Lack of paywall at PC Bangs at least partly responsible for Overwatch surpassing League of Legends

For the longest time, League of Legends was the unchallenged champion of Korean PC Bangs, internet gaming cafes that are considered central to Korea’s online gaming culture. That title is now being challenged by the new kid on the block, Overwatch, which hasn’t even been released for a full month.

Blizzard is coming to reclaim Korea as its old stomping ground like it was in the good old days of StarCraft 1, and the PC Bang game play percentages recently showed Overwatch actually take first place after days of chasing League.

With this news hitting the front page of Reddit, it attracted speculation of why this came to be. For some, this has been a kind of harbinger of doom for League of Legends in Korea, citing Riot Games’ poor management of League or saying that League has gotten stale after five years. Before anyone makes any more rash decisions about their League of Legends accounts, however, a few things need to be understood.

PC Bangs have attracted many players in Korea by having top-of-the-line PC gaming hardware, high-speed internet and competitive prices (about $1 per hour). Korean gaming companies have also had a very long history of working with PC Bangs in forms of premium rewards while playing at certain establishments, removing time restrictions, and in the case of Overwatch, eliminating the pay wall.

That last bit is kind of a game changer.

Any person in Korea with a account can play Overwatch completely free when in a PC Bang. That is what makes playing Overwatch at PC Bangs so attractive, since many people don’t want to spend $45 into an online multiplayer-only game. To those who don’t own the game, therefore, the only way they can play the game is at PC Bangs. When someone is going to these establishments with the express purpose to play Overwatch, then it isn’t a surprise that the percentages shifted in the manner it did. After all, no one really *has* to play League at these businesses, while  for many, PC Bangs are the only places to play Overwatch.

It’s gotten to the point that so many people want to play Overwatch in Korea, when you type in the game’s name in Korean search engines, the most frequently searched phrase is “How to play Overwatch for free” or “Overwatch free.” That shows that the demand for Overwatch is high among younger players, and some are willing to even play the game illegally. At the same time, however, this can be viewed as a major negative, potentially blocking a wider pool of players from joining Overwatch and deciding for themselves. The paywall and hype have created a kind of artificial scarcity of Overwatch, pushing more players to go to PC Bangs to see just how great Blizzard’s new competitive shooter really is.

On the side of League, its strongest weapon against Overwatch is the fact that it is free to play. This means that in the eyes of many young people in Korea, League is the more optimal choice in online gaming, because they can’t always ask their parents to buy a brand new game for them. The people who do play League at home will continue to do so, and League will always be a good game to play for those who want that free gaming experience. Now it isn’t necessarily hunky dory for League that it lost that top spot that it maintained for years, but it’s also possible to quell some doomsayers that are screaming of Riot’s downfall.

What’s worth noting, though, is the way Riot Games Korea makes its revenue. The majority of the revenue that Riot Korea makes comes from these same PC Bangs. The revenue streams of games is based on how many players are playing their games at PC Bangs, since the more they come to play a certain game, the more the PC Bangs make money. Being a free-to-play game comes with its detriments, and in the case of League, skin and boost sales can only stretch so far. Riot has shown aggressive marketing campaigns focused on PC Bangs in Korea for that exact reason, and though it has shown incredible growth over a very short amount of time, that wealth could easily be taken away by a meteoric star. This means that the amount of money that League makes in Korea has theoretically been cut down as the game went from being played by over 40 percent of players in PC Bangs to now just below 30 percent. On a purely revenue standpoint, this could become a worrying trend if it were to continue.

Also keep in mind that Overwatch has been live for barely a month at this point. The continued interests of players have proven to be fickle, and if or when for some reason the Overwatch hype dies down, we might see League make a comeback and reclaim its throne at Korean PC Bangs. Regardless, players shouldn’t be too concerned about what’ll happen in the near future. In the business of online gaming, competition is an important ingredient to bigger success, and Overwatch could be that competition that pushes Riot Games to make some game-changing decisions in the favor of players — even if it’s not there yet.

Cover photo courtesy of Riot Games.