Speaking at Keio — Professionalism

Meeting with researchers is fun. Part because I used to be one of them and did professional research for living and part because my very nature is someone who likes to speculate — it’s all about sound, plausible speculation, right?

So in that sense, visiting the Keio Taiiku Conference@Keio Hiyoshi Campus was fun. My talk was part of a luncheon session organized by Kato-sensei whom I’ve been working since last fall for the grad-level esports course that we provide at Keio (it’s continuing as an undergrad-level for this fall semester by the way). Another guest speaker was Kawasaki-san from Playcare, an Bandai-Namco spinoff based in Kanagawa that does wide variety of activities in the area of healthcare (they own a nursing home) and entertainment (such as games). The three of us already had given a joint seminar together at another event called Sportec in July, kudos to Kawasaki-san’s invitation, and Kawasaki-san and Kato-sensei has been part of the KPMG esports curriculum initiative — clearly we are holding each other’s back but in a positive and productive way.

I was told that the conference itself is probably the oldest and the largest sports conference in Japan and as Kato-sensei says, hosting an esports session is the very first time in this conference history. The venue was packed with about 200 people.

Interestingly, Kato-sensei also invited a few professional esports players in the session. There was FIFA (a popular soccer game by EA sports) put on large screen during the session and anybody could join to play against the professionals (and instantly belittled by their play…). All in all I’d say it was an unprecedented session and turned out to be a great success.

One thing on hindsight though. The professional players were briefly interviewed during the session with the question “what kind of training do you go through to become a pro player?”. Now considering that these guys are what, maybe a college kid or younger and haven’t had much media, public speech experience in their life yet, maybe we need to understand the situation better. But the first guy said right off the bat, “I don’t train much because I do it as entertainment”.

Now this may be true and I’m not saying he should lie for something he does not do. What I am saying is more about the delivery of the contents, so called “sounding professional”. It was by no means an interview by a “professional”, as I perceived, and I think we can do better. This is important because these so called pro athletes set the bar for social perception, such as parents and potential stakeholders like a corporate sponsor. Such thing matters for the general public, especially for a country like Japan that is suffering through the negative connotation of “gaming”.

Well, gotta keep trying.

Speaking at Waseda — For the belated first time gamers

At a panel discussion at Waseda some months ago, I was once asked “For a middle age and above who has never had much experience in playing games, what would be the best way to have the first esports experience?”. And to be very honest, I never thought of that before. I think I babbled something that day that I do not recall in detail and pretty sure the questioner was probably not very happy about the answer. Let me try to think more carefully and articulate it down here.

I’d say the nicest way to have the first experience is through your family members and here I am talking about their children or grandchildren or cousins or that sort. The point is, it’s hard to know where to begin with, even if you use computers on a daily basis at work for instance, and to navigate around the gaming screen until you are able to reach the start of the game. Trust me in recent PC games there is a lot of buttons and animations that you need to go through before you can actually reach to “play” the game.

Not only that, you wouldn’t know the rules of the game at all. Yes, recent games there are good in-game tutorials that anybody can follow, but having an experienced person near by and giving live feedbacks and instructions do change the first time gaming experience, and perhaps more chances of engaging the game longer.

And if that person happens to be your family member (say your grand son), imagine the kind of bond that the two would share. You may have been the authoritative figure in your household, always trying to teach your children and below — in the gaming world, it’s the opposite. You are a complete new-by while your grand son is your Master Yoda. An old family relationship in a completely new dimension. How exciting is that!

Speaking of which, there is an esports team in Sweden called “the Silver Snipers” with the team member’s average age being 60+ (or even more). Each had their own motivation to start out the new gaming adventure, I read in an article, and I remember one of them being “to have closer relationship with my grand children”. This is the beauty of esports — Closing the loop.

[P3a] Casters and commentators are to yell

When you watch a professional sports match on TV, it will be odd not to have any casters and commentators busily interpreting the game. Not only odd, but it will be less entertaining to watch as these folks give us a great amount of background information regarding the match, the team, the athletes, the history, and whatsoever. It is not hard to find some former-pro athlete commentators who can talk about the mentality behind the athletes when they make certain decisions and movements that normally a caster would not know. (And they are all freakin opinionated for some reason.)

Now, exactly the same thing applies to the esports scene. I remember the day when I first saw OGN (back then it was called OnGameNet), a cable television channel dedicated to esports broadcasting, in 1999. Whoever thought about it, even the very first Starcraft league being broadcasted had the same caster-commentators configuration as a normal sports broadcasting would do. And come to think of it, the caster and commentators that day were doing a job that it didn’t exist before, on live. Now how cool is that?

