Can anyone beat the South Koreans at IEM?

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor

Known for being the stiffest competition in the world, IEM Gyeonggi provides international players a unique opportunity to give South Korean players a run for their money.

SK Telecom T1, the reigning League of Legends world champs, never expect to lose.

Even when the ROX Tigers had them on the ropes during the 2016 World Championship semi-finals, the players remained remarkably collected.

Before the game, Faker, often said to be the best pro League of Legends player ever, was wearing a red varsity jacket to keep warm. Seated next to him, his teammate Wolf gave a big yawn. Bengi took a sip of coffee and tousled his hair. Only the coach seemed to think that losing was even remotely possible. He bustled behind his team, flipping through a notebook.

The confidence of SKT is understandable. As the preeminent South Korean team, they are a product of their environment. South Korea has managed to cultivate a climate where eSports thrives.

“Seoul has the highest concentration of good players of anywhere in the world by a huge margin,” said Matt Weber, who runs the Dreamhack tournament. “It’s a huge city and all the best players are there.”

IEM Katowice
IEM Katowice

In the past four years at least, South Korean teams have been dominant, winning seven of the last eight major global tournaments, including three IEM championships and four Riot world championships. While South Koreans have won 15 gold medals in Starcraft at the Dreamhack tournament, the rest of the world combined has only won seven.

The country’s saturation of talent doesn’t bode very well for other international players hoping to make a run in the IEM Gyeonggi tournament, which will be held in Seoul on Dec. 16th through 18th. However, due to an unlikely series of events, foreign teams may catch a break in Seoul this year.

Make no mistake, seizing the opportunity will be far from easy.

“South Korea has had a monopoly on League of Legends,” Kim explained.

But this year, SKT will be sitting out after uncharacteristically stumbling in two South Korean qualifiers. (They have already won a spot in the IEM finals in Katowice because they didn’t lose a single game last year, so missing this tournament won’t affect them.)

Additionally, ROX Tigers, who took STK down to the wire in October, no longer exists. The team played their way into IEM Gyeonggi during the summer, only to split up when their sponsor failed to renew their contracts. (Their star player, Peanut, has since signed with SKT and seems poised to give them an unnecessary boost.)

Both of these turns should prove advantageous for international contenders, like Taiwan’s J Team and Canada’s Counter Logic Gaming, who are heading to South Korea in hopes of earning a spot in the Katowice finals.

IEM Katowice
IEM Katowice

Why is South Korea so good at eSports? One big factor is the nation’s enthusiasm for technology.

The country prides itself on connectivity, boasting faster Internet speeds than anywhere else in the world. Back in 1995, the Korean government made a massive investment in Internet technology. As an indirect consequence, broadband gaming spread like wildfire.

Today, even the free public Wi-Fi in Seoul is twice as fast as connections in an average home in the U.S.

Another reason for Korea’s eSports success is the phenomena of PC bangs, public places where young people often go to hang out with friends and play games after school. These computer cafes are hardly exclusive to gamers though. They are embraced by people from all walks of life, from mums and dads, to couples on dates.

As a result, “South Korea is a place where it’s a little more socially acceptable to be a professional gamer,” explained Weber.

IEM Katowice
IEM Katowice

But in the end, it may simply boil down to one thing: practice.

In a 2014 interview, Faker revealed how he and his teammates on STK train for 15-hour days to stay competitive in the cut-throat Korean pro leagues. His comment wasn’t an empty boast. When the former STK player Piglet left the team and moved to the Netherlands to join Team Liquid, his new teammates were in awe at his capacity to practice. He could go for 14 hours a day and sleep for 4.

This kind of commitment to the game is standard protocol. “In South Korea, it’s a common theme that you are nobody if you are not number one. This is an everyday philosophy,” said William Cho, one of the producers behind IEM Gyeonggi.

Outside of gaming, this competitive spirits runs deep in education as well, where South Korean students tend to rank the highest in both excellence and stress levels.

In eSports, this drive goes beyond pride.

“In South Korea, people become pros to help support their families,” said Kim. “Either they can’t afford to go to college, or they haven’t gotten into a good high school.”

So they come to play, bringing that world-famous dedication. And, in three months time, the winners at IEM Gyeonggi (whether local or foreign) will surely be hungrier than ever to prove themselves against SKT at IEM Katowice.

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