Keyboard Dreams: Observing a Virtual Rite of Passage in Korea
It was there, among the verdant tallgrass of the Nagrand savannah, that I saw her, raised my hunting rifle, took aim at the woman I would later marry, and shot her in the face.
I met my wife in World of Warcraft, an online game set in Azeroth, a fantasyland of magic castles and haunted dungeons populated by noble orcs, scheming elves, and crafty dwarves. It’s an easy world to get lost in. Many do. Online, you can be a hero if you work hard enough; you can save kingdoms or destroy them. In real life, you might never escape minimum wage.
I was once ashamed of my video game habit. I come from a generation 10 years before Tinder, one that said it’s better to be an alcoholic than a video game addict. As both, I was an expert at masking disappointing behavior. For a time, only our closest friends knew how my wife and I had really met. But on a sunny day four Octobers ago, as we stepped into World Cup Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, I realized we were far from alone.
Experiencing Esports Korea
In the world of competitive video gaming—known as eSports—South Korea is ground zero. If you want to make it as a country music singer, you go to Nashville. If you want to be a professional gamer, you go to Seoul. This stadium was the shell that held the dreams of forty-five thousand people in attendance, and twenty-seven million viewers online. It was the 2014 world championship of League of Legends.
Seoul is no stranger to international events. In 1988, it hosted the Summer Olympics here at the edge of the Han river, a wide artery that flows from the northeastern farmlands and through the heart of this hyper-modern mega-city. In 2002 it held the World Cup. Times change, and today it was hosting a competition not of physical strength but of digital dexterity. At stake was a prize purse of more than $2 million.
Like any good video game, League of Legends is easy to pick up and near-impossible to master. Two teams of five compete, scoring points by capturing tactical objectives, killing opposing players, and ultimately destroying the enemy’s base. It resembles The Avengers engaged in something between siege warfare and Quidditch. South Korea has become the epicenter of eSports because its players dedicate themselves to it with monastic fervor. Teams live and train in shared houses, foregoing all but the most necessary activities. Sponsorships are fought over, from gaming mice to graphics cards. Pros stream their practices online; amateurs study these clips. It’s said that if you want to see Americans be creative, watch their movies. If you want to see Koreans be creative, watch them play eSports.
The Community of Gaming
And that was what we were here for: two aging gamers seeking out a nostalgic fix years after we'd quit. Our badges printed, our QR tickets scanned, my wife squeezed my hand and led me into the stadium. First the neon hit us, then the noise. With a population of ten million, Seoul is rarely quiet. Yet the boom of thousands of feet stomping in unison upon stadium cement and the retina-cleansing glow of lasers all overwhelmed our senses. Forty-five thousand bodies were crammed together. The fire marshals had simply given up. My wife and I followed an usher toward our section in the shadow of the stage. As we squeezed to our seats, we realized we had been born half a generation too early. This was a new world here, filled with bubblegum hair-dye, colorful costumes, and drone-blimps dropping cherry blossoms.
It felt like war had come to the peninsula. In a way, it had. China had sent their best players. So had the USA, Russia, Europe, Taiwan too, and of course, South Korea. In tournament fashion the teams had been whittled down, from quarter- to semi- and today, the finals.
“Miguk saram?” asked a couple seated to our right. Are you American?
I explained that we are, and we’ve been living here for several years. Her name was Suji, her husband was Jaekwon. They had met online through Diablo 3. Just like that, they had told two strangers what it had taken my wife and me years to tell our families: video games brought them together.
“She much better than me,” Jaekwon informed me. "Sometimes we fight. Always she win." Suji winked and shrugged. They asked which team I was cheering for.
“I’m American, so Cloud9 is my favorite. But they’re out, so now I’m cheering for Samsung Galaxy White.”
This pleased them. Samsung was the Korean team, after all. Their rivals were the Starhorn Royals from China. Jaekwon’s hand disappeared into his bag. He produced a green bottle of soju, which he'd smuggled in, and offered me a paper cup. Soju tastes like vodka’s polite cousin and has the subtle effect of replacing me with a fire-eyed doppelgänger who murders microphones in karaoke rooms and races in shopping carts. I passed, blaming my diet.
The stadium was configured like a cross between a rock concert and the season finale of American Idol. Blazer-clad announcers sat in booths broadcasting pre-game commentary in a dozen different languages. Computers were lined up in clusters of five. Walls separated each team from its rival. Above it all, 50-foot-tall screens played past highlights, interviews, even an opening performance by Imagine Dragons.
The music hit a crescendo, the screens burned white hot. Plastic thundersticks smacked together, filling the stadium with a furious drumroll. The house lights dimmed, voices hushed, and the darkness glimmered with countless smartphones.
Then the players emerged and the crowd erupted in cheers. Suji screamed; Jaekwon jumped on his chair. Down below, kids still in their teen years took to the stage. They had real names, but most went by a gamer tag, monikers like Pawn, Uzi, and Looper. Some bowed, some nervously splayed their fingers in a V-sign, and some simply looked back at the stadium, awestruck. The long road from amateur to paid professional had led them here, to this lightning-lit stage.
Looking at the competitors, I wondered how much of their childhood they had sacrificed. It’s easy to dismiss eSports as foolish, easy to overlook the physical toll it can take. Cooperation, mental acuity, and twitch reflexes are the competitive foundations. Pro-gamers are analyzed in actions-per-minute, or APM, the amount of accurate commands they can issue through a mouse and keyboard. Newcomers have an APM of around 50 to 60. A skilled pro-gamer must hit 300 to 400. The human body, however, has only a small window until the lag from brain to finger renders reactions too slow. Most pro-gamers peak at age 20, plateau, and are forced out within five years. The awestruck faces of those 10 kids on stage said it all: this was their moment, and it was fleeting. They wanted to enjoy it.
The players finished waving and bowing. They sat down at their computer stations. The audience held its breath. Then the games began.
It was a slaughter.
Korea's team went on offense immediately, driving back the Chinese players. Screens showed the cartoon carnage. A ninja traded blade attacks with a steel-clawed werewolf in a jungle. A blue-haired mercenary stalked an elven archer through tallgrass. Green-flamed ghosts flung hooked chains at wave after wave of advancing soldiers. Swords were swung, guns blazed, arrows screamed through trees and struck down enemies.
The towering screens provided live feeds from varying perspectives. Viewers could be simultaneously down in the trenches of digital battle or high above looking upon the field of war. The announcers tried to keep up, but light travels faster than sound. With each on-screen kill the crowd went wild. The ebb and flow of enthusiastic cheers was universal. To some, it would have sounded no different than a soccer game or an Olympic event. To me, it sounded like the future.
Korea’s team played with laser precision. Even when they lost one match, it felt like a warm up. After two hours the winners were declared, 3-1, the Samsung Galaxy Whites. Five fresh-faced kids with their futures ahead of them hugged, cried, and smiled as the stadium cheered them on.
A Thrill Fit For Legends
The tournament was over but the celebration had just begun. Chaos spilled out onto the gingko-lined streets. It was a crisp autumn evening in Seoul. The sky was a fiery peppermint, the Han river a blanket of gold and diamonds. The sidewalks were packed with food vendors hawking hot dumplings through clouds of steam.
Jaekwon and Suji insisted we go play games together, as a celebration. We found the nearest PC room. It was a madhouse. A hundred computer chairs filled with kids hoping to be the next Looper or Pawn or Uzi. A hundred keyboard dreams. The owners usually wouldn’t let so many people into a PC room; they certainly wouldn’t let them smoke or drink. Today was a special occasion. Green soju bottles were passed around. The air was filled with the salt and spices of microwave ramen, filled with laughter. This wasn't our home, this wasn't our country. But for a moment, my wife and I felt like we'd found our tribe.
We sat at separate computers and I logged on to my old Warcraft character. I hadn’t played in years. He still had his hunting rifle, but he was far from the grasslands of Nagrand. As my fingers struggled to remember the keys, a female troll ran by me, turned, and blew me a kiss with green-skinned lips. Then she raised a sledgehammer and clobbered me.
I glanced over the computer screen, past the laughing Koreans, through the haze of smoke, and spotted my wife at a distant computer. She gave me a wink and a shrug. Payback.
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