The community was amazed when the Esquire Korea magazine dropped. It was not just admiration at the quality but also the styling that the representative models of each team. People on social media were in awe of how players like Sunghyeon ‘Jjonak’ Bang looked almost unrecognizable. The spread displayed a different side of the esport pro players and their lives.
It was a bleak difference from where esports was ten plus years ago. This was an impactful moment as it showcased how esports has made the transition into mainstream life. South Korea has always had esports as a part of their society with games such as Starcraft and League of Legends. Even more, it seems that these games and pro players are being thrust into the spotlight, which Covid-19 has further accelerated. With this comes the good and the bad as the industry has turned the pro-gamers into celebrities.
In Korea, many of the major entertainment companies have a training period. While this is not as common when it comes to esport, there are academies, such as Gen.G, that have set up to be a place where new talent can be developed. This could be boiled down even more to the T2 and T3 scenes in different games. This allows for fans to see and become attached to new upcoming talent.
This was best seen when Runaway was in Contenders for the first season of the Overwatch League. Many Korean fans were already well associated with the team. Having Runaway on a global stage in contenders got the team notoriety within the community as well as with NA/EU fans. These fans support the team but many times but when it comes down to it, the fans support the players more.
Fans of the players treat the pros in the same manner as many of the Kpop fans treat their idols. There are KKT silent rooms that are dedicated to many of the Korean pro players. Many times the players themselves are in the rooms and will communicate with fans via the KKT silent rooms. Fans in kind will do gift drops for the players for their debut anniversary or birthdays. These gifts can span from designer clothing and iPhones to convenience store snacks. These are crowdfunded and there are usually donation goal gifts that go along with the gift drops. What goes along with the gift drop is that a fan bought subway advertisement. This is a common practice within the Korean celebrity culture.
There are dedicated SNS accounts for players that create content around them in the form of GIFs or fan photos. Fans are known to watermark their HD photos that they take at events or outside of events of the players. These are then used for gift drop rewards or cup holder events. This is the equivalent of fan clubs of popular idols or actors/actresses who take photos outside of airports or music shows.
The fan photo culture in Korea has a strict unwritten rule understanding that one does not steal a fan photo of another without credit. This was an issue a while ago when the Houston Outlaws used a fan photo of Taehong ‘Meko’ Kim without giving credit to the fan who took the fan photo (this was later fixed when the team commented on their original post crediting the fan who took the picture).
On top of this, fans of certain players have named themselves as an unofficial fandom for a player, just like how some Kpop groups have individual fandoms for certain members. This puts a lot of responsibility onto the pro players’ shoulders as they feel as if they need to be their best for their fans not just for themselves. This can be seen in the Korean celebrity world when a song flops or a drama gets low ratings, the celebrities feel responsible for letting their fans down.
Just like other Korean celebrities out there, the pro players know how to turn on the charm so to speak. The fan service can be seen in multiple ways. At fan events that would happen after APEX matches or signings, the players would do heart poses, wear headbands that were given to them as gifts, or take pictures next to fans.
The Twitch equivalent in the Korean celebrity world is V-line where celebrities will stream anything from dance practice, to chatting, to cooking events for their fans. The esport pro players have Twitch and Afreeca. They play different games, sing, eat, or take suggestions via donations from their followers. Fan service can be seen in-game as well. The first match that Byungsun ‘Fleta’ Kim played with Lunatic-Hai on Lijiang Tower during the Seoul Cup, he pulled out Pharah to fans’ screams. It was a fan-favorite hero of his and it was a nod to the fans who supported him through Flash Lux.
Korean society has integrated these players into their mainstream reality. The Esquire magazine highlights that the best. It wasn’t just one player. It was a player from almost every APAC region team that was in a multiple page spread in a large well-known magazine. Also when large esport events go on there are always large crowds of fans. A highly anticipated match can bring in 75,000+ views, and in-person arenas to be sold out for fans to watch their favorite teams and players. This is equivalent to concert arenas being sold out to match idols perform. Esports and Kpop have merged in Riot’s pop group K/DA that consists of 4 League of Legend characters as a virtual group. Society is integrating and accepting esports; bringing it into other aspects of everyday life such as Faker’s Ice Cream.
The players have also started to evolve to the changing needs of their position as a pro player. There are many pros that have started learning other languages. While this is to communicate with more fans, it is also a good way to make them more marketable if they wanted to join a multi-lingual team in the future. Their personality and actions should be pristine or else can reflect badly on them. This is on top of their overall skills within the game that they play.
The Celebrity Gamer
It is important to note that most of these players didn’t get into gaming for the fame or celebrity status. This is a side effect of the profession that they wanted to pursue. There are many negatives that come along with fame such as fanfics, sasaengs, and extreme pressure. But the positives are that they get to be supported by their fans doing what they love to do. It is important to treat the pro players with respect especially as they become even bigger celebrities.
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