Online streaming service like Twitch has the same configuration for tournament broadcasting. The Tekken World Final event held in Amsterdam that I happened to visit last year was sponsored by Twitch and I remember there were not three, but four Twitch caster and commentators busily speaking at a 1:1 Tekken match that usually last only for a few minutes. Check out this video below that I took last year.

I think the beauty of watching through the caster-commentator setup is the emotion that they build as the game progresses. Like for example, there are certain points during the game when the commentator suddenly burst shouting as if he cannot believe what is happening in front of his eyes. For Starcraft (apologize for my reference always being the same, but I’m trying to be consistent here guys), that could be a hidden photon canon rush or a hidden hatchery build right behind the opponent base in the blind spot or producing a group of carriers in the midst of a fierce and busy battle field that the observer even missed to spot. I can go on for on and on..

Of course, there were “star” casters and commentators too and these guys really paved the way of how esports should be perceived. I have a lot of respect for these guys and I will get back to introduce some of them later on.

KOCCA Seminar on 5G and esports

Some latest news in the scene.

KOCCA Japan has organized another seminar event on a hot topic in the industry (5G!) and I had to pay a visit to check out. Bottom line: there was a lot to learn.

Three guest speakers from Korea: 1. The producer of 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony, 2. The VP of PUBG, and 3., a representative of Samsung electric’s Mobile Communication Business.

The main purpose of my visit was No. 2 — To know more about PUBG’s business and their take on esports. Now PUBG being one of the most played game in history and fastest growth (they have 7 Guinness records), they were being pretty aggressive on their esports strategy I’d say. Three main focus area were

  1. Unifying the tournament event rules – the rules used to differ depending on the region
  2. Real time API adoption – Pro athlete’s game data can now be used in live broadcasting
  3. Team-branded in-gaming item sales

They are preparing to launch some kind of platform that I wasn’t sure if they explained fully. Given the many users and teams already out there in the world, the esports growth looked very promising. They just had a very successful tournament event in Berlin with a local government support as well this year.

5G’s core capability boiled down to what the Samsung representative has summarized:

  1. Enhanced mobility broadband (faster connection)
  2. Ultra reliable & low latency communication (no disconnection)
  3. Massive machine type communication (all devices connected)

Given the cross-platform games and the upcoming cloud game platform release by Google, the hardware will no longer be an obstacle to users and for game makers they will need to focus on the software contents instead of hardware & software pair. The disruption in the gaming scene by such a “cloud transformation” seems very promising and 5G seems like the right catalyst to enable it.

Now would this be a strong signal for the Japanese gaming industry to change? Let’s see..

[S4] How to win a semi-pro player on a team play

Back in Hyundai era, we had a semi-professional Starcraft player in our team. He was too good. Nobody could match him 1-on-1 (not even close) and the game usually ends no longer than 20 min. There were always more units produced, his unit control fooled us to believe that it’s actually alive, and he understood the flow and the timing of his opponent. He was just invincible.

Now back to the corporate tournament story. In a real competition that happened every twice a year, despite his super performance our team never made it to the top. Never. I found that quite peculiar.

So I watched the next tournament event carefully and this is what happened. As the guy was pretty famous, every opponent team knew that leaving this guy alive until the end of the game would cost them a victory. Remember that the game was 3-on-3. All three players of the opponent team would always take the “fast unit production” tech-tree that aims for short-term battle, instead of “resource first” tech-tree which is usually for mid to long-term but large scale battle, and they will gather up their units (three times more than a single player can produce), then attack the semi-pro guy.

The guy may be invincible on 1-on-1, but for triple the size of his usual single opponent, there is no way that he can survive the joint assault. Now for sports like soccer or basketball, you may be able to mark a star player with multiple players (say, trying to block Lionel Messi with three defenders) that would create an open space or open players to their advantage. In the gaming world, like Starcraft, once your base is eliminated, you are out of the game — your team would continue the battle short handed (2-on-3), which is a huge disadvantage.

Now of course there are tactics to counter the joint assault, but unfortunately our team wasn’t the most strategic team in Hyundai..

Lesson? A team is stronger than a super player.

[I0] Why I think there is a market for an esports book

— Executive summary —

External factors

  1. Curiosity by the analog generation
  2. No English books that highlight the Asian esports history with the right narrative

Internal factors

  1. I got personal, unique, yet relatable stories all happened in South Korea during the esports birth period
  2. I currently do esports advisory for living based in Japan, a mystical esports territory where even the esports community has unheard of, but with one of the biggest gaming markets in the world

———-

After all the fuss, I believe there is a general curiosity on esports from the “analog” generation, i.e., folks who have their feet deeply grounded on the pre-digital (or pre-web) era, demographically perhaps around their 40s and above. These are the people who may have a vague image of what esports is (“playing games, right?”) but they don’t really understand the hype. And this is not just a country specific phenomenon I believe. Depending on the country that they belong to, the generation that I am targeting may not have a solid gaming experience at all during their childhood while they may face their children or grand children being fanatic about some esports team — but they don’t really understand why.

