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What It's Like Being a Top 'League of Legends' Player in Korea

How passion, discipline, and fear drive Korea's elite pro gamers.
photos by Dannyseoul

It begins with a bang. In Seoul, South Korea, the PC cafe isn't just a place where people come together to play games on LAN, but something akin to an all-night diner. Well after the last restaurants close and the metro stops running, teenage gamers and jaded businessmen will often find themselves rubbing shoulders at PC terminals, playing games like StarCraft, Overwatch, and especially League of Legends.


For most them, this will never be more than casual fun. But some are convinced that the PC bang is their ticket to something greater. An escape from a boring career in an office, a shot at fame and glory. When I visit one of the bangs, some of the regulars shares their conviction that this is the place to get noticed by a scout from a professional team. And when that happens you can leave the somewhat dodgy PC bang for a hyper-modern professional team house.

This is exactly what happened to the players on KT Rolster's League of Legends team. They rose from the grassroots to join the pro LoL squad for one of the top esports organizations in Korea, competing in the world's toughest region.

I meet them a day after my visit to a PC bang. The team members show up late, seven in total. They take off their shoes to change them for more comfortable indoor shoes. Shortly before the interview starts they eat instant noodles, slurping them hastily.

"They had a late lunch today," says team manager Won-il after looking at the clock; it's five o'clock in the afternoon.

Smeb, PawN, Score, Mata, and Deft (far right) in the KT Rolster trophy room.

Score, Smeb, and PawN—three internationally renowned players—sit at a table, on ergonomic chairs emblazoned with the logo of KT Rolster: a rollercoaster. "We want to provide entertainment, that's why we chose a rollercoaster," says Won-il just before leaving the meeting room.

At 24 years old, Go "Score" Dong-bin is the oldest of the bunch. "For a long time, I did it for the fun of it. That was before I was approached by a friend of mine who played for a pro team. They were looking for talent and contacted me."


Getting a spot in a pro gaming team through a friend is a bit "old school" by today's increasingly professionalized standards. Esports, especially in Korea, are far from being the wild frontier that they used to be. KT Rolster ran first-rate StarCraft teams for years, and have taken a similarly demanding tack with League of Legends.

The players try to explain what brought them fame and glory: partly talent, and a bit of luck.

"You need to see the bigger picture: perhaps we started playing a game and peaked at a game at the right time, just when it started to become popular amongst a bigger group of people," Score says. Plenty of gamers might be much better at MOBA games, but they simply played the wrong game, and are still stuck in a PC bang.

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Once we start to talk about money and mention earnings, the team members look at each other awkwardly. They decide not to reveal any information on this matter. Later, Won-il tells us that they can't say anything about salary or the earnings of the team.

"Team members get a fixed salary, also the substitutes. But the biggest part of the revenue comes from broadcasting our training practice via Afreeca TV, a streaming website, and sponsor deals. And of course, we earn money through tournament participation. Some earn ten thousand a year, for others, you can add a zero," Won-il explains, hinting at the much higher income that a handful of stars enjoy over their peers.


Fortunately, there are several websites keeping track of what individual esports players earn. Heo "PawN" Won-seok, so far quiet and not saying much, has made $400,000 dollars in prize money over his career, despite his young age (this is not taking into account what he earned with salary, sponsorship deals and doing commercials). He is the top earner of KT Rolster and takes an admirable seventh place in the ranking of best earners in League of Legends. He was just 17 when he played on Samsung Galaxy White's world championship-winning roster, which netted him $200,000 dollars as a teenager.

"We all know what kind of world this is, we are aware what we signed up for."

When asked about the road to glory and big money, he breaks the silence for the first time. PawN explains he made sacrifices to get to where he is today.

"I left home when I was 17, unusual for Korean standards. I completely focused on gaming, ended up in a gaming house, at the time a different team than KT Rolster. My parents didn't agree with my choices, especially to leave school. Now I'm making money with gaming they've changed their minds. Generally, you see gaming is becoming more acceptable to make money."

Song "Smeb" Kyung-ho listens and nods his head. He had faced similar resistance from his family when he decided not to continue his studies to become a full-time gamer.

"No, they weren't excited. I suppose it says something about how adults look at a career. You can be successful by studying and going to school. Gaming is considered bad, it's useless in their eyes."


The team practicing during their evening session.

The online gaming industry is greeted with some suspicion in Korea, where some critics argue that the the country faces a rising "internet addiction" problem. There is a strong anti-gaming lobby, with the primary objective to enforce stricter regulation to prevent gaming addiction. Team manager Won-il sighs when confronted with this sort of criticism.

"What can I say? I can only speak as a representative of KT Rolster. We take great care of our team members. Their lifestyle is 'unhealthy,' according to some critics of the esports industry. But we hire a cook and a dietician who carefully prepare meals for our boys, so they stay healthy and fit."

To stay on top of their game they are expected to be disciplined. "We get Spartan training, as Koreans are used to in the army," says Smeb, referring to the two years of mandatory military service that South Korea requires. "If we go outside to buy something we need permission. Other than that, it is training, training, training. Every day we wake up around noon and we go to bed at 2 or 3 am. We are like owls," says Smeb. Yet he doesn't look tired. This might be related to one of the sponsors of KT Rolster, a famous energy drink producer. Wherever you look in the training center, bottles of energy drinks are everywhere.

Smeb is anxious to get to practice. "Do you have all the information you need?" Smeb asks, standing up. The evening session is about to begin. The practice room is almost deafening with the clicking of keyboards, and the flicker of rapidly-scrolling monitors. These computers are faster than the ones in PC bangs, KT Rolster has a team who assembled their computers. "A quick internet connection and strong hardware are vital if you want to perform," Won-il explains. They start discussing the next opponent. A box full of swabs reveals how much time the guys spend inside the practice room. They seem to be here more than anywhere else.


In the living room, Won-il explains it has been a while since KT Rolster last won a prize. "In 2014, we won the South Korean championship," says Won-il, referring to a trophy marked with the text "KeSPA" (Korean e-Sports Association).

KT Rolster has many victories to its credit.

KT Rolster are preparing for a match, one of the 20 they need to play in total to decide who will be Korea's next champion. The first two teams automatically qualify for the world championship of League of Legends. This tournament will take place later this year in China. During that tournament, 5 million dollars will be at stake, 2 of which will go to the winner. "Later this week we can make a first step towards realizing that goal," Won-il tells me somewhat hopeful.

Back in the practice room, the guys are still busy with practicing. While the lights of surrounding offices go out, KT Rolster's light stays on until 3 AM.

"Do you never get sick and tired of this routine?" I ask them.

Score says, "If one of us get sick of it, the rest of the team makes sure he doesn't give up. This is a team sport and we need to give it our all to perform." The world of esports can be very "next player up." If you don't perform you will be replaced by a younger talent eager to take your position.

A quick scan through the composition of KT Roster's team over the years and one can see that only Score has been playing for several years in a row. Like an NFL player or NBA star, a League of Legends player simply needs to deliver.

In an industry often built on illusions, nurtured from the dreams of the thousands who play in those PC after-hours bangs, Score is clear-eyed almost to the point of cynicism about his line of work, and his own disposability. "We all know what kind of world this is, we are aware what we signed up for."

Follow the author on Twitter: @bvanderlist