South Korea has been referred to as the “Mecca of eSports” for almost as long as the word “eSports” has existed. The best players in the world have resided there for over a decade. For a long time, the top money in eSports was always earned in Seoul. Not anymore.
In recent years, larger purses have often been found in the Western world. Korean players, who won every single premiere StarCraft tournament this year, regularly find themselves eyeing American and European teams and tournaments where they know the money can be greater.
“Usually Koreans think we're made of gold the first time they ever contact a foreign team and wants to aim high with a salary at first,” said Wictor Hasselmark, the StarCraft manager for the German Mousesports team. “But with some ease and chit chat they realize that foreign teams aren't forging golden mousesports statues in Berlin.”
But it doesn’t take golden statues for Western teams to look appealing. Many StarCraft 2 professionals in Korea don’t even receive salaries, only room and board in team houses in which they live, day in and day out, running through the storied Korean practice regiment. Whether that leads to their own success or failure is another question entirely.
The e-Sports Federation (eSF), one of two rival unions of professional StarCraft teams in Korea, doesn’t pay salary to full-time players. To sure up their squads, the eSF aims to sign players to long-term contracts so they don’t get poached by foreign teams or the Korean eSports Players Association (KeSPA), a rival group of eSports teams that boasts greater financial backing.
Some new players “merely enjoyed living in a team house,” without salary, Hasselmark said. “Then the foreign teams came. Then KeSPA switched” to StarCraft 2.
The oft-overshadowed lack of players’ salary is not unique to Korea. Even top-tier Western teams have had agreements with well-known players that offer little more than housing, food, and travel.
On the other hand, Korean players know, premiere foreign teams can pay their top players. That’s what makes them so attractive.
Jang "MC" Min Chul, one of the great StarCraft 2 players of all time, earns about €36,000 per year in salary from the German team Schroet Kommando, sources say, plus the $37,200 he’s won in tournaments this year. Even as his star power has fallen compared to where it was two years ago, Jang is still paid to travel around the world, greeted by his adoring fanbase wherever he goes. And, more than that, he likes the team he’s on.
“He was offered more from other teams,” said Alex Müller, the team’s owner. “Even more Western than we are, but he declined as he wanted to stay with SK.”
MC and Lee Jae Dong on the American Evil Genius squad are, ultimately, exceptions. Most Korean players cannot command a comparable salary, despite the fact that many have asked for it. Over the years, countless high expectations have been dashed when Koreans have flirted with foreign teams only to be met with offers of maybe a few hundred dollars per month.
But still, when talented, marketable Koreans enter free agency, the West often enters the conversation. Baek "Dear" Dong Jun, a Protoss player who took home $63,764 in prize money this after he won two World Championship Series tournaments, began looking for a new team three months ago. The West loomed large.
The fall of STX SouL
STX Corporation is one of the biggest shipping companies in the world. When they filed a $1 billion bankruptcy claim in June 2013, it was no surprise when none of the global media reports wondered how the news impacted the company’s nearly decade-old eSports squad.
But while the world was focused on how Korea’s economy would react, some of the best StarCraft 2 players in the world wondered what was next in their career.
STX had sponsored a professional South Korean StarCraft team called STX SouL since 2004. During its lifetime, the franchise had been bad on occasion, good often, and rarely great until recently. What it lacked in consistent StarCraft success, it made up for in steady financial backing from STX. Even as the company struggled financially, they are said to have supported the team. The sponsorship finally ended on Aug. 31, 2013.
Then the team began to break apart. Lee "INnoVation" Shin Hyung, the best player in the world as the bankruptcy hit, joined Team Acer, sponsored by the Taiwanese electronics giant. Other players and coaches left as well, enlisting in the military or joining other Korean teams.
Baek "Dear" Dong Jun was the rookie of the year in 2013, quickly becoming a top player. Next to Lee, Baek had made the STX SouL squad one of the most talented in the world.
Mousesports, a German eSports squad that until recently had only sported European players who boasted few wins of note in 2013, was looking for a winner. No one seems to win in StarCraft 2 anymore unless they are Korean, so their path led them right to Seoul.
“Dear was our first choice on the list,” said Hasselmark, Mousesports’ StarCraft manager. “If we wanted to join the wolfpack of Western teams with Korean legends, we wanted to grab the best. And he was very thrilled to negotiate and join us.”
So thrilled, in fact, that negotiations started 10 days ago from a late night cell phone call and took less than a week to complete.
Negotiations with Koreans often begin at a “very high” price. However, the Germans took great care to temper Dear's expectations and talk the price down from the get go. It’s unclear what Dear’s payday is but the speed with which he accepted their offer suggests it’s a marked improvement over what he might have received in Korea.
It “felt like it took a heartbeat to accomplish,” said Hasselmark, who spearheaded the signing, as he has all of Mousesports’ biggest acquisitions.
In the background, the process of expanding to Korea took longer. Mousesports has wanted to expand from its European base and reach out to Korea for months. Markus Kemper, the team's StarCraft II Head Coordinator, recently requested the funds to do so from Cengiz Tüylü, the team’s CEO. Tüylü and his lieutenants went to negotiate with their sponsors, a cadre of big tech companies including BenQ, GeIL, XMG, Razer, and Thortech. Once the necessary funds were secured, the team pounced.
Dear is signed for an undisclosed salary and Hasselmark describes as “very good conditions.” Mousesports is going to pay to send him to as many major tournaments as possible in 2014 to compete with players like Lee Jae Dong and Yun "TaeJa" Young Seo, fellow Korean talents who jumped to foreign teams and now reign as some of the biggest, richest StarCraft 2 stars on the planet.
Most of the specifics of the contract, such as whether or not Mousesports will take a percentage of Dear’s tournament winnings, are unavailable to the public. Many teams do just that.
A big part of the success of stars like Jaedong and Taeja are the unparalleled marketing machines that teams like Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid bring to bear. With Dear, Mousesports will follow in their footprints. As the architect of the Germans’ publicity strategy, Hasselmark says Dear will be learning English in an effort to better market himself to Americans and Europeans.
It’s nearly impossible to overstate how important it is for a modern StarCraft player to have appeal to Western audiences. American and European stars like Johan “Naniwa” Lucchesi are considerably worse at StarCraft than their top Korea counterparts but get paid more because hundreds of thousands of fans love them, root for them, and watch them regardless of their inferiority.
That is what pays StarCraft salaries and many of the Koreans know it, so you can bet that Dear will put in quite an effort in those English classes. He wants to speak directly to a whole world of potential new fans.
Image via Kevin Chang for Team Liquid