Esports may have a very Western cultural image on the surface, but if you look into the history, it is extremely Asian. There are people who are curious to know more about the esports history, but how many books do we have it out there? While it is a huge market in North America and Europe now, it’s a sports that has an origin in Asia. The history is not as far as the ancient Olympians, rather only about two decades ago, and the people that I am targeting, i.e., the analog generation, has a genuine curiosity towards the story behind how it is originated or the history, I believe. And I think the curiosity is strong over in the Western world regarding this digital culture originated from an oriental origin.

If I were to write a book about “my Premiere League experience as a fanboy during the 90s” I don’t think people will buy because 1. most of the people know what professional soccer leagues are (the very target is nothing new), 2. they may already have their own precious experience (relatable but why bother knowing the other experience?) and 3. there may already be many similar books in the market (why yours?). If it were to sell, the narratives better be extremely entertaining and supported by great marketing to stand out. All in all, I think it’s a hard topic to be stood out unique in the market.

However for esports, 1. Most of the people don’t understand what esports is, 2. Because most of the people don’t have any experience with esports as it’s only been two decades since it was born in Asia, and 3. There is no English book in the market that highlights the very beginning of the esports history.

I love this book “Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain — The narrative is too entertaining that you can’t stop engaging (especially if you have seen his TV shows, reading his book feels like he is telling a verbal story right next to you), and at the end of the day you feel like you know something about the chef world and you may even feel that you are already a part of it, despite the fact that you have never entered the kitchen at a restaurant. That’s how I felt it — although the only cooking I do is ramen noodles.

If I ever to write a book, my very hope is that it becomes the esports version of the Kitchen Confidential.

LoL beginner..

Having been off the loop for years from playing any games, my esports experience as a player pretty much stopped from the Starcraft era. But having friends around, I do aware of the recent ones (e.g., the League of Legends, DotA2, PUBG, Fortnite, and etc.) and lately was curious to try out the League of Legends.

To be honest, I was quite confident to try out LoL (knowing the rules of RTS in general and MOBA being one of type of RTS). But…

Put it simply, this game is deep. There is so much to learn. The game itself is closer to Diablo team play rather than Starcraft as you choose your own single character (called champion) to control, level up your character to gain more skills, and buy items with the gold you gained by killing the opponent champions or minions. With the combination of leveling up and strong items, your champion gets stronger as the game progresses and so are your opponents.

If starcraft was about strategy, tactics and multi-tasking management (as you need to manage 100+ units in real-time in the virtual galactic battle field), for LoL I didn’t find much component on multi-tasking management as you are to manage your one single champion. But there was a different dimension. As the game is for 5-vs-5, team strategy and tactics were the key to winning the game. This means your team needs to have clear role & responsibility (we called R&R back in Hyundai), quick on-demand coordination as the opponent team changes their tactics (thus the in-game voice chat function to facilitate that), back up team tactics as unforeseen situations come up, at the very least.

At work, luckily I found a good handful of colleagues who were interested in trying LoL and kind enough to join together. We gather up at the PC bangs in Shin-Okubo once every other week or so, play a good three-hour LoL (while slurping cup ramen noodles, of course). When we are very lucky, we have a special guest, i.e., someone at work who has been playing LoL for years (there is always someone, trust me), and that’s when we really learn the nooks and crannies of the games.

[S3] Esports in Korean corporate culture

After about two decades since the advent of Starcraft boom in the late 90s, competitive gaming has gradually become a part of Korean culture. The teenagers and college kids who used to enjoy playing games back then now has become the central part of the Korean society, in their mid-career with some decision making power to move the organization that they belong to. This creates new culture within the organization and the meme continues.

My first real job was at an automotive manufacturer in Korea. As one of the many senior research engineers at Hyundai Motors R&D Center, where we had 10,000+ engineers onsite, I felt that there was this certain code of “crowd action” that I needed to be aware of. One of them was how to spend your time during lunch break. Lunch itself was finished real quick — People “hoovered” their lunch as soon as they sat down (I won’t call that “eating” or “chewing”), trying to save as much time as possible for their leisure within their precious, but limited lunch time. Some people worked out at the gym, some people practiced golf, some played table tennis, some watched TV dramas, and etc.

But some people played games. There was always about 5~8 people in our team who were up for a round of Starcraft. Luckily, the internal network was solid and for some reason everybody had the software installed in their corporate laptop, so arranging a match was a piece a cake. Two short matches or one long match, then the time is up. Back to work.

This continued on a daily basis and shortly after, I learned that this was actually not a simple leisure spending, but a practice/training session for a legit competition. About twice a year, the center that I belonged (around 1,000 people) to held annual sports tournament competition for promoting inter-team communication and building healthy community within the center. It’s a team match — you join the tournament by representing your team and there was a handsome prize money for the top 3 teams. It didn’t mean that the organizer will hand out cash to the champions for their personal use, but rather to upgrade the menu of the drinking get-together (i.e., from Samgyopsal to beef bbq or sea food) that usually followed after the fierce match. Obviously, some people take the tournament seriously and it was a pretty big deal for the team leaders to win and shine.

Now, the punchline I’m trying to make is the following. The tournament was comprised of several different sports, namely basketball, soccer-tennis (aka Jok-gu in Korean, the most popular sports in Korean military base), table tennis and.. Starcraft, of course! Starcraft was already a part of the official “sports” competition of one of the leading Korean conglomerates culture.

I had a bit of a culture shock because I was living in the U.S. for years right before relocating to Korea after accepting the job position at Hyundai. What was really astonishing was that even the team leaders, in their late 40s or early 50s who seem to be the most distant people to play computer games on Earth, also played good Starcraft. They memorized the short-keys and the tech-tree build orders by heart.

This is what happens after two decades, yo.

[P1b] Female league and the star

During the hottest era of Starcraft pro league, where male-only league was the only dominating tournament you might think, there was a female-only pro league as well at the time. Truth to be told, it wasn’t as hot as the other male-only tournaments but there were solid number of people following the league. Just like there were the star players in the male-only league, there were star players in the female-only league. I still remember two notable players that had relatively longer career than the other players back then.

Seo Ji-Soo, aka ToSsGirL, is a Terran user (a rare Terran user, for christ’s sake!) who was particularly attracting much attention in the scene. She was good. I mean, really good. In my memory, she was always winning the championship title if not 2nd place.

Recently I’ve met a Korean esports coach at a professional team in Japan whom used to play matches with Tossgirl, and his awe towards her was mesmerizing. She’s the only female player that could equally play against a male professional, he said. I hope it doesn’t sound discriminating, but male vs. female Starcraft matches were more or less like male vs. female soccer or basketball matches for some reason.

Now it wasn’t only about her performance. She was pretty. Very. She had the look closer to a TV celebrity rather than just a professional game athlete. If you were an avid male gamer, it was hard to resist NOT to become her fanboy just by watching her game play; but even if you weren’t a gamer, it was difficult to resist not to be attracted by her look. It’s extremely extremely hard to earn both, and she made the difference in the female-only league.

I remember there was another player called Kim Ka Eul, who was very good as well. She had an engineer background, which was pretty rare I would say back then in Korea, and her play was smart. I think her career as a professional athlete was pretty successful, yet her real success came after her athlete career, which I will get to it later. Tossgirl had a different path, creating her own success as well. I will get to it.

[S2] Esports military

You know how Korean male needs to serve in the army, and it’s mandatory for all male unless you have a serious, chronical medical issue. Kudos to North Korean dictatorship administration, Korean male needs to spend 2 years (which is shortened a bit nowadays) completely shut from modern civilization during their best, energetic time of their lives (normally from 19 to 25 unless you have a solid reason to postpone).

Despite the honor of protecting your country, the truth is, (most) everyone hates it. It’s not hard to find a Korean male speaking of his military time in a subtle condescending tone with a bit of cynicism too when speaking to a fellow military goer. It is such a big deal when the public finds out about a hot celebrity or a famous political figure has not served the army (especially for a fishy reason), and the targeted public wrath is sometime just too overwhelming. Having learned the lessons, the idol celebrity producers and labels nowadays make sure to put their precious members on hiatus when it’s time to go serve the military, no matter how famous they are — We have seen all the Big Bang members going in like G.Dragon and Top. Putting patriotism aside for now, just imagine the great loss of economic value and the cost of being off the scene for two years and trying to come back in shape once the duty is served..

Perhaps not as famous as Big Bang and not the kind of stardom that they have built, but the esports star players has the same fate as any other Korean male citizens. As we know, the competitive gaming scene is extremely competitive — they may debut in early age like early 10s but they also retire early compared to other industry, mid to late 20s are usually the considered retirement age for Starcraft. Yes, it sounds closer to a professional figure skate scene. So 2 years in a military for a esports professional player is more or less of a death sentence to his career.

So what happened? As the title implies, the Korean government established a “special force” just for these esports professionals!

More detail to follow later.