단결. This is a saying that many of the Overwatch League players will hear in the future. This might have been heard if visiting Korea near an army base or in Korean dramas. 단결 is the Korean salute that the military gives to each other, which translates to ‘unity.’ The mandatory military service is the dark cloud that could make or break the Overwatch League.
Many of the players that are in the League are Korean. The pro players that are Korean make up 114 of the 200 players on the Overwatch website player bank. That means over 50% of the players on all the Overwatch League teams are in danger of being called to do their mandatory military service. This means the majority of many teams have the weakness of the mandatory military service. This is an essential aspect that organizations, teams, and the league need to think about heading into future seasons.
What fans may have forgotten are the players who have left the pro scene. There is always the initial upheaval when an announcement is made, but then it slowly fades away as new players come in. The Korean military is the elephant in the room that many are not talking about.
The mandatory military is for all Korean males who are citizens of South Korea. Any male between 18-28 years old is required to go into the military and it has been that way since 1957. On August 1, 2018, the South Korean government changed the maximum age in which a male can delay their military service. Previously the government had allowed males to delay until they were 30 years old. With this new law in place, the maximum age was cut down by 2 years. All able-bodied males need to complete at least 21 months of military service, but it varies depending on what section of the military that they serve in. Once players get close enough to the age of being called they are restricted in the amount of travel outside of the country. This can pose an issue to many who have to travel for their job.
The Korean mandatory military issue has exploded into the mainstream NA/EU news because of the rise of Kpop and esports. The biggest example of this is how BTS, now a global staple in the music world, will not be exempted from military service. This can also interfere with not just music contracts but also esport contracts, especially when the peak age of esport athletes is the same age range as the military service.
The argument is that those who do get to be exempt are those who have contributed a lot to the Korean society. BTS fans argue that the boy band has done that and more for South Korea. This can also be framed in the esport lens. The exemptions in the history of Korea have been given to award-winning athletes and or musicians (classical) that on a national scale represented Korea. Renowned players such as Injae ‘EscA’ Kim and Sanghyeok ‘Faker’ Lee have represented Korea on a national scale and have won international competitions, the equivalent of their game’s Olympics, for their country.
This brings into play the stigmatization of esports being seen not as a sport. Though these athletes do not train in the traditional athletes do. This all may be changing in the future as INTEL has been hosting Olympic-sanctioned games during the Olympics. There was a test run during PyeongChang 2018, and in 2020 Tokyo Summer Games there will also be a tournament featured, though Overwatch is not one of the title games being played.
From its inception, Overwatch has had a strong Korean presence. Overwatch is a young esport. It has not been around as long as Call of Duty or CS:GO. With the CDL starting there is a blatant difference in ages compared to Overwatch. Christian Wisniewski broke down the ages of the Overwatch League teams. The oldest team is the Houston Outlaws averaging 22 years on the team. The youngest is the London Spitfire at 18.8 years old. The most thought-provoking part is that the London Spitfire is a part of the original teams that re-made their roster over for Season 3. They didn’t go for older talent but went with the young new talent that was showcased in Tier 2 teams.
If one looks at those numbers compared to the CDL it shows a stark difference. A Redditor u/Dxngles broke it down in a Reddit post. Their youngest team in the CDL is the Atlanta Faze at an average age of 20.235 years old. That is 2 whole years over the youngest team in Overwatch League. The oldest Overwatch League team is 22 and in the CDL there are 5 teams with that average age.
If the Overwatch League stays young and continues the trend of re-vamping teams with younger talent instead of seasoned veterans than the mandatory military service issue will not come into play for the majority of the players. Though it is always a constant thought of fans on whether their favorite player will have to leave the team because of their mandatory military service.
When Korean players, such as Joonhyuk ‘Zunba‘ Kim, are looking for a team they have to say in their announcement that they are not retiring and also not going into the military. This is not an expectation that comes along with other nationalities when a player steps down from professional play.
In the offseason, there were a couple of players that the Overwatch League community lost to the mandatory Military. Heedong ‘Guard’ Lee announced that he was retiring from being a pro-gamer and would go to fulfill his military service. Back in October the flex player for the Shanghai Dragons, Youngjin ‘Youngjin’ Jin, also announced that he was retiring from being a pro and going to do his mandatory military service. As of now all the players, except for Seyeon ‘Geguri’ Kim, are males. It needs to be looked at that it is not only the players but also many coaches in the league who are Korean males. This means there is a potential wave of professional players that will be receiving notices to fulfill their military service in a few years. How will this impact the ecosystem of the teams as well as the league?
The Dallas Fuel, as run by Envy a well known esport organization, does take mandatory military into consideration both in signing Korean players as well as in their contracts for handling it in the best possible way. For the Fuel, their assistant coach Vol’Jin has gone through his mandatory service. One of their current players has received their notice for military conscriptions. This is not anything to worry about yet, as if players have a contract and are working overseas it can be pushed back. The closer the players get to 28 the better chance that they will have to return to serve.
There could be many teams that are in the same boat as the LA Gladiators who have multiple Korean players on their team and none of them have completed their military service. Teams like the Washington Justice who have a mixed roster haven’t had to cross that bridge yet. Almost every team has at least one Korean player or Korean coach that could be impacted if they were called to serve in the military.
For the Seoul Dynasty of all their players and coaching staff only Jinmo ‘Tobi’ Yang has completed their military duties. They are the representative team of South Korea. The Seoul Dynasty said that “However given our company’s culture we will help in any way we can for the player/coach to continue the career after the service is completed.” Ryujehong came from the military service and found, some would argue, his biggest esport success in Overwatch. Many esport hopefuls still pursue going pro after their time in the military is done.
Esports and the Military
The Florida Mayhem Coach Daekuki ‘Kuki’ Kim, Vancouver Titan’s Jehong ‘Ryujehong’ Ryu, and NYXL’s Jongryeol ‘Saebyeolbe’ Park [SBB has only completed a part of his mandatory military service because of an injury] have completed their service but the majority of the players have not. If the average age of the Overwatch League stays young this could never be an issue. If players continue on such as Ryujehong who is 28 years old then there is going to be an issue when players start to be called up to the military service. Will there be enough players to fill the void once the leaders have to go back to Korea to serve?
Thank you to the Dallas Fuel, LA Gladiators, Seoul Dynasty, and Washington Justice for answering the questions and being a part of this important discussion.
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