Attendees play Activision Blizzard Inc.’s Overwatch computer game at the AOC Open e-Sports event in Tokyo, Japan. (Photographer: Akio Kon/Bloomberg)

Have You Considered Majoring in ‘Overwatch’?

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- It’s a scene unfolding at thousands of “cram schools” across South Korea: A dozen kids huddle in a fluorescent-lit classroom, staring mutely as an instructor drones on. Except at these particular academies, luminous displays and tricked-out headphones stand in for textbooks and highlighters. Also, the teacher is a millennial hipster who imparts wisdom such as “Don’t expect to pass under this bridge without a fight.” Shouts and high-fives erupt sporadically.

That’s because these teens aren’t cramming for college—they’re gunning to become esports champions. Professional video gaming began in South Korea more than a decade ago, giving rise to leagues that now pack stadiums and draw hundreds of thousands of eyeballs to Twitch livestreams for tournaments. With esports maturing into a $13 billion global concern in which heavyweights from Activision Blizzard Inc. to Amazon.com Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd. are setting up leagues and securing streaming rights, kids as young as 12 are enrolling at academies popping up around Seoul. These schools exist for one purpose: grooming virtual death dealers for the rigors of esports’ noon-to-2 a.m. grind.

Choi Min-ji, a bespectacled 16-year-old, commutes for more than an hour and forks over 500,000 won ($440) a month to attend three-hour-long weekly sessions at GameCoach Academy, a slick outfit in a run-down industrial district. K-pop blares 24/7, and the hallways are emblazoned with glossy championship certificates. GameCoach specializes in three of the most popular esports games: Overwatch, League of Legends, and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (for all its success abroad, Fortnite hasn’t captivated the Korean pro circuit). Choi, one of the school’s 120 aspiring pros, considers himself lucky. “Times change, and I think dreams change too,” he says, ­fidgeting. “I’ve always liked games, and I might as well be successful in my life by playing games. It’s something my parents now agree on.”

Many of the world’s top players hail from ­gaming-mad South Korea, in turn boosting homegrown companies such as Netmarble Corp., which last year pulled off the nation’s biggest initial public offering since 2010, and Kakao Corp., a unit of which will soon go public. At least three ESPN-style channels air StarCraft and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds matches around-the-clock, and pros are mobbed by autograph seekers at gaming festivals. Legends such as Lim Yo-hwan, a former StarCraft champion, earn hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Professional gaming wannabes in any country can take video-based courses online for as little as $50 a pop, but South Korea’s brick-and-mortar academies promise unparalleled face-to-face TLC. The government has granted them the same legal status as the country’s infamous hagwon cram schools, which prep children for the rigors of college entrance exams. GameCoach was founded a year and a half ago by Bigpicture Interactive Co., which runs an Overwatch team. Its instructors are drawn from the pro ranks, and a few students already have made the leap.

Lee Seung-hun, director of GameCoach, says, “We don’t just teach gaming tactics. We teach gaming manners too.” These might include how to properly address opponents (and deflect their trash talking), how to build a reputation online, and especially how to stay cool when matches get tight. “Gaming’s like math,” Lee says, gesturing to the scorecards and team jerseys decorating his office. “What we do is help the students break through.”

At one lesson, a quartet of rapt teens surrounds the display of their instructor, Kim Hyo-han, guzzling free cans of Red Bull while he dispenses tips on Overwatch, a first-person shooting game in which teams of players hunt one another on a patch of terrain. “How many times do you think you’re going to be engaged here?” Kim asks, swiveling his mouse around a complex map. “Four would be more than usual, but be prepared to fight at least here, here, and here.” The students watch attentively and respond enthusiastically to questions. Later, they’ll play each other, and sometimes pros, to test their skills.

Despite the growth of esports, parents still take some convincing. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Choi’s mother, Park Hyun-jung. “But Min-ji wanted this more than anything he’d ever wished for, and we thought we might as well support him all the way if we were going to let him play. It’s definitely better than seeing our kid seclude himself in a cybercafe and harbor a grudge against us.”

Choi has no illusions about his chances, but he and his peers crave the money and glamour promised by a pro career. “I’ve grown more anxious than excited now that I’ve seen it takes a lot more skills to be a pro,” he says. He’s weighing his options. “I’m thinking of drawing fans by sharing on YouTube what I know about games—particularly Overwatch, which I’m good at.” A good education, as they say, broadens the horizons.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.