As the game loads up on my screen I can’t help but feel nervous. I’ve been playing this game for years, with thousands of hours on the record, but it’s my first game ever on the Korean servers and that idea is daunting. I don’t know any of the players, I don’t speak the language, and I have nothing to go on but a few rumors and stereotypes I’ve heard on the internet before coming here.
Suddenly, the fact that I don’t understand Korean seems painfully apparent. And it’s not just about the players quickly deciding on the game plan in the chat. As I debate myself on whether I should let everyone know I do not understand a word they’re saying, an unexpected solution presents itself.
On a wall of Korean Hangul, a familiar set of letters appear in the chat. As it turns out, I wasn’t the only foreigner in that game. Unlike me, however, our Lucian had the audacity to let everyone know he doesn’t speak Korean.
The chat fell silent. I held my breath, perplexed as to what might come next.
After a few seconds, that lasted way longer than they had any right to, a single message from one of our other teammates appears. It’s written in slightly broken English, but the emotion behind it is clear:
“I don’t speak McDonald’s.”
The game is in their blood
It will be a surprise to few that esports is a big part of the Korean culture. It’s one of those things you hear a lot about, but don’t really take to heart. When you hear that everyone there plays League of Legends, it’s easy to write that off as an exaggeration.
However, when you arrive in Seoul it’s one of the first things you notice, that there’s a PC bang on every single corner. Every. Single. One.
It’s baffling, but in the country with a population of a bit over 51 million, there are more people playing League of Legends than in the whole continent of North America. In fact, there are more people in the Korean server than in North American, Russian, Turkish, Oceanic, and Japanese servers combined.
And a good amount of that massive audience is playing from a PC bang, a makeshift hub for esports culture in Korea. Walking into one is exactly like what you’d imagine it would be — it’s dark, loud, and crowded.
The magnitude can vary, with 20 to 30 PCs in a smaller bang, to upwards of a hundred PCs in a more upscale place. And there’s never a dull moment. “The business is booming,” the owners say all as one.
What this cybercafe centric culture means at its core is a better solo Q environment for the players. The equipment there is solid — good monitors, top-notch peripherals, comfortable chairs, everything to keep the players in the game. More than that, playing from a PC bang means a stable and fast connection to the game servers, which results in everyone playing with less than 30 ms ping.
Having to pay by the hour to enjoy this gaming experience, however, has both positive and negative aspects to it. On one hand, everyone is so much more focused on winning. Even on your first match, you already get this feeling how seriously everyone takes the game. And that feeling never fades away.
There really is something inexplicable about the Korean way of playing. You can walk into a PC bang and just stand behind anyone there playing League of Legends, doesn’t matter if they’re in Challenger or Silver, both of them are approaching the game with same intensity and vigor.
But there is one more thing you cannot help but notice while standing behind a Korean player — it’s how their fingers dance over the keyboard. It might be something that was leftover with the last remnants of the Starcraft era in Korea, but everyone there, no matter their rank, seem to have nearly unrealistically high actions per minute (APM) and really good micro.
You can’t really explain this. Korean players just click faster, to the point where you will regularly see Silver ranked players with 300 APM. It doesn’t mean they’re good at the game, but it does somewhat explain why average Korean player is so much mechanically stronger than their western counterparts.
On the other hand, playing from a PC bang has a major drawback, which seeps into every solo Q game you will ever play in Korea. Because time is limited and always ticking down another factor comes into play — efficiency. Since everyone playing from a cybercafe is looking to get their money’s worth, the goal isn’t just to win anymore, it’s to win as much as possible in a given amount of time.
Which, in some twisted way, means that the moment you decide the game is beyond winnable the best thing to do is to move on to the next one. Most of the matches in the Korean solo Q are decided between the first five to ten minutes. After that, it’s either playing to win or running down mid, forfeiting and moving on to the next one.
In a way, playing from a PC bang becomes an excuse for players to tilt and throw games. The more I watch Korean’s play the more I think that it also doubles down as a coping mechanism for them to deal with losing. I mean, it’s not really a loss if you didn’t try winning in the first place, right?
And when you combine that with the very nature of League of Legends, in a culture as strongly centered around winning as Korean, that spells trouble.
It’s all about the winning
Korean culture is highly competitive at its core. Many Korean children are raised to strive for excellence. One’s success in life is largely determined by whether one can outperform others, whether it’s students in examinations and tests, or surpassing colleagues at work. And that cutthroat practice translates really well into League of Legends.
At some point, it stops being a game. You don’t play the game to have fun anymore, you play to win. And it turned out to be very healthy for the overall level of play on the Korean server. When you take a vast majority of players with the same outlook and cram them all into a single server, it raises the bar considerably. Everyone now strives to become better.
However, going toe-to-toe with that culture of winning is another, less healthy, culture of shaming. There seems to be a consensus among Korean people, that they have to be successful or suffer through the reality of their image being tarnished. The motive behind this culture of shaming, through negative reinforcement, is to force the person to step up and try harder.
In League of Legends, this is as true as in any other aspect of Korean lives. In solo Q, a single, tiny mistake is enough to set people off. You get called out on it immediately and not necessarily in a good way. The point isn’t to point out your faults to you, but to make you feel bad about making that mistake in the first place, so you work hard to not make that mistake again.
Same is true in the pro scene, albeit pushed to the extreme. Professional players have to succeed continuously or their image will be damaged and they will be subject to serious online bullying. This became such a big part of the players’ lives, most of them would claim they don’t even notice it anymore.
Interestingly, this kind of approach to success could only work in Korea. You have to be raised in the environment where success is the only viable option and where accomplishment is synonymous with standing above others. The strong trample the weak, after all.
If anyone were to try shaming players into trying harder in the North American servers the outcome would be too predictable. Do that enough times and you’ll likely face a suspension for creating a toxic environment. Here in Korea, however, they don’t even consider such behavior as “toxic”, just a natural way of life.
All that combined makes for a very interesting and unique solo queue environment. You get extremely intense and aggressive five minutes of gameplay, with some of the most mechanically strong players you’ll ever compete with, followed by 15 minutes of toxic behavior, verbal abuse, and AFKing.
That kind of environment is exactly what would be considered absolutely ridiculous in any other part of the world. But here in Korea, somehow it works. Even worse, they thrive in it.
In years to come
But let’s get back to my first match here in Korea.
After that brief spell of silence ignited by Lucian’s abrupt revelation, the chat remained lively for the rest of the game. Only at one point, you can feel the tension rise and the tone of the discussion shift. I don’t understand a single character displayed in the chat and yet I can’t help but feel bad for Lucian who had already died twice.
It took two deaths of his own for one of our teammates to give up on this particular game. In less than ten minutes the game went from the intense battle for survival to a complete fiesta in which trolls reign supreme. In a few short minutes, this game had seen more deaths than NA server would by the end of the match.
Needless to say, we did lose. And the outcome of it wasn’t decided by the rules of the game, but by the players of the losing team. What a samurai thing to do, fall on your own sword before your opponent can drive one through you.
And yet even in this community rooted in toxicity, the level of play is still higher than anywhere else in the world.
But what makes Korean people truly stand out is the passion with which they approach esports. Korean server is full of talented players waiting to be picked up by a pro team, while here in the west, top ladder is full of talented individuals not believing in themselves enough, to chase their own dreams.
The biggest difference between Korean ladder and any other isn’t the mechanical skill, the crazy APM, or the superior game knowledge of the players.
It’s the people themselves.