates, as anyone who has slept in the same room as someone else, nevermind three other people, will know that it is essential not to have others going to bed in the one to two hours following you, lest you be repeatedly woken from light sleep.

In the morning, all the players wake up and go for breakfast at the same time, often either prepared for them by a maid or from food pre-prepared and left out by such a figure. After breakfast, it’s time for the first block of practice, perhaps four hours of play. During this time, there might be some analysis of games played and the coach may set particular tasks, such as practicing a build or working on a specific component of ones game for 10 games in a row.

After the first block, it’s time for lunch. Again, this meal is prepared and the players do not leave the facility and choose their own food. After lunch, it’s time for the second block of pracitice, again something within the realm of four hours is to be expected. It’s key to note that this practice is not the same as simply playing the game for four hours. When one plays, there is explicitly a desire to have fun and, at times, slack off a little. When a game goes well, okay maybe one focuses in and tries to really do well, but when a game is going poorly, we can all expect to sometimes give up or play less seriously. That kind of attitude won’t do at all during these kind of practices, you are there to maintain your skills and improve them, not to have fun.

The evening meal follows and then there is the final practice block, again anywhere up to four hours. In KeSPA houses, it used to be said that the contracts the players signed demanded they commit to 12 hour days of practice. That’s not where practice ends, though. Players might now have a two hour period of what is allocated as “free time”. If a player decides to leave the facility at this point, perhaps to meet a friend, he has a curfew which ends at the close of the free time block and must be back before that point in time. Failing to do so will result in punishments and even perhaps expulsion from the team, as legend has it was the downfall of LoL pro player RingTroll of Incredible Miracle.

For the elite players, though, such as the names previously cited, that “free time” block is merely an extra opportunity to ensure you stay on top of the scene or continue out-pace your rivals. That two hour block is when you put in extra practice, which will both ensure your coach is pleased with your dedication and attitudes, as well as keep your skills as sharp as they possibly can be.

Now that the day is done, it’s time for sleep, if you plan on being fully rested for tomorrow’s practice and not being awoken prematurely by your team-mates all waking up at the designated time, thus preventing any kind of possibility to “lie in” and rest.

What I’ve out-lined there, is not some kind of bootcamp or extreme practice preparation period prior to a big offline tournament. That is simply everyday in a BW team-house. That’s how your life is, even if you’re the best player in the world, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, titles under your belt and a legion of fans supporting you.

The monks of Korean gaming

The life for LoL players is not too dissimilar, except that they do have a little more leeway in some of the specifics, though the amount of work and dedication required remains similar and incredibly intensive. This is why so many elite Korean players find themselves burned out after reaching the top. There are few who can survive such conditions and the cultural pressure to continue to work harder and harder, to one’s limits, are extreme. Look at the way Mata spoke about Heart giving up sleep to practice late into the night and you’ll see the kind of pressure cooker situation the Korean professional players exist within.

Speaking of pressure, if a Korean pro loses a game, then the answer is always the same: more practice. It’s not enough to say that the opponent surprised you or you were unlucky or you know what to do next time, you must pay your penance in practice hours and ensure that next time this cannot happen again, because you’ve out-worked your opponent and your routine is perfected and everything has been gone over as much as is humanly possible. Nothing can be left to chance, you must do everything in your power to win. If you can’t win, or won’t win, then the coaches will scout fresh talent who is only too eager for their shot at the dream of becoming a professional and living in the team house and practicing all hours of the day.

There’s a trend in Korea that you only get fans if you win. Not just win matches or do well and get deep in tournaments. You must win tournaments, second place is not enough. Were they in Korea, it would be impossible for teams like Curse or Dignitas to even approach a team like Cloud9 in terms of fans, such is the emphasis placed on winning and being successful. Until recently, there was no streaming in KeSPA houses, so nobody would have known that Voyboy and imaqtpie are great streaming personalities, they would only be known through their play and the professionally conducted post-game interviews.

