K-pop powerhouse BTS didn’t get one, but star soccer player 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 opening of the Asian Games in Hangzhou on Saturday comes with an automatic 18-month exemption from the military.
This year, for the first time, eSports is a medal event, meaning South Korea’s top players, including team captain Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok, will receive double the reward.
The exemptions are typically granted to elite athletes or classical musicians on the basis of promoting national prestige and are highly sought after.
Official statistics show that fewer than 100 exemptions for ‘arts and sports’ were issued last year.
They are also controversial.
South Korea captain and Spurs forward 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 bringing K-pop to a global audience, megastars BTS were left out.
Two members, Jin and J-Hope, are currently serving in the military and another, SUGA, is expected to enlist on Friday, according to their agency HYBE.
When the country was considering military exemptions for K-pop stars, mainly so as not to interrupt BTS’ progress, about 33 percent of the public opposed the idea, according to a 2022 Gallup poll.
‘Birthplace of eSports’
With eSports debuting as a medal event at the Asian Games and South Korea a powerhouse, the debate has returned to the forefront.
National coach Kim Jeong-gyun brushed off questions about it, saying “sense of duty” to represent 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 men who start playing in their late teens,” Choi Eun-kyoung, a professor at Hanshin University, told AFP.
“The benefit of military service exemptions is important because it can be a huge motivation booster for players, apart from the pride of representing their country.”
ESports is 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 seen as the country where eSports, or professional gaming, began.
Easy access to high-speed internet and the rise of ‘PC Bangs’ – internet cafes – in the 1990s created a social gaming culture among South Korean youth that quickly grew into a huge global community of gamers.
“If Athens is the birthplace of the Olympic Games, then Seoul is the birthplace of eSports,” said Kang Do-kyung, a professional gamer turned professor at Shingu College.
The Seoul government and the country’s eSports organization have committed resources to ensuring the 15 national team players are in top condition for the Games.
During the construction period, Seoul provided a training center with, among other things, physiotherapy and counseling.
The Korea e-Sports Association has reserved five-star hotel rooms near the Games venue, where they will serve Korean meals to make the players feel at home.
ESports was a demonstration sport at the 2018 Asian Games, when the South Korean League of Legends team lost to China in the final.
Revenge will be on their minds, but the team declined to say whether that included avoiding military service.
“Five years ago we had to settle for a silver medal, but this time we have strong players and many people who support us,” said Faker.
“I will work hard in the belief that we will definitely win,” he added.
If they win gold, and with it an exemption, the whole debate will probably start again.
The general public is likely to feel the same way about eSports exemptions as BTS, who may have been granted one – broadly opposite, reporter Kim Geon-ho wrote in the Segye Ilbo newspaper.
Even though he had one, Son still had to undergo three weeks of training in the army, which is standard even for those who have 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.”