Esports in South Korea – a short overview of the legal ecosystemEmin Ozkurt
South Korea has always been at the center of esports. In the late 1990’s, the South Korean government decided to build a national broadband network for faster internet connection. This kickstarted the gaming revolution. Video gaming cafes (also known as “PC Bangs”) sprang up everywhere, as players flocked to play Starcraft. The multiplayer game concept took off. Roll the clock forward 25 years and the 2018 League of Legends Worlds Final in South Korea attracted 99.6 million unique viewers (up from 80 million in 2017) 1.
Alongside the growth of the ecosystem, the South Korean government has recognized the need for regulations to address a range of different issues, ranging from integrity to player welfare. Accordingly, this article summarises the development of esports in South Korea, looking in particular at governance and regulation, integrity issues and player welfare.
Governance of esports in South Korea
One of the Government’s first moves was to establish the Korean Esports Association (KeSPA) in 2000. KeSPA was established and organized as a branch under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. With the foundation provided by KeSPA, esports made its debut as an official event acknowledged by the South Korean government.
KeSPA overarching objective is to improve the legitimacy of esports and help manage competitive tournaments. It regulates esports tournaments and distributes broadcasting licenses to channels such as OnGameNet (OGN) and SPOTV, in mutual understanding with the publishers. These channels are important to the esports ecosystem of South Korea as they promote the tournaments and thus the popularity of esports. For example, League of Legends Championship Korea “LCK” was organized by OGN before Riot Games.
KeSPA also established a pro-gaming license system2 where each pro player has to acquire a relevant license (according to the video game) in order for to compete in tournaments. In addition, to maintain transparency and prevent abusive acts, the South Korean government has also enabled a log-in system pursuant to which each player has to submit their resident registration number to play video games. This maintains a link between video game accounts and real persons, the intention bing that players are more responsible with their in-game behavior both in legal and criminal manners.
The South Korean Government also passed the Youth Protection Revision Act (commonly known as “Shutdown Law”) in 2011. The Shutdown Law forbids children between age 16 and below from playing online games between 00:00 pm and 6:00 am. Parents may apply for a request to permit their minor players to play after midnight.
As the esports ecosystem grows integrity problems manifest in different ways, just like traditional sports. According to Esports Integrity Coalition (ESIC)3 four of the most significant threats to esports integrity are:
Online attacks to slow or disable an opponent
Integrity-related cases have made an enormous impact in South Korea and resonated around the world. For example, in 2016 StarCraft II player Lee “Life” Seung-hyun4 was arrested and prosecuted for intentionally losing two matches. At trial, Lee Seung-hyun was sentenced to prison for 18 months (suspended for three years) fined KRW 70 millin and banned for life from Korean esports.
In South Korea, as esports is acknowledged and regulated by the government, certain integrity issues are punishable under the South Korean Criminal Code. For example, boosting5 for profit (when a gamer logs into another gamer’s account to play a ranked game to increase their ranking) is punishable by up to 2 years in jail and KRW 20 million ($18,000) fine6 under the Game Industry Promotion Act 2017.
Player Welfare Policies
Player salaries have been given a lot of consideration in recent years and the KeSPA have now a established a minimum salary7 for professional players (protected by law) of around USD 12,500 per year. Moreover, esports player contracts must have a minimum term of one year. This regulation maintains contractual stability and guarantees an income for South Korean players.8
The average South Korean professional League of Legends player annual salary in 2017 was 97,700,000 KRW (approximately $90,000) according to studies by the Korea Creative Content Agency. Annual salary reaches $320,000 in North America,9 which roughly equals to MLS (Major League Soccer) players.
There are still some areas that are not regulated yet and one of them is directly connected to the players. Players, one of the main pillars of the ecosystem, are still facing abusive actions by their teams, who have been taking advantage of the lack of legal protections. Employment contracts are often heavily weighted in favor of teams and this can lead to a multitude of problems, one of the most notable being the conditions that players are required to train under. Players often practice between 10 – 12 hours a day by sitting on a chair, without standing up or stretching for hours. Because of hard practice session, players tend to get injured more frequently, especially wrist and back pain problems. For example, players like Kang “GorillA” Beom-hyeon and Heo “PawN” Won-seok from League of Legends suffered back problems which seriously affected their careers.10
Globalization of the Sport
On its way to finding its place among traditional sports, esports is still searching for an international organization to oversee governance and regulatory development and maintain uniformity. Such an organization will help esports to find its identity.
One body gaining such traction is the the International Esport Federation (IESF), which was founded in 2008 in South Korea. IESF’s goal is to promote esports as a true sport beyond language, race and cultural barriers. IESF works on improving esports globalization. The IESF is actively expanding it’s reach and now has 56 members after successfully admitting the Turkish Esports Federation.
South Korea was one of the first members of IESF, and IESF and KeSPA work closely together. In 2016, KeSPA and IESF launched “certified esports PC Club”11 service in South Korea. This service is a long-term plan of Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. Aim of the service is to improve esports culture in specific matters under licensed PC Clubs. IESF targets to enlarge licensed PC Clubs in each esports country.
As of July 2014, IESF passed Anti-Doping Regulations. IESF is also approved as one of the signatories of World-Anti Doping Agency in 2013 and they now help coordinate doping controls.
KeSPA and IESF presidents jointly declared12 that their biggest goal was to make esports an Olympic event for upcoming competitions. For the last few years, IESF and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have debated whether esports is capabale of being considered for Olympics. However, after some promising noises, the IOC seems not yet ready13 to approve esports as an olympic sports.
Inevitably the more esports ecosystem grows, the more legal problems it will encouter. South Korea and KeSPA were a long was ahead of the curve in this respect and started to put in place laws and apparatus to address core problems facing the youthful industry. This proactive approach means South Korea is still at the global forefront of the industry in both gameplay and regulation and other countries hoping to succeed in the market should learn from their lessons and look to emulate their approach.
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- Tags: Anti-Corruption | Athlete Welfare | Commercial | Esports | Governance | Regulation | South Korea
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About the Author
Emin OZKURT is a Turkish lawyer who has extensive knowledge and experience in sports law and its regulation.
Emin has a LL.M degree in International Business Law from The University of Manchester. He is currently registered at the national bar of lawyers in Istanbul.
He is privileged to have acted for many of the governing bodies that regulate the sport in Turkiye, some of the biggest Football Clubs in the country, many player and agents from around the world and also athletes.