Korean professional gamers essentially give up everything to become the best. Not the best they can be or the best in their team or the best at their position, the only goal is to become the best. It doesn’t matter if becoming the best is not attainable for you or you’re already the best player in your team or you’re the best at your position, you must always be striving for more and always be working more to win. Even if you win, the practice and struggle is not over, now you must win again and continue to be successful, which means more practice. If you win, you practice to stay on top and keep yourself ahead. If you lose, you practice to “catch up” and get yourself in position to succeed. The vicious cycle only ends when your career ends.

The perks of being the best

What are the benefits of being the best player in the Korean system? Heart, MadLife and GorillA all practice as much as is humanly possible, striving to be the best Support player in Korea and win OGN. Okay, so Heart won OGN two seasons ago and has made the last two finals, how does his life differ from that of the other two? It doesn’t, he practices as much, if not more, as them, he makes the same money he did before, he has the same amount of time off as he did before, he likely still doesn’t have a girlfriend or time for one, he doesn’t play single-player games or have other hobbies.

Essentially, Heart’s life is the same as those other two’s players, he just happens to be more successful right now. That success is entirely an imaginary construct that everyone has bought into as the consensus reality in Korea, it doesn’t actually translate into anything tangible in real life. Some teams, such as CJ Entus, famously, will allow players to get a girlfriend, should they choose to, if they win a tournament. Not only have those players typically seen their careers go downhill if they take that offer up, giving up valuable time and focus to their love interest, but that option is not always even available.

The point being made here, is that the benefits of giving up everything are really not anything you can put on the table and say “here, don’t you want this?”. Consider the Western ideal of very successful professional sports stars and their life-styles. Okay, you will occasionally get a Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant type, who is so obsessed with the game and practice that they really don’t have much of a life outside of it, but generally there is a limit placed on how much even the best players put into the game.

Those stars have their time to practice, just as the rest of us have our work hours, and then they are free to drive back to their enormous mansion, in their incredibly expensive sports car, and spend time with their celebrity wife, enjoying the finest food and drink in their leisure time. Anyone who has see n episodes of cribs has seen their personal cinema theatres and collections of classic sports cars. They’re world famous and loved, even when their teams aren’t necessarily winning, and they have huge endorsement deals which ensure they remain fabulously rich, even outside of their enormous individual salaries from their teams.

That is the dream of the Westener who has put in the time and developed his talents to be the best, that’s the pay-off he is looking for. Waking up the next day in the same house as his nine team-mates, practicing every single day, no matter current form, having no girlfriend and only a week or two holiday a year, often spent with the team, is not a dream scenario – it’s a nightmare!

Give us a break, we’re doing our best

I have a huge amount of empathy towards Western professionals who want to enjoy their successes and the opportunities gaming has given them, whether that be fame or money or the chance to travel. Those are all things to be enjoyed, not ignored in favour of slavishly practicing more, beating oneself down in the knowledge that only the champion can feel even a moment of satisfaction in his efforts and feel worthy of being in his position.

Western teams already have some players who can approach the performance level of Eastern pros, even if it is more rare in the West. There are already team houses and players putting in 10 hour days of play. Okay, there is still much room to improve in how players are coached and getting the most out of those 10 hours of play. There is much still to be done in recruitment methods and deciding when its time to let players go, however famous or essential to the brand they may appear to be, and try fresh talent.
There is still some component to be developed as far as building a mindset of excellence in Westerners, so they seek to become the team that can win Worlds, not simply their region and a chance to play at Worlds. This much is all true, but do not make the mistake of imagining the approach is simply to copy Koreans. Players already play enough, they just aren’t as effective in how they practice. Players already want to win, they just don’t have the mental tools to know how to win and approach becoming the best. Teams already want the best players, they just don’t yet know how to select and screen the right new talents or pieces which didn’t fit elsewhere. These are all processes and they are still evolving.

Look across the NA and EU LCS and you’ll see plenty of talent, which if assembled, coached and motivated the right way, could make the semi-finals or beyond of a World Championship in LoL. Making the lives of every pro player in the West a misery, by burning them out with too much practice, too much pressure and too little reward, is not necessary. I admire the dedication of Korean pros who will give up everything to win, but I don’t envy it or demand Western pros do likewise. Each much choose his own path, not simply follow another’s out of envy.  The West is still behind, but the players are not to blame.