Gym and nutritionists: Inside South Korea’s T1 eSports empire

SEOUL (AFP) – A Nike-sponsored gym, support staff including nutritionists and English language classes are all part of the set-up at T1, one of the world’s top eSports organisations, where around 70 gamers are looking to emulate its highest-profile member, League of Legends giant Faker.

Explosive growth has turned competitive video gaming into an increasingly professional sport, with a youthful, ever-growing fan base that appeals to sponsors and advertisers.

Players – mostly in their 20s or even teenagers – can attract a global following to rival stars in traditional sports, with the best making millions of dollars in salaries and prize money.

South Korea is a leading power in eSports and in a brand new, 10-storey building in Seoul’s expensive Gangnam district, dozens of T1’s professional and budding gamers train, following a routine similar to mainstream sports.

“We have a gym, a cafeteria, chefs… everything that these young players need to perform their best,” said John Kim, the organisation’s chief operating officer.

The routine is intense: around 10 hours a day with coaches and trainers, strategising and polishing their skills for the next match.

The 10-storey T1 building, one of the world’s top eSports organisations where dozens of professional and budding gamers train. PHOTO: AFP

Promotional photos show the team in uniform, half of them in glasses and most with identical pudding-basin haircuts.

It is a far cry from when Choi Ellim, who was promoted in 2019 to a spot alongside star player Lee ‘Faker’ Sang-hyeok on T1’s top roster, played video games at home for fun.

“When I was playing games as a hobby, I could eat when I was hungry and sleep when I was sleepy but now we are on a set schedule,” he said.

They are also required to fulfil monthly minimum hours interacting with their millennial and Generation Z fans through social media and streaming platforms such as Twitch and YouTube.

It has proved a successful model: T1 are three-times League of Legends world champions, and according to esportsearnings.com are the world number one for overall prize money, with around USD7.1 million.

T1 was founded by South Korean telecommunications giant SK Telecom in 2004, which combined it two years ago in an international joint venture with Comcast Spectacor – a subsidiary of the United States (US) entertainment giant Comcast, which also owns the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team.

Last month SK Telecom sold off its professional South Korean baseball team, the Incheon-based Wyverns, for USD122 million, saying it would increase investment in “futuristic sports”.

The eSports audience is one of the fastest-growing in professional sports: in a 2018 report, investment bank Goldman Sachs said it was already larger than that of Major League Baseball.

More than 100 million fans tuned into the 2019 League of Legends World Championships online.

“We believe eSports are as much of a sport as any other, and one that at the highest levels requires intense training and focus,” the Goldman Sachs report said.