A close encounter of the eSports kind: A personal account of the portrayal of South Korean pro gaming culture

Autoethnography as described by Ellis et al. (2011, p.1) is “an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience in order to understand cultural experience”. This is accomplished first through an ethnographic wide-angle lens, focusing outward on discerning patterns of cultural experience evidenced by field notes, interviews and/or artifacts, and then looking inwards, describing these patterns using the conventions of autobiographical storytelling such as character, scene and plot development and/or chronological or fragmented story progression (Ellis et al. 2011, p.1). The aim is to produce accessible and evocative texts that “make personal experience meaningful and cultural experience engaging” (Ellis et al. 2011, p.4).



Contrary to the objective, neutral, impersonal, detached and arguably value-free nature of more traditional forms of scientific research, the autoethnographic method championed by Ellis et al. (2011, p.2) treats research as a socially-conscious act, embraces value-centred inquiry and acknowledges and accommodates subjectivity, emotionality and the researcher’s influence on research. Ellis et al. (2011, p.3) view autoethnography as a process of self-discovery, a method that places the self within a social context by connecting the personal (micro) and the cultural (macro).3

Over the following weeks, I will use autoethnography as a methodology to document, reveal and critically analyse my personal experience as an audience member of various digital Asian media texts. In doing so, I will practice self-reflexivity by having a closer look at my own assumptions and interpretations, with the motivation that – when viewed from a distance – it can change my perspective considerably.

In this week’s seminar, our class watched State of Play (2013), a feature documentary about the competitive world of South Korean professional video gamers. I was startled to discover that the common leisure activity of video gaming is in fact a legitimate career path that requires focused effort, discipline and perseverance.

At first, the extremely strict training regime consisting of 10-12 hours a day practice seemed completely ludicrous. I wondered about the health effects of professional gaming, imagining how physically taxing the sport would be on players’ eyes and hands.

As the documentary progressed, I soon realised that professional gaming is largely similar to all other forms of professional sport. The live television broadcasts, commentators, uniforms, stadiums, formal drafting process, promotional imagery, corporate sponsorship deals, player performance appraisals, match fixing scandals and pre-game exercises all resemble professional sporting codes, practices and issues.

An eSports tournament

An eSports tournament

One pre-game ritual that I found particularly unusual was the haircutting and makeup application. I also found it amusing that the professional video gamers carry a keyboard bag. This reminded me of the traditional boot bag of football players.

The gender imbalance of the South Korean professional gaming scene was also striking. I immediately questioned why women are exempt from participating in the competition. I found it interesting to observe, however, the extent to which female fans invest emotionally in the sport and worry for their favourite player’s future. I too felt sympathetic for the players when they revealed the weight of expectation and pressure they feel as public figures, particularly in a culture that does not encourage the display of emotions.


A professional gamer surrounded by adoring fans

My experience watching State of Play was also culturally enlightening. I found it interesting to observe how Koreans sit on the floor at low tables to eat and sleep on thin mats on the floor. My immediate thought was how terribly uncomfortable.

I was particularly intrigued by the intimate gift-giving ritual that occurred after every game. I felt awkward for Lee Jae-dong when he was garnered with gifts and flowers from adoring female fans after he had lost.

Throughout the documentary, I was captivated by the glimpses of Seoul’s hyper-modern cityscape. I was amazed at the large public screen displaying news of the match fixing scandal. I did wonder, however, why the streets and public places often appeared deserted. The high-rise residential way of living seemed strange and I was intrigued by the truck with an extendable platform that was used to move furniture from the team house’s apartment window.


Seoul, the capital of South Korea

In the graduation scene, I was charmed by the way the teacher respectfully handed out the graduation certificates with both hands. I also enjoyed listening to South Korea’s national anthem. At the same time, however, I was confused about the South Korean education system and questioned the difference between middle school and high school.

Another scene in which I felt confused was when the players discussed Moon Chae-won, Lee Ha-na and Son Ye-jin. It wasn’t until I researched these names later that I discovered they are South Korean actresses.

I was also surprised to learn that Lee Jae-dong gives his prize money to his father. I wondered why, at 24 years of age and as one of the highest paid eSports athletes, Jae-dong is not financially independent.

I was also taken aback by the physical proximity in social interaction in South Korea. This was apparent in a scene where one team player is sitting on his colleague’s lap.

Based on the essay by Ellis et al. (2011), I consider autoethnographic writing to be an experience of self – a way of articulating and accessing self-knowledge. I look forward to the opportunity to interpret the fabric of my initial encounter with State of Play in the coming weeks.

Reference List

Ellis, C, Adams, TE & Bochner, AP 2011, ‘Autoethnography: An Overview’, Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung/Forum: Qualitative Social Research, vol.12, no.1, pp.1-12.


3 thoughts on “A close encounter of the eSports kind: A personal account of the portrayal of South Korean pro gaming culture

  1. Autoethnography seemed like a difficult concept at first but your break down made the way it works very clear. Reflection is the way I’d been thinking of it, but self-discovery seems a far more fitting description.
    Your experience of State of Play was interesting, and I had similar concerns about the health of the players! if nothing else the stress seemed like a huge weight on their shoulders.

  2. Pingback: A Contextualised Note To Self – Who Said Professional Gamers Should Get A “Real” Job? |

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