Picture a house filled with any number between five to ten people in their 20s (sometimes mostly teens) playing videogames for 12 hours a day. Stacks of energy drinks line computer desks as players relentlessly wage war on a virtual field. The lights are on almost 24/7, the soft electric glow of monitors a substitute for sunlight on the skins of the players.
Sometimes they stream their game of choice on popular streaming platforms. Most times, they practice for the next big tournament. From these houses, the next world champion team will emerge, ready to dominate their eSport of choice.
Today, the gaming house has become shorthand for some fans and even some outsiders to describe Korea’s dominance in the world’s biggest gaming titles.
In 2016, where the eSports industry is growing by leaps and bounds, is the gaming house — a facet of Korea’s eSports discipline replicated in the west and everywhere else outside of Korea — truly the secret to eSports success?
In a 2014 interview with Korean Dota 2 pro player Park “March” Tae Won, he shared that his life as a professional gamer in a gaming house was a cycle of “Wake up, work out, eat, play games, eat again, play games, sleep and repeat.” At the time, March said that he was a true believer of the Korean gaming house.
But where exactly did the system originate?
The origins of the gaming house can be traced to the early 2000s with one of the first true eSports, StarCraft: Brood War. In an era dominated by Lim “BoxeR” Yo Hwan, one of the first Bonjwas to ever play StarCraft, gaming houses began as a way for aspiring Korean players to hunker down and hone their craft with near single-minded devotion.
In an age of big-moneyed teams putting up lavish apartments and training areas for their professional players, it’s easy to overlook the fact that the roots of the gaming house began as a money-saving measure for players to pursue competitive gaming opportunities in the cost-prohibitive city of Seoul.
In a conversation with eSports by INQUIRER.net, Duncan “Thorin” Shields, a journalist and eSports historian with over a decade of experience in multiple eSports disciplines, described the first gaming houses as a way for players to come together, play their games and live their dreams close to where the action is.
“What you have to understand is that no one designed the gaming house system,” Thorin said. “It started with BoxeR and YellOw back in Brood War in the early 2000s. They didn’t design it; they literally just moved into one house and brought their computers and they started playing. It was just a cost-saving measure to play full-time.”
It was at this time that BoxeR managed to win three major titles, going down in history as one of the pioneers of the modern eSport.
As the early days of the Brood War competitive circuit in Korea turned into a lucrative business model, organizations began taking in small squads of talented players, housing them so that they can train under strict regimens in the heart of Seoul.
Once Korea found stable sponsorships and partnerships that let in real money from corporations into eSports, the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA) stepped in to regulate the practice. Under KeSPA, eSports organization are required to file necessary paperwork and prove that they can comply with the living and training standards — including salary — set by the body before receiving accreditation.
To date, almost all gaming organizations (both the well-known teams with multiple world titles in different games and the smaller organizations that no one outside of Korea has heard of) flock to Seoul to rent out accommodations to house players and coaches. To be the best.
But the gaming house system and its successes could have only been made possible thanks to a confluence of factors: the Korean culture of excellence and the social hierarchy of Korea’s professional sphere.
Thorin described the practice of copying the Korean gaming house system–and applying it with no regard for the cultural aspects that made it successful–as one of the worst things to happen in Western eSports.
“What got conflated in the West was the idea that because you’re living in a gaming house that you’re automatically going to experience success,” Thorin said.
“What they didn’t count on was the cultural differences that allowed for Korean players to continue a
nd thrive in that system. Ultimately, Western players can’t handle the concept of living in your workplace.”
The stress of hours upon hours of constant play, with no real outlet to let loose some steam, can be very damaging for even the best athletes.
In an interview with Business Insider, Team Liquid co-owner Steve Arhancet said that without a healthy separation of work and play, teams and individual competitors can suffer under the gaming house system.
“Gaming houses are a pressure cooker for team dynamics, which play such a vital role in team performance,” Arhancet said in the Business Insider interview. “When you don’t have separation between work and life, everything bleeds together.”
Since then, Arhancet and Team Liquid have moved away from the gaming house to adopt a central training facility, similar to other traditional sports like Basketball.
Instead of living together, training together and playing together, members of Team Liquid have regular training hours done in their gaming facility, after which they retire to their homes away from home in apartments nearby.
Pio Solon, a sports science professional and program director for Epic Performance and Fitness Solutions, said that interpersonal stress can often be exacerbated by a highly competitive atmosphere.
“When you have very competitive individuals placed together in a competitive space where they also sometimes compete with each other, it’s bound to be a high-pressure situation,” Solon said.
Above and beyond just a difference in training styles, Thorin said that Korea’s cultural approach to excellence and professional hierarchies have added a different dimension to their gaming houses, one that is absent in the West.
“When the gaming house system was first put in place, it was originally used for Brood War which at the time focused on a team aspect,” Thorin said. “Players stay together at the house and each of them practice for a specific match-up. They can then go to other players and compare notes and help each other figure out their team’s strategies.”
“But what people seem to have forgotten is that there’s a very strict social hierarchy there,” Thorin described. “StarCraft teams are divided into A teams and B teams. A teams include your star players and they receive the highest salaries. The B team is made up of your bench players that receive lower salaries. Both teams live in the house, with the B team serving as practice partners for the A team.”
