In Korea, becoming a professional gamer is a dream job; it gives the insurance of becoming a celebrity, making your country proud of you and earning plenty of money, while playing games. No wonder that the world’s biggest gaming event by far, G-star, is taking place in Busan and has been attracting hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world every year since 2005 (more than 215,000 in 2016).

But this deeply enshrined gaming culture would not be possible without the sophisticated fibre-optic infrastructure that you will find in South Korea, also know to have one of the world’s most wired society.

What about the gamers?

According to Newzoo’s insights, 49 per cent of players are aged between 21 and 35 years, and 75 per cent are males even though, in South Korea, going to game clubs in couple is as common as going to the movies. The two main reasons for playing are “for fun” and “stress release” and an important point is that gaming is a social activity. For most Koreans, gaming activities take place outside of the home, in local gaming rooms called “PC bangs.” In Korea, you will find more than 20,000 of those gaming centers where patrons pay an hourly fee to play multiplayer games.

Source Newzoo 2016 - Mobile & Digital vs. boxed PC / console market shares

Source: Newzoo

Compared to the rest of the world (37 per cent), South Korea is only behind Japan (52 per cent) in terms of mobile gaming (48 per cent). With online PC and console games taking up another 47 per cent, digital gaming is a big part of their gaming culture.

Moreover, mobile esports have huge potential in South Korea and will clearly shape the future of the industry. If there are just 700 million gaming-capable PCs, end of 2016, there were over 3 billion touch screen devices able to run the famous esports game Vainglory. This showcases the easy accessibility of PC-quality gameplay on mobile which can reach all kinds of users.

When it comes to following esport, Koreans like to check the results on Naver, the largest internet portal, which has its own section covering the prowesses of players. Live streaming platforms have also become very popular, with 0.9M monthly viewers for Twitch for instance.

“In Korea, games are the barometer of the generation gap … The best way to avoid addiction is for families to play games together,” said Jun Byung-hun, a South Korean National Assembly member and the head of the country’s e-sports governance body, KeSPA, in an interview.

With gaming stated as one of the “4 Evils” jeopardising the Korean society (along with gambling, alcoholism, and drugs), one of the biggest issue of this gaming-centred culture is addiction. Mr. Jun encourages schools to sensitise students about addiction, while also helping parents better understand gaming.

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Games played

Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) are the most popular genre in South Korea, with high download statistics and a great average revenue per user (“ARPU”) at 5,567 Korean won (roughly US$5.27), which outpaces all other app categories.

Sources: Statista, AppAnnie

South Korean gamers generally prefer locally-produced games with the local studios such as Netmarble and Nexon doing especially well in getting users to spend and remain engaged with games by offering free-to-play games with paid options for getting ahead and customising the user’s gaming experience.

The top three games are League of LegendsOverwatch, and Sudden Attack. Overwatch is the newest game but has emerged as a credible contender after managing to knock League of Legends from its 203-week lead temporarily in June 2016. Its success has demonstrated the potential for pay-to-play in a market largely dominated by free-to-play games online and on mobile.

The role of government in the adoption of the egame culture

“Fourteen years ago, you had a government that gave a thumbs-up to e-sports — it was professionally organized, and it was on television, so it became a mainstream thing,” said Jonathan Beales in 2014, an e-sports commentator. Source: New York Times

According to Newzoo, in 2015, 55 per cent of gamers spent money – on average US$290.10 over the year — and the gaming market generated US$4 billion revenues. No doubt, the gaming industry is  very important for the Korean economy.

The first step in the setting of this pro-gaming environment, was the early democratisation of the access to Internet by the government. Especially, during the economic crisis that Asia faced end of the 1990s, the number of “PC Bang” skyrocketed, enabling plenty of South Korean to play on high quality computers for a ridiculous price.

Second, in 2000, the Republic of Korea’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism and Ministry of Information and Communications, together with Samsung and Microsoft sponsored The first World Cyber Games (WCG). This international esport event is considered to be the Olympics of the online gaming world and is now taking place in different cities.

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Third, the government has implemented a framework to be able to work hand-in-hand and collaborate with the gaming industry. Since 2011, a council seeks to structure the mutual development of both the gaming industry and e-sports. It involves the government, e-sports groups, the gaming industry, the media, and academia. Also, the National Assembly of South Korea enacted legislation for the promotion of e-sports to lay a foundation for the e-sports culture and industry and help raise their competitiveness.

Finally, the technology-related transformations implemented over the past decades, enabled massive smartphone adoption and connectivity of its population (42 million out of the 50 million South Korean are online). South Korea is today one of the most wired country and fully ready for 5G adoption.

Attracting audiences to events

To complete the egame environment and making it a national sport and source of pride, the government also created organized leagues and led in professional video game competitions. Esports’ traction is huge in Korea, and fans gather in giant stadiums to cheer on their favorite players. According to Newzoo’s insights, the audience for eSport in South Korea is 7 million plus, and there are 3.4 million esports enthusiasts. Korea’s largest and most comprehensive game show is G-Star.

With more than 215,000 visitors from 30+ countries in 2016, G-Star attracts the entire international community of gaming industry, from players and publishers to all medias and investors. All game sectors — online, VR, mobile, video, PC, console, indie, board and arcade gaming — meet to share their views and develop their business. The 2017 edition will be held between the 16th and the 19th November 2017.


A previous version of Curious about the South Korea gaming culture? A closer look at the popularity of esports reveals some trends first appeared on e27.

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