Lee Han-sae used to fight with his parents all the time. From the age of 7, he was more interested in playing video games than studying. Math and science were boring, he said, and he wasn’t very good at them.
In South Korea’s hypercompetitive society, he was at risk of being labeled a disappointment.
Today, at the age of 17, Lee is studying esports at a pioneering high school in Seoul, and he is possibly on the way to a career in the billion-dollar esports industry.
“My parents hated it when I played too many games,” he said. “But now they appreciate me.”
Ahyeon Polytechnic High School is one of a handful of schools and universities in South Korea pioneering the idea of esports as an academic discipline, a plan being copied around the world.
The course was the brainchild of Bang Seung-ho, who started 10 years ago as a counselor and is now the principal of the school, which teaches courses from cookery to music and design.
He was sick, he said, of seeing kids, especially boys, turning up late and half asleep, resentful and swearing at their teachers, because they had spent much of the night playing video games. So he decided to bring the Internet cafe to the school, and video games into the classroom.
When Bang started out, people dismissed him as eccentric, and many parents viewed the course as a waste of time. Even today, there are plenty of cynics, but Bang said they are coming around to the idea of esports as a way of channeling their children’s interests and abilities — and as a pathway to a career.
“People poked their fingers at me, but I knew this was a space the students needed,” he said.
The huge incomes on offer for professional gamers definitely help sell the idea.
Industry estimates suggest South Korea’s top gamer, three-time “League of Legends” world champion, 23-year-old Lee Sang-hyeok, known by his in-game name of “Faker,” earns around 3 billion won ($2.5 million) a year. His team, SK Telecom T1, said he earned more than any traditional sports star in the country.
But there’s another side.
In April, the World Health Organization included “gaming disorder” for the first time among its International Classification of Diseases, defining it as gaming taking “precedence over other life interests and daily activities.”
But Principal Bang says the games themselves should not be blamed.
“Students don’t really get addicted to gaming itself,” he said. “It’s more that they seek shelter in gaming to run away from reality, when they fall short of parental expectations for academic achievement, or when they get bullied in school.”
To help kids relate to other subjects, Bang has developed English and math textbooks using gaming terms. But he has also tried to bring discipline into gaming, with students asked to record when they go to bed and when they get up, and plan out a timetable for game practice every day.
“Students used to react angrily when we told them to turn off their game at the end of each session,” he said. “But with counseling and guidance, students gradually learned to control the duration of their game time.”
The school’s “League of Legends” team came in second at the World eSports Challenge, an international amateur competition held just outside Seoul in May, winning 3 million won ($2,500) in prize money.
South Korea is the birthplace of organized esports, but today, multiplayer-game competitions command global viewerships in the millions.
Esports programs have now been established at high schools across the United States, and more than 30 U.S. colleges and universities now offer scholarships for top players. Becker College in central Massachusetts began offering a bachelor of science degree in esports management in 2018. Ohio State University and Virginia’s Shenandoah University will offer degrees in esports and game design this year.
Chunnam Techno University, about 200 miles south of Seoul, began its two-year esports course in 2007.
University President Lee Eun-cheol acknowledges he was skeptical at first, worried that the course would just produce more students obsessed with gaming. But now he’s proud of a program that has produced many professional gamers, as well as people who have gone on to careers in game reporting, broadcasting or coaching.
“The concept of esports has completely changed,” he said. “It used to be thought of as a juvenile delinquent activity, but now it is a sport that is being considered for the Olympics. There are now so many opportunities surrounding this field.”
In the classroom, Lee Yu-chan teaches game strategies and psychology, as well as the ethics of being a responsible team member and an honest gamer. Students, whose life experience has been mainly confined to a computer screen and a fantasy world, also learn how to cope with the responsibility that comes with being a public figure and how to handle media interviews if they one day go professional.
Students’ homework assignments might be to watch recordings of games and write up an analysis of what went right and wrong.
Kwon Young-joon, 20, says he would not have continued his studies if it wasn’t for this course. His parents, he said, are just happy he had found something that he wanted to study, and they were proud when his team took part in an exhibition game in Sweden in June in front of President Moon Jae-in.
At Ahyeon Polytechnic, 17-year-old Lee Seung-hoon laments a prejudiced view of gamers as people who are not good at anything else.
“I could seek a different path if I chose to,” he said. “People don’t say that about students who follow other paths, so why only make such negative assumptions about aspiring pro gamers? We are just students who seek to make a career out of what we genuinely like to do.”
Becoming a professional gamer takes discipline, concentration, practice and dedication, students say. Gaming should be accepted as part of culture, a profession and a sport, not seen as an addiction.
“People don’t call tennis players tennis addicts, or soccer players soccer addicts. People call them athletes,” said 17-year-old Hong Seung-hyeok.
Hong says his father once threw his computer out the window of their third-floor apartment years ago in frustration with how much time he spent playing video games.
But like many students here, he says his dad has now come around. “Now I am in this school, he actually takes an interest in me playing games, and asks how I am doing in competitions.”