A little more K-pop? Kongdoo Company takes fan engagement in new direction

Overwatch APEX Season 3 Finals - Lunatic-Hai vs. KongDoo Panthera (2:46)

The APEX finals go to 7 games. (2:46)

Sure, it wasn't exactly an EXO concert. The stars onstage were looking out at a cozy gathering of just over 100 heads, not 22,000 glow sticks lighting up an entire baseball stadium. But the way the 15 Kongdoo players stood in two neatly rehearsed lines, wearing sponsored makeup from a beauty parlor, dressed in deliberately juvenile uniforms matching down to their shoes -- well, let's just say that no one was signing footballs for starry-eyed boys wearing tiny helmets. Or keyboards for starry-eyed boys wearing Overwatch snapbacks.

"Are there any male fans here?" the female host called out.

"Here!" one man yelled, then looked across the silent crowd. It turned out that he was the only one. Everyone else in the theater cracked up at his expense. He, too, began to chuckle.

"Which player are you here to see?"

"Bubbly!" he shouted, undaunted.

Unfortunately for him, it was revealed five minutes later that Kongdoo Uncia's Cho "Bubbly" Yoon-ho had transitioned into coaching.

A shift in sport culture

Professional sports in South Korea were never designed to be commercially viable. Many of the country's leagues -- including the oldest and most popular league, baseball -- were created in the 1980s. They were not entrepreneurial ventures but instruments of dictatorship, meant to divert public attention away from politics.

The first teams were funded by chaebols, a South Korean term for large businesses such as Samsung, Kia and LG, which had incentives to cooperate with the military regime's initiative. Everything was kept free or cheap, accessible for the masses.

Time passed, and the dictatorship was uprooted. The nonprofit model for sporting organizations, however, was not. It remained the norm in many sports for teams to operate without meaningful earnings and simply rely on corporate funding. And on many levels, it was logical: Why should a team bother trying to milk peanuts out of a limited market of 51.7 million when its entire budget would always be but chump change to the parent company? Better to keep everything blatantly affordable, then market it as corporate social responsibility.

Esports in South Korea, after a brief and hazy youth, also joined this tradition. It's why the Brood War scene was able to support multiple six-figure salaries as early as 2002. Virtually all organizations with a long history and deep pockets, such as SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster and Samsung Galaxy, belong to chaebols. While there are a few teams that miraculously manage to stay alive without a gigantic company covering operating costs, most of them can barely pay their players a fair wage, let alone a competitive one.

Monetizing sports in a culture that strongly believes no one should be priced out of it is difficult. In esports, a still-socially stigmatized market with a young (and thus poorer) demographic, the task becomes nigh impossible. Only by securing sponsorships and investments can independents survive. But good luck doing that without a superstar or a fan base. They all belong to the chaebol teams.

Within this context came Kongdoo Company's July launch of a paid membership system, dubbed Kongdoo Eyes. Members would be granted first reservation rights and hefty discounts for future special fan meets. Fans could pay to join one of four tiers: White (30,000 South Korean won, or $26.30), Yellow (60,000 won, $52.60), Red (90,000 won, or $78.90) and Black (180,000 won, or $157.90) There would be no discrimination between tiers for general access and benefits, but the color of the membership card and the size of the welcome swag bag would differ.

The initial community blowback was significant. No relevant organization in recent years had attempted to monetize fans in such brazen fashion before, and the idea of fans being tiered based on willingness to spend -- even if the difference would be largely sentimental -- was received with heated vitriol. Many also argued that even the lowest tier (White) was too expensive for young fans still in school.

"Monetizing sports in a culture that strongly believes no one should be priced out of it is difficult. In esports, a still-socially stigmatized market with a young (and thus poorer) demographic, the task becomes nigh impossible."

On the flip side, there were voices that called attention to how unprofitable most esports teams are, how desperate organizations are for new revenue streams and how ridiculous it was for non-customers to react so viscerally toward an opt-in system designed for dedicated supporters. A few Kongdoo diehards publicly declared that they had signed up for Eyes, despite disagreeing with the pricing, because they wanted to help fund the team regardless.

The debates eventually died down. The general sentiment, however, was that the quality of the first special fan meet would either validate or expose the Eyes project.

On Aug. 5, the first Eye-priority fan meet took place at the Lotte Cinema World Tower, the chubby shopping mall (not the gigantic skyscraper) right beside the stage where the OGN Overwatch APEX Season 3 finals took place. Kongdoo Company had rented out one of the screens. Many fans arrived early and hung around the mall with tickets in hand.

"I really think they should have made the lowest tier cheaper," one fan said. She was wearing a sailor suit school uniform reminiscent of the Kongdoo Overwatch teams' signature garb and had come with two other high school friends. "Thirty thousand won is a bit too expensive. I actually didn't join Eyes. I just paid the non-discount fee for this event."

One of her friends, who also had not joined Eyes, disagreed.

"I think the biggest problem was discrimination," she said, clutching her event swag bag from the ticket booth. "I would have paid the 30,000 won if [Kongdoo] hadn't treated fans differently depending on how much they can pay. That was a really bad move and turned me away from joining."

Other fans had different opinions.

"I live really far away and came here by train," one fan with a slight Busan accent said. "I signed up for Eyes because I can't visit most APEX matches. I wanted to make sure I could reserve a seat for these [special] fan meets. I disagree with them having tiers, but I think the idea itself is nice."

Next to her was another supporter from Gyeonggi. The two had met through Twitter and become friends; it was a very common occurrence in fan circles, she explained. "I think Eyes is a reasonable [buy] for people like her," she said. "I can go to APEX quite often so I didn't bother to join."

Kongdoo starts to sing

It was all very K-pop, really -- in a good way.

The fan meet turned out to be very well done. While the hosts, APEX casters Kim "TheMarine" Jeong-min and Jung So-rim, had been guaranteed to make the event exciting, it was impressive to see how much preparation had gone into production.

Highlights of the event included musical performances. Kim "DNCE" Se-yong played guitar instead of support and didn't miss a single note. Song "QuaterMain" Ji-hoon had better flow than some Korean boy band rappers. And several players proved to be very decent ballad singers. No, really.

There were Overwatch audio quizzes, too, where players had to guess in-game situations from short sound clips; the hardest one was Torbjorn smashing Orisa's Protective Barrier with his Forge Hammer. The pacing was brisk, and there was barely any dead time throughout. Not a single moment was in any way particularly awkward; the players were more than comfortable with being onstage and playing to a crowd.

At the end of the event, a video was played. It was all of Panthera and Uncia, one by one confiding their heartfelt gratitude toward their fans, camera zoomed in enough to see their lips tremble. It was set to cheesy and sad but uplifting orchestral music. By the end, many were wiping their eyes in the dark.

When it was time to leave, fans were gifted a high-quality photo book put together by Kongdoo. It contained funny photos, badass photos, random trivia facts (did you know that Kim "Birdring" Ji-hyuk thinks Kim "Rascal" Dong-joon has pretty hands?) and all of the members' signatures. The photo books, of course, were handed out by the players themselves as well.

"To be honest, I didn't expect it to be this great," said Rascal, who had enