Anyone under 45 grew up with video games as a natural part of their lives but older generations have had minimal exposure to gaming. Without firsthand experience, it can be difficult to understand why the industry is booming and why your children and grandchildren love esports so much. In his new book, Demystifying Esports, Baro Hyun bridges the generation gap by exploring the history of competitive gaming, the growth of the industry, and its explosion as a global phenomenon.

Drew Applebaum: Hey listeners, my name is Drew Applebaum, I’m excited to be here today with Baro Hyun, author of Demystifying Esports, Baro, I’m excited you’re here, welcome to the Author Hour podcast.

Baro Hyun: Thank you for having me, Drew.

Drew Applebaum: First, can you tell us a little bit about your professional background?

Baro Hyun: Yes, I’m an engineer by training. I’ve been working as an RND engineer for 10 years in different industries like from aerospace to automotive. Then I switched to management consulting about three and a half years ago when I moved to relocate to Tokyo.

Since then, I have been in the management consulting side of the business. About two and a half years ago, I started an esports advisory at this firm and that’s how it all began.

Drew Applebaum: Now, can you tell us what esports is and then maybe give us some of the numbers around it?

Baro Hyun: Yeah, sure. Simply put, esports is competitive gaming, basically. I know a lot of us growing up with video games, we have a lot of experience as personal entertainment but esports is something more in the sense that there’s a competition. That competition between people online or in the video game world makes it way more entertaining as viewing content, just like people watching sports, like your basketball match or American football match, it’s very entertaining.

Esports at the core is really competing within the video gaming space. And the numbers, it’s crazy. What I can tell right now is that the prize money that goes inside to DC esports tournaments is still millions, and the values of DC’s professional teams, I know there’s a number ranking that was out by Forbes at the end of last year. The top team is worth about 400 million.

Drew Applebaum: Wow.

Baro Hyun: Yeah, it’s crazy. The size of the industry is growing over two digits a year. This is a global phenomenon. We’re talking about, of course, the United States, we have China as a market as well, Korea also, in Europe, in Germany, the UK, and Southeast Asia, South America, it’s all around the globe.

Drew Applebaum: Can you tell us your esports story?

Baro Hyun: Sure, the reason why I wanted to write this book is that I’m Korean myself. I was born in Korea, raised in the states, but I spent most of my elementary school to college years in Korea in the 90s. That’s when esports really took off with this game called StarCraft by Blizzard in the states. This was in the 90s.

Nobody knew that it was going to be this big when it was happening. We were all kids playing StarCraft with friends, but then things got really crazy, and we had this broadcasting and later on, it got really big. Honestly, I wasn’t anywhere close to being a professional at all, I was just one of those laypeople, I liked to play games with my friends. Basically, that experience really was the foundation of my being involved in the esports advisory at my job.

Drew Applebaum: You have one really touching story and it’s towards the end of the book but I want to bring it up early because I want to talk about it. Tell us about your experience playing video games remotely with both of your sons.

Baro Hyun: Yeah, thank you, thanks for bringing that up. For personal reasons, I’ve been living by myself in Tokyo and my kids are in the countryside with my in-laws in a place called Tokushima in Japan. I’ve been commuting maybe every three weeks and that’s pretty much how I can interact with them.

My elder one is eight and my young one is six, both boys. Since they got to know about Fortnite, they’ve been fanatic about it. One day, they invited me to play and I used to play some FPSs back in the days, like Rainbow Six and I wasn’t serious at all. I thought, okay, I should give it a try, good thing that everything is online nowadays.

We play in the same team, and there is something called a Team Rumble or there’s something called Squads, where you’re basically playing the same team. It’s fantastic because, for example, when we talk, I usually often do a video call with my kids and every time I try to make up a conversation, it is like, what did you do at school? They don’t want to engage.

Then we started playing Fortnite and there’s leveling. I’m not good at all but they’re playing with their switches and I am playing with my iPad. It’s really simple whether they’re online or not. So, if they’re online they give me a hit up on a message–dad, let’s play a round.

There’s a voice chat within the game, and it’s a conversation that’s really dynamic. It’s like, kill that, pick this up, whatever that. If I fall down on the ground in the Squad mode, then they take cover for me and try to save me. They’ve gotten really good at those games so I’m pretty helpless in that. Sometimes I’m good and try to protect them, and then I become this heroic figure all of a sudden. They love it, they love their dad so much.

