South Korea. One of two main powerhouses in League of Legends Esports, their rivalry with China is as fierce as it is long. With key players like Chovy, Faker and TheShy, the depth of talent in the region is huge, especially considering they’re easily dwarfed in size by China and the combined EU countries. Whilst China hasn't been as successful in terms of international success within the League of Legends professional scene, they've made leaps and bounds in terms of catching up to their South Korean counterparts. They even won the World Championship in 2021. This was significant as it has historically always been won by South Korean teams. China consistently produces world-class talent through its many influential organisations like Royal Never Give Up (RNG) and Edward Gaming (EDG).
Esports has a long and decorated history in Korea and China where games such as League of Legends are seen as real sports and becoming a professional player in a good team can change the lives of those skilled enough to be selected.
The intensity of passion from the fans of Esport teams can be likened to football club fans, and at times, it has led to clashes between rival teams. Professional players are kept on a proverbial short leash and are expected to play a minimum of 12-15 hours per day. Anyone that has played League of Legends knows that is a tall ask - even for the best of players. In the West, the intensity of training or games isn’t nearly as intense, with players playing 8-10 hours. It is also not uncommon for players to be banned from seeing their girlfriends while preparing for competition.
A key contributing difference between the Western teams and Asian teams is the culture. Where a Western player might be pressured into pursuing academics or taking a more traditional job, splitting both their focus and their time, Korea and China push their talented players hard and have far more efficient academy programmes that are much better at producing talent.
There is also the matter of stiffer competition in Korean and Chinese servers. In League of Legends, it is a widely known fact that Solo Queue (the ranked system) is often a harder, much more challenging experience in these Asian countries, as they’re filled with more mechanically gifted players, and the Meta is often formed within the Korean Soloqeue server or the Chinese Super Server. Both servers are difficult for foreign players to play in due to the requirement of foreign nationals in Korea requires a social security number to access the server. Also, you can only access Chinese servers by being in China and having a Chinese phone number.
With great talent come great costs. Korea and China are famous for their “churn and burn” attitude toward players meaning that if you cannot perform or handle the stress, you're out of the team. This is because there are always more players willing to take their chance at being in a top team like T1 or EDG. As a result, burnout is high and mental illness can affect players, especially with the constant criticism from fans and the never-ending pressure to perform from the organisations who own the teams. Physical injuries like RSI (repetitive strain injury) are very common.
Jian Zi-Hao, also known as Uzi, was one of the most mechanically gifted Chinese ADCs (Attack damage carry) and had to end his career early due to health concerns. In a statement in 2020, he said:
"As a result of staying up late for years, a fatty diet and being under insurmountable stress, last year I found out that I was type-2 diabetic." He proceeded to say that his mental health was "not as good as it was before".
It would be understandable to question: why put so much time and your own health at risk for a dream that relatively so few can ever achieve? The answer is deeply personal to each player, but the fame, glory and financial earnings are irrefutable. The team that wins this year's 2022 World tournament will win $2,225,000, which will be split amongst the team. For poor teenagers growing up in China or Korea, this can be life-changing for them and their families, as well as the prestige that comes along with it.
Just look at the support from Chinese fans after EDG won Worlds in 2021.
If a prospect can grow and develop, and can endure the struggles of being a professional player, they have a chance to become immortalised in the history of Esports. Legends never die.