“For the B team, their practice partners consist of players who live in the house but do not receive salaries. They stay with the hopes of being invited into the team. Beyond that comes the players who come in for the day and serve as sparring partners for anyone else who isn’t practicing.”
“There’s a hierarchy there where you essentially can only go up or down,” Thorin shared. “If you’re good enough, you make your way up the ladder until you’re good enough to be on the A team. If you aren’t performing, you can be relegated to the B team or replaced entirely.”
Thorin says that this scenario was an everyday occurrence among Korea’s gaming houses. Korea’s dominance in eSports isn’t predicated on the gaming houses but rather on the culture of grinding your way to be the best — even if it means moving away from home.
“It’s not unlike how Hollywood operates,” Thorin continued. “If you’re a kid living out in Kansas and you want to make it as an actor or have your script turned into a movie, you move out to Hollywood and get your name out there. In Korea, anyone with a dream of eSports glory moved out to Seoul where they could get scouted while playing Solo Queue or essentially audition at an organization’s gaming house.”
This sociological phenomenon isn’t confined to Korea’s eSports scene. Even in the entertainment industry of K-Pop, new blood and new talent regularly make the sacrifice of moving into Seoul and devoting their lives to perfecting their chosen disciplines of song, dance or drama.
For his part, Solon agrees that there is a sociological or cultural aspect to housing professional players under one roof, noting that it also happens in traditional sports particularly in China and Australia.
“While this happens less in Western countries, countries like China and Australia do house their athletes under one roof. This allows them to have better control over their training, sleep schedules, and diet to make sure that they are in peak condition for competition,” Solon said.
“There’s a sociological component to it. In these countries, the athlete’s’ desire to succeed coincides well with the more autocratic nature of organizations in places like China,” he added.
While the West has managed to romanticize the idea of the gaming house, the Philippines’ relatively undeveloped eSports landscape can learn from the lessons of what makes Korea so dominant in so many gaming disciplines.
In the Philippines, only a handful of organizations have managed to provide decent accommodations conducive to productive training, on top of respectable salaries.
Mineski, the Philippines’ largest and most successful organization, recently created the Mineski gaming mansion for its League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO teams through a combination of careful financial planning and business development.
Their living areas are spacious, with the players receiving salaries well above the Philippine average for eSports professionals, allowing them to train and better their skills in relative comfort.
But for the other organizations in the country who also house their eSports teams, the circumstances can be very different.
In the course of following this story, eSports by INQUIRER.net spoke to a former team manager about the gaming houses and players’ salaries in the country. A handful of professional players currently playing for Filipino teams in two different eSports titles confirmed the figures that we researched. Each one requested to keep their names anonymous to protect their careers.
They described that while they can endure less-than-optimal living conditions for the sake of competition, some organizations who provide lodging and PC use for their pros take a portion from their already meager salary to pay for overhead costs.
One former team manager told eSports by INQUIRER.net that the average salary of a Philippine eSports player amounts to less than $100 per month. Let’s call him James.
“In the industry, some organizations — including ones I’ve worked for — make it a habit to take money for PC use, electricity and other overhead away from their professional players,” James said. “This is after approaching teams and players and promising that they will shoulder these costs to help support the team.”
“What sucks is that these players have little room in their contracts to be treated like talent, even if they produce good results. Their value is hidden from them by some organizations,” James added. “It’s pretty shady and downright unscrupulous.”
With eSports becoming more and more mainstream and with more Philippine organizations seeking for a piece of the pie, the same former team manager notes that these organizations aren’t even producing worthwhile results.
“The system is all backwards,” James said. “These organizations aren’t even training properly or paying attention to things like coaching or analysis. A lot of these organizations are using teams as a way to market their interests. It doesn’t matter if they’re being fair to their players.”
To date, the Philippines has only put up a handful of major international results in any eSport.
The country’s most celebrated Dota 2 teams, Mineski-Dota and Rave-Dota, have had multiple international tilts to middling success. Mineski is also the only Filipino organization to have had teams appear in both the League of Legends Worlds Championship tournament and for Dota 2’s The International.
Rave, in particular, made waves in late 2014 to the first half of 2015 after making it into the Dota Asian Championships. Their 5th-6th place finish bore them $152,876 (~P7,185,172) in prize winnings. The team was also notable for being the first Filipino team to have traveled and stayed for months in Korea in order to train and participate in international tournaments.
The five players (Jio “Jeyo” Madayag, Mark “Cast” Pilar, Ryo “ryOyr” Hasegawa, Djardel “Dj” Mampusti and Michael “Nb” Ross), together with their Korean manager and friend Pyung Kwon, stayed in a small apartment in Incheon, Korea. For months, the team focused their efforts in becoming a top-tier Southeast Asian Dota 2 team, winning multiple online qualifiers while holed up in a gaming house.
Most Filipino teams, however, have found it difficult to break out of the Southeast Asian region, let alone the world.
James said that in order for the Philippines to succeed in international events, players and team owners need to understand that putting up a gaming house is not equivalent to success. Quality training and a single-minded approach to excellence may be worth more than the ability to advertise a “Player’s HQ.”
Ultimately, the gaming house and its success in Korea is the result of culture and resolve. Over and above the moving into a house to play videogames for a living, excellence means leaving the comforts of home to pursue an impossible dream; To be the best, you must give up everything. And the best will become world champions.
It isn’t the house. It’s the sacrifice.