Having that experience together has been really worthwhile for me as a dad to connect with my kids who have been remote a couple of years now. Every time I meet them now it’s like, it’s all about Fortnite, you know. Within that aspect too, it’s been very good for me.

Changing Perceptions

Drew Applebaum: Traditionally, and this is the case you write about with your mother in law in the book, video games are deemed bad and that some people are spending too much time. But look at this instance where it’s a bonding method between your children and yourself.

Baro Hyun: Yeah, exactly. You know what? Thanks for bringing that up. For us who grew up with gaming, video gaming started with that pretty much it was like personal entertainment. You would engage in this console and you would be playing that for hours. That’s probably the perception that our parent’s generation has about video games, but since then, it has evolved so much, both in technology and also as content.

Right now, we can voice chat as we do over the phone and it can serve as the perfect communication tool, and in some places, they use it as an educational tool. Also, I run a couple of esports events within our firm as a company event and it’s also a great communication tool for connecting with other employees. There’s always someone who is very enthusiastic about playing games but they never had that chance to bring that out that they’re a gamer.

In that sense, it has been a very good medium for me to reach out to new people and have that interaction.

Drew Applebaum: Can you talk to us about the evolution of esports because you and I were speaking a little bit before we started and we both grew up playing the games that you just mentioned. We played Street Fighter, we played on our Super Nintendo and the early PlayStation and it was meant for one person. Growing up, I did have a friend who used to say no, you’re better, you play and I’ll watch.

I never understood that. Now there’s a whole industry of this. How did it go from those simple consoles back then to this multimillion-dollar industry?

Baro Hyun: Right, that’s exactly what I tried to answer in this book. What happened in Korea back in the 90s, just to give you a nutshell, in the early 90s, the South Korean gaming industry was more or less the same as the Japanese and US gaming market, it was heavily based on consoles like you said, Super Nintendo, PlayStation or the game arcades.

If someone was playing Street Fighter in the arcade, people would get around and watching them play. That was pretty much the scale that we’re talking about back then. But then, in the middle of the 90s, at least in South Korea, the personal computers, the PCs were getting more popular. A lot of the households started to have those PCs at home. If you had kids in the house there a chance for them to play games on the PC.

They start playing PC games at home. Then we had that hit with a game called MMORPG, which is basically an online RPG, a game playing with multiple people. That’s how people got into playing online games and then in 97/98, it was a game called StarCraft by Blizzard that was a mega-hit. For some reason, everybody loved it in Korea, everybody started playing it to the level that even if someone didn’t own a PC at home, they still wanted to play it. So, there was a new business that came around at that time called PC Bang.

It was basically a game dedicated net café. They had great PCs equipped and you could play as much as you want, by the hour that you wanted to pay. That’s when people started to play even at a bigger scale like StarCraft with their friends, after school, like me after school, I would just go and drop by a PC Bang for a couple of hours.

That’s how the community got bigger within Korea, and then one day, a couple of years later, all of a sudden, a local cable channel decided to go completely to gaming and esports. They were broadcasting esports 24/7. If you switched on the television and all of a sudden you have StarCraft, people playing seriously. It was like a tournament–a legit tournament.

From the very beginning, there were people playing one on one and you have so-called professional casters and commentators, speaking constantly about what’s happening and with those comments, the viewing experience was even more entertaining. With the help of that cable channel, it got even bigger, and then it went professional.

We had more players involved and we have the so-called professional esports players who are involved in the professional team. This happened because there was an incident in 2004 where there was an esports tournament finals and surprisingly, one hundred thousand people gathered for that event.

Can you imagine it, it was in 2004 and it was not even Seoul, the capital of South Korea, but it was a place called Busan, which is a town in the south. A lot of people traveled down to Busan just to watch that. What’s interesting is that the same day that the tournament final was held was the same date that the All-Star baseball match was happening in the same town.

A lot of the people expected that they would go to see the All-Star baseball match but then actually ended up being into the StarCraft finals. This was a huge milestone for the industry and since then, a lot of the corporate sponsors got really serious. So, we have big-name sponsors like Samsung or SKT, which is a telecom company, who became the big sponsorship behind these professional teams, and then we got more star players.

If anybody knows about the StarCraft scene, we have some star players that came from that era. Then it really got bigger and bigger and that was about in 2000. Then around 2010, we had a fixed scheme scandal that shook down the industry. The industry as a whole in Korea got damaged and we lost a lot of teams, and a lot of people were laid off. Around that time there was already the international market like China or the US that was already taking off with esports. So that’s when the stage was stolen in a sense.

The Business of Esports

Drew Applebaum: So besides players winning these tournaments that are around the world, what kind of business is involved in esports?

Baro Hyun: That’s a great question. So, I think in order to understand the esports business, it is better to enter it from a sports perspective. I know it is a completely different market but the reason why it is easier to understand what a sports business is. The core part of what differentiates esports in general from the ordinary video game market is viewing content. The viewing content sells.

The spectatorship is really the business part and in that sense, sports are also the same, the spectatorship creates a lot of business. Based on that it creates an entire business ecosystem. So, for example, in the traditional gaming scene, you would have to be able to play a game to have a solid business, but after you move to e-sports it is really about viewing. You don’t need to create the game yourself.

Suppose that there was a game, there is a lot of ways of being involved. You can be the event organizer, so you can organize the tournaments or leagues, with the permission of the game publisher of course. Then you have within that tournaments you’re going to have to have different professional teams and these teams own professional players. Corporate sponsors want to have their brands out into this either with the leagues or events or the teams or the players.

In the past, in Korea, it was about the cable channel but now, it is more about the online platform–for example, Twitch or YouTube. So, the platform also is huge business within the e-sports scene because a lot of the players also broadcast themselves as a gamer or even the event itself is also being broadcasted through those platforms. There’s a lot. I can go on forever like this, but the bottom line is that it is very close to the traditional sports business market in terms of the business ecosystem.

History Repeats 

Drew Applebaum: Now, esports is pretty popular right now and you’ve probably heard a bit about investors who are involved with teams in some way. The bigger firms have started their own team, or they have invested in teams. I have seen this on ESPN. I have seen Madden games and others. Do you think it’s peaking right now, and this bubble will pop, or do you think that esports will have legs and roll for decades to come?

Baro Hyun: That’s a really good question. I think one point I was trying to make in my book is that history repeats. Based on my experience in South Korea, there was a bubble, and the bubble popped at some point. As a business consultant working in this field for the past few years, I could see a lot of risks involved at the same time. Along with a lot of growth. So, personally, I think, if there is no good governance or compliance being installed behind this industry, we have a very good chance that we’ll have a bubble pop at some point.

Until then, I think the industry will grow as it’s been doing so far, even within the COVID pandemic situation. But at some point, I think it is sort of fate that the bubble will pop. The bottom line is that that is not the end of the story. So even after the bubble got popped in the case of South Korea, it wasn’t that the industry died. It actually grew from there. So, it became a part of the society.

People embraced esports as part of their corporate culture or part of their personal experience, like playing basketball games with your friends. It is very common to go to play a round of StarCraft with your friends after work. I think in a nutshell, in the big picture, it is a cycle, if that answers your question.

Drew Applebaum: Now, let’s say I’ve read your book, let’s say my mom reads it, let’s say your mother in law reads it and they say, “Okay, you know what? I am going to check out this e-sports thing.” Where can they tune in and what kind of games are they watching?

Baro Hyun: That’s a good question. I realize it is really hard to say for my mother in law to get and be involved in gaming, but the good news is that because my sons are playing very heavily, they started to watch them play. That is their experience and the hardest part for them to enter these games is knowing the rules. If it is a game like say a FIFA or a Madden or MBA 2K, people already know the rules of the sports game that they are playing.

So, it’s second nature for them to watch them but if it is a StarCraft match or if it’s Hearthstone, the rules can be very, very new, and sometimes it could be very intimidating to them. So, I would suggest, for them to be involved if they want to start watching the games, either start from something that relates to sports that they already know the rules, something like FPS or Battle Royale, because it is pretty clear that you kill the foe with a headshot as a team.

That is a good way of starting it. Also, they don’t have to play esports games. For example, personal entertainment games like RPGs, action-adventures, they are just still very entertaining to watch. We have a lot of streamers online who are broadcasting themselves playing these action-adventure or RPG games, and millions of people watch them, including my wife. She doesn’t play.

She has never touched a controller in her life, but recently she’s been watching this game called The Ghost of Tsushima, which I am pretty into it also. So, I guess back to your question, there are so many ways of being involved in video games now. You do not need to play, you can just watch, and even with the option of watching, you have a lot of options too. So, either you can watch a hardcore professional player playing games, or you can watch these streamers playing more in a casual way, but more entertainingly. There are a lot of different ways.

Drew Applebaum: I love that you mentioned that because a lot of people think all video games are button mashing but there are actually some really compelling storylines that go on and it does feel like you are just watching an extended movie sometimes.

Baro Hyun: Exactly, especially the games now, the graphics are so good, the storylines are crazy. It is really like close to a movie level, as you said.

Drew Applebaum: If you have watched The Witcher on Netflix, that started as a video game.

Baro Hyun: Exactly.

Professional Gamers

Drew Applebaum: Those stories came from a video game. I have one last question for you, and I am pretty interested in this. What does it take to be a professional gamer and are there younger folks today who are training and are there scholarships out there? Does that happen?

Baro Hyun: Oh yeah, absolutely. So that is a great question. Being a professional esports player, I wasn’t one myself but I have seen a lot around me because from back in the 90s, my schoolmates, a lot of people who tried out. Some eventually made it, a lot of people did not but you need almost the same commitment and self-management, and training that you would need to become a professional sports player.

What happened in Korea was that if you wanted to get into the professional team, of course, you had to be good but then there was word of mouth within the game. So, if you are really good then your ID will be caught up by the gaming coach of a professional team. The coach will contact you and maybe do a tryout and if they like you, then they are going to do another round of interviews and that usually takes a full day.

What they try to find out is whether this person is a team player because at the end of the day, being a part of the esports team, you have to be a team member. You do a collaboration. A lot of the games are a team effort, so you have to have good communication skills and a good decision-maker. So, it is not like if you’re just good by yourself then it’s all good. It is more of team coordination.

You have to have that and a lot of the top teams have a tier system. So if you’re tier one, a top tier player then you can go play in the professional leagues, but if you’re in the lower tier, if you are an apprentice, for example, you’d be the sparring match for the top tier player, but until you reach the top tier, you will never get a chance to actually go out into the official scene, which means that you won’t be able to get fully paid.

So, you have this training setup at the same time. Now, there is a lot going on. For example, at least in the United States, there is a huge scene of what I call the minor league scene in esports. There are a lot of tournaments that I refer to as the major leagues but there is a good minor league scene, for example, in the college scene.

There is a league called Collegiate StarLeague by Double Gin and they have these different layers of tiers of leagues where a lot of different teams from schools can get involved and if they win the league, they get their prize as a form of scholarship, for example. Time has changed since the 90s in South Korea. If you’re good at gaming you can actually earn a good source of income and also you can get a scholarship to school. It’s like if you’re good at basketball or football then yeah, you can get into a great school as well.

Drew Applebaum: I mean the traditional sports analogies are there.

Baro Hyun: Yeah, exactly.

Drew Applebaum: Yeah, that’s amazing. Honestly, this book is eye-opening. I feel like anyone if you’ve heard of it or if you’re wondering about it, this is a book for you. Writing a book not easy, so first of all congratulations on doing it and getting it done.

Baro Hyun: Thank you.

Drew Applebaum: If readers could take away one thing from this book, what would it be?

Baro Hyun: Great question, so the reason I wrote this book is to bridge the generation gap between me and younger, like my kids who grew up with gaming and even more. I am sure it is going to be the same for the generation after and the generation above me who had minimal gaming experience if not at all. It is really not a bad thing depending on how you approach it. So, I wanted to share the experience of how gaming got this big and why people call it esports nowadays.

It is really not about playing games for a long time where the negative connotation started but it is really about that professionalism and it is a huge business. There is a lot of commitment, there is a lot of story, so it is bigger than what you would perceive. So that is really the one reason why I wrote this book. I hope you get to know about it and that’s why the title, Demystifying Esports.

Drew Applebaum: Baro, it’s been such a pleasure. I am excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called Demystifying Esports and you can find it on Amazon. Now Baro besides checking out the book, where can people find you?

Baro Hyun: Yes, so if you would like to be involved professionally, I am working fulltime as an esports advisor. So please look me up at LinkedIn, that’s my main social network or just shoot me an email at the email address that I left in the book at the end of it. If you just want to say hi or share your thoughts, that would be great. So, either of those two ways.

Drew Applebaum: Awesome Baro, thank you so much for coming on the podcast today.

Baro Hyun: Thank you, Drew.