The group stage for League of Legends’ World Championship concluded this weekend, with all three Korean teams in attendance topping their groups. Alongside them are two teams from China, one from North America, one from Europe, and another from Russia. It seems a foregone conclusion that a Korean team will win worlds for the fourth time in a row. This phenomenon — Korean dominance in gaming — interests me as a member of the Dota 2 scene, which now has only one notable Korean team: MVP Phoenix. It’s not really surprising that Korean players aren’t interested in Dota 2 given the popularity of League of Legends as the primary game in the “MOBA” genre, though Heroes of the Storm gained a moderate following in South Korea. I spoke to a friend who follows Heroes of the Storm closely who assured me that Koreans still dominate in that game as well. StarCraft’s history of Korean dominance over “foreigners” spanning from Brood War to present is well documented, so I won’t go into it here.
From the beginning of Nexon’s involvement in Dota 2, it was clear that Dota would never gain the same kind of widespread popularity as League of Legends. Most participating players had barely ever played Dota before in their lives, and it showed. The Nexon Sponsorship League started in 2013 and eventually evolved into the Korean Dota League which was dominated by Team Zephyr, “the wind from the west.” To this day I still consider their participation in Korean Dota 2 to be a positive influence. They pushed Korean players to do better despite having far less experience playing Dota compared to the western players who dominated the NSL and KDL for the first half of 2014. The players who stuck with Dota and eventually triumphed over Zephyr went on to form the rosters that competed at The International 2015: MVP Phoenix and MVP Hot6.
The lone Korean team involved in Dota 2 is a stark contrast to the Korean dominance displayed in League of Legends, StarCraft and Heroes of the Storm (and possibly Overwatch in the future). Whereas in other games Korean teams represent the challenge to be overcome, MVP Phoenix have had to constantly overcome challenges to reach their precarious position on the global stage. It’s a role reversal we’re not quite used to seeing.