eSports will debut as a medal event at the Asian Games

Seoul (AFP) - K-pop powerhouse BTS didn’t get one, star footballer Son Heung-min did: South Korea grants limited exemptions from military service and for the first time eSports players can earn one.

For South Korean men, winning gold in any sport at the Asian Games opening on Saturday in Hangzhou comes with an automatic exemption from 18 months in the army.

This year eSports is a medal event for the first time, meaning South Korea’s top players including team captain Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok have double the incentive.

South Korea will be among the favourites to win gold in the eSports events

Typically granted to elite athletes or classical musicians on the basis of promoting national prestige, the exemptions are highly sought after.

Fewer than 100 exemptions for “arts and sports” were handed out last year, official statistics show.

They are also controversial.

South Korean skipper and Spurs striker Son avoided full military service after the national football team won gold at the 2018 Asian Games.

But despite generating billions for the economy and helping propel K-pop to a global audience, megastars BTS were not deemed eligible.

Two members, Jin and J-Hope, are currently serving in the military and another, SUGA, was due to enlist on Friday, according to their agency HYBE.

South Korea's gamers are in line to avoid military service -- if they win gold

When the country was mulling military exemptions for K-pop stars, specifically so that BTS’ progress would not be interrupted, about 33 percent of the public opposed the idea, according to a 2022 Gallup survey.

- ‘Birthplace of eSports’ -

With eSports debuting as an Asian Games medal event and South Korea a powerhouse, the debate has roared back to the fore.

National team coach Kim Jeong-gyun brushed away questions on it, saying “a sense of duty” of representing South Korea will be the only motivation for the players.

But experts say military service exemptions are a “very important issue” for the young athletes.

“Currently, all professional eSports players are male who begin playing in their late teens,” Choi Eun-kyoung, a professor at Hanshin University, told AFP.

“The benefit of exemptions from military service is important because it can be another huge motivation booster for players apart from the pride of representing their country.”

ESports will be contested at the Games in EA Sports FC, PUBG Mobile, Arena of Valor, Dota 2, League of Legends, Dream Three Kingdoms 2 and Street Fighter V.

South Korea is often recognised as the country where eSports, or professional gaming, started.

Easy access to high-speed Internet and the emergence of “PC bangs” – Internet cafes – in the 1990s fostered a social gaming culture among South Korean youths that quickly grew to a massive global community of gamers.

“If Athens is the birthplace of the Olympics, the birthplace of eSports is Seoul,” said Kang Do-kyung, a professional gamer-turned-professor at Shingu College.

The Seoul government and the country’s eSports body poured in resources to make sure the 15 players on the national team are in tip-top condition for the Games.

In the build-up Seoul provided a training centre which included physiotherapy and counselling.

The Korea e-Sports Association reserved five-star hotel rooms near the Games venue where they will serve Korean meals to ensure the players feel at home.

- Opposition -

ESports was a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games, when South Korea’s League of Legends team lost to China in the final.

Revenge will be on their mind, but the team declined to say if avoiding military service was too.

“Five years ago we had to settle for a silver medal, but this time we have strong players and there are many people who support us,” Faker said.

“I will work hard with the belief that we will definitely win,” he added.

If they do win gold, and with it an exemption, it is likely to trigger the whole debate all over again.

The general public will likely feel about eSports exemptions like they did BTS potentially getting one – broadly opposed, reporter Kim Geon-ho wrote in the Segye Ilbo newspaper.

Even though he had one, Son still had to do three weeks training in the military, which is standard even for those given the right to opt out of full service.

“It was a good experience,” he told Spurs TV.

“The three weeks were tough but I tried to enjoy it.”