Korean Esports Pioneer Visual Language for the Gaming Industry

Crowd celebrating the winner at an esports event

How do you explain the physical prowess of video gamers? In mainstream sports, such as soccer or basketball, people can see the physical feats: the arc of a jump shot or the speed of the ball through a goalie's fingertips. However, at major esports competitions, viewers see the video game characters on screen rather than the player controlling them behind the scenes. So, how do esports commentators and promoters explain this invisible activity?

Keung Yoon Bae, an assistant professor of Korean Studies at the School of Modern Languages, explores how the Korean esports industry is one of the first to confront the challenge of describing physical performance in a digital medium. Through industry events and promotional materials, they've developed a new visual language to describe what cannot be seen by viewers watching the gamers in competition. As the novel language and strategies spread, it also helps cement Korean esports as a pioneer in the field.

"South Korean esports media have developed visual strategies, their own specific visual language, to try and communicate on-screen abstract concepts such as the prowess of their players and the histories that they bring to the game," Bae writes in her book chapter "Visualizing the Invisible: Korean Esports and the Representation of Gameplay Skill."

For example, esports player Ryu Je-Hong streams with a camera aimed at his hand to show how sensitive his mouse is and how accurate his hand movements are. In the animated hype videos tournaments use for promotion, companies don't show players sitting in chairs at screens. Instead, they create more exciting visuals, such as the players climbing a mountain peak or standing in a room surrounded by portraits of past tournament champions.  

"Esports broadcasts and promotional media often look quite absurd or bizarre to those unfamiliar with esports, so these visual strategies give us a great point of access to understand why esports looks the way it does," Bae says. 

Her chapter counters what she says is a common misconception: that esports is not an actual sport because it doesn't involve physical skill. 

"Physical skill is core to esports, just not in the way we are used to," Bae says. "Therefore, it is also core to esports discourse, which often contends with questions about gender and biology — even if the discussions often use biology research in problematic or misguided ways," she adds.

"Visualizing the Invisible: Korean Esports and the Representation of Gameplay Skill" was published in Introducing Korean Popular Culture in 2023.

Bae's next project will take a historical approach to the field, interviewing esports professionals in Korea about how copyright law, intellectual property law, and esports ownership have changed over the past decade.

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Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts