Dreamweaving: Korea Isn't Dominating eSports

by James Bates

(Photo: ESL)

Like most people who work in the media, I hate clickbait. It gives a bad name to reputable sources by association. Normally, however, the headlines are merely annoying, not insulting. Today, though I was confronted by one that took beyond professional annoyance and into the realms of righteous indignation. Attached to an otherwise innocuous piece on IEM GyeongGi results was the following byline:

(Photo: Dot eSports)

I'll be the first to admit, I'm no expert outside of the MOBA scene. My experience is very centralized around Leauge of Legends, DOTA 2, and Heroes of the Storm. I may spend an inordinate amount of my life locked in my neverending crusade to rid the realms of Warcraft of all dirt Hunter players, but I'm far from an authority on competitive Hearthstone -- it's disorganized and decentralized nature makes that a hard ask of anyone. 

Yet, even without a specialized knowledge of other games I know this headline to not only be false but to be utterly ridiculous. Does Korea utterly dominate League of Legends and Starcraft 2, two of the three games that were played at IEM GyeongGi? Yes, absolutely. They may well also dominate Overwatch as well. I'm not in a position to say one way or another. Even so, this byline admits an incredible ignorance about eSports culture.

The four biggest eSports titles by viewerbase are League of Legends, Hearthstone, Counter-strike Global Offensive, and DOTA2. In my eyes, a region would be utterly dominant if it's teams dominated a plurality of these titles. But is that the case for Korea? Who does dominate these titles?

League of Legends - Current Champion: SK Telecom T1

Here, there is no argument. No eSport title save Starcraft II is as dominated by any region as League of Legends is by Korea. Not only have Korean teams won the finals of the last four World Championships, the runner-up team was usually Korean in each of those cases. 

League of Legends is the most popular eSport in the world, thus dominating it is certainly relevant. It is this dominance that has birthed the myth of Korean superiority. It's easy to assume Koreans are dominant at everything when they're unquestionably the best at the most popular and visible eSport of them all. But while League of Legends' viewer base is unquestionably vast, it's not so vast as to eclipse all others, thus dominating League of Legends is a far cry from dominating eSports.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive - Current Champion: SK Gaming

Counter-Strike is another beast altogether, as the primarily European game has seen almost zero relevant Korean teams throughout it's history and is, in fact, currently dominated by a Brazilian team, SK Gaming -- a German eSports organization who are not to be confused with the Korean organization SK Telecom.

There is a relatively simple explanation for Korea's complete lack of a presence in Counter-Strike, however. Unlike hit games like Overwatch, League of Legends, or the Counter-Strike clone Crossfire, Counter-Strike is not free to play. This puts a hard cap on the game's popularity, as much of what is popular in Korean eSports is determined by PC Bang culture, where free to play games are king. The lack of a dedicated Korean server only exacerbates the issue as it prevents any teams that might want to form from being able to practice effectively. Thus, a reasonable argument can be made that Korea doesn't dominate Counter-Strike not due to lack of ability, but due to lack of interest. While that might work in Counter-Strike, it doesn't in our next title, where Koreans have demonstrated both will and ability, but still failed to bring home the title despite that.

Hearthstone - Current Champion: Pavel "Pavel" Beltukov

Hearthstone's consistently high viewer base has earned it an uneasy position as the world's second most watched eSport, though it often trades that distinction with Counter-Strike. Korea has fielded Hearthstone players since the game's inception, yet never once managed to take home the BlizzCon trophy. In fact, the current champion is a Russian player, Pavel, the second European player to earn that distinction. 

In this case, it's not a matter of lack of interest. Korea has sent a representative to all three Hearthstone World Championships. In all three cases, though, they not only never earned the title, they weren't even in the finals. While Korea has undeniably skilled players -- Hakjun "Kranich" Baek has represented the country at two World Championships, and was a game away from a third -- it's never managed to overcome the tremendous talent pool that Europe now has to call upon.

DOTA 2 - Current Champion: Wings Gaming

The current champion of DOTA2 is a difficult title to nail down as the eSport boasts both a major circuit similar to Counter-Strike as well as a World Championship, The International. No matter how you choose to crown the DOTA2 World Champion, however, it's not a team from Korea. The current options are either Wings Gaming, the Chinese team that took down The International with style, or mostly European Team OG that took down the Boston Major at the beginning of December. 

One thing is consistent regardless of how you choose the current DOTA 2 champion, though: it's not a team hailing from South Korea. The sole major team from Korea is MVP Phoenix and while they had a good run in The International relative to expectations, they still were a mile away from winning the tournament. In the Boston Major they did even worse, as they failed to even win a map over the course of the event before being soundly eliminated by OG during the first elimination round.


Thus, it's clear that Korean domination of the eSports scene is a fiction, a convenient myth that produces a nonexistent villain that other regions can strive to beat. South Korea, much like every other region -- with the possible exclusion of North America --, has games that it specializes in and ones that it's weak in. Painting them as broadly dominant despite that is both lazy and untrue when the reality is that there is no dominant region for eSports. That's the beauty of it, truly. 

Any world where a region were truly dominant in eSports would be a terrible one to imagine. League of Legends may be a microcosm of what would be if that were come to pass, as many teams and players have long since given up any pretense of striving for international success. Why bother, when defeating the Korean teams is all but impossible? If that world were truly upon us, then I'd despair even more strongly than this fictitious headline. The joy of eSports is that it enables easy international competition in a fashion that most traditional sports simply can't due to logistics. Were that truly in jeopardy, I'd be the first to raise my pen to defend it.

By James Bates

A wanna-be novelist turned coach turned journalist, James is living proof that you never know where you'll end up. He's in love with narrative-heavy games, which he proves by spending his days writing about a game with less lore than Doom. His greatest regret in life is not having his name in the credits of Life is Strange, and it's galvanized him to truly pursue developing games that don't begin in packed taverns and use D20s.