Now that the Overwatch League has gotten rolling it has become the latest stage for the eternal question in esports. Can the West beat, or even compete with Korea?
This question quickly becomes obvious for new esports fans immediately upon examining this season’s teams. Three of the league’s twelve teams (Seoul, London and New York) are comprised entirely of South Korean players, and all three have started the season with perfect 4-0 records. The only other roster made entirely of a single nationality is the all-Chinese Shanghai Dragons, simultaneously making them one of only three teams to not have a single Korean player. Going winless in their first four series, the contrast couldn’t be more apparent.
What makes Korea so good?
Only a few esports have become true cultural phenomena within South Korea and traditionally, they have completely dominated these titles. The reasons why Korea has done so well have been a constant source of discussion in esports.
Frustratingly, it can’t be narrowed down to a single factor but rather is likely a combination of many. The two most commonly cited are various aspects of their culture, such as the social nature of PC Bangs, and the longstanding professional infrastructure built around competitive gaming.
Korea has had gaming houses, coaching staffs and the rest of what modern esports fans would recognize as an esports team, for over a decade now. While in the West esports is finally being treated with the same attention to detail and professionalism that major sports receive, that has long been the case in Korea. The coaching, support staff and structure have been clear advantages Korea has had over the west in esports since its inception.
Whatever the exact reasons for this success, it it has been undeniable that once the Korean esports machine gets behind a title, they become the best. This can best be illustrated through Starcraft Brood War, another Blizzard title, and League of Legends. South Korea fell in love with both as esports and, despite the two being in very different genres, produced a staggering amount of the best players in both of these games.
To illustrate just how dominant Korea has been in these titles, the last three League of Legends World Championships featured all Korean finals and you have to go back to Season 2 (2012) to get a non-Korean World Champion. That final is still considered one of the greatest upsets in esports history as the Taipei Assassins defeated Azubu Frost, a Korean team.
This makes Season 1, League’s inaugural 2011 competitive season, the only season in which there was not a Korean team in the World Finals. Considering there wasn’t even a Korean server at that point in time, this fact is hardly surprising. However since they became fully involved with the game they have been the undisputed kings.
Korea’s Starcraft history is even more impressive. The game is largely responsible for the cultural phenomena esports became within South Korea, and that passion translated directly into success.
Their throne was never once in question. When looking back at the 15 most dominant players in all of Broodwar’s history, 100% of them were South Koreans. Starcraft II saw the west fare no better, with the entire top 20 all time rankings being populated by South Koreans.
Now it seems it’s Overwatch’s turn. With the game being as popular as League of Legends within the country, if not more so, it’s not unreasonable to expect the competitive histories of the two titles to take a similar trajectory. South Korea has won both World Cups so far and the APEX tournament in Korea has been considered the pinnacle of the competitive scene since its inception.
All hope is not lost for the west however as a few things seem different this time around. For starters, a western team was actually able to go to Korea and win a major tournament there. The feat was accomplished by Team EnVyUs, The Dallas Fuel roster now competing in the Overwatch League, and was the first such victory by any Westerner in Korea at an event of that magnitude.
Although Korea has become stronger since then, the gap in skill is nowhere near as large as it already was during League of Legends’ second season. Western teams including the Los Angeles Valiant and Dallas Fuel have already demonstrated the ability to contend with some of these all Korean rosters this season, although they weren’t able to emerge victorious.
This leaves us wondering what the West can do to remain competitive. The Overwatch League itself is actually a large step in facilitating the west’s ability to contend with Korea. As the best players and teams from Korea get pulled into the OWL they will compete with Western players on a regular basis, helping elevate Western play.
Furthermore the professionalism with which the OWL teams are being run means Western teams will finally have supporting staffs and infrastructure setups that can properly rival those found in South Korea. This will take time, as these roles will need to be filled with knowledgeable and experienced people that the West has not yet had time to develop, but at least the process is beginning.
While it seems like the West is already far behind, this may surprisingly be closer than they’ve been at any point in esports history. With the entire supporting structure the Overwatch League provides, Western players have all the resources they could need to compete with Korea for international supremacy. It won’t be easy, but the Western players competing in the Overwatch League now have an opportunity that has been allotted to few others throughout the history of esports and en entire hemisphere hoping they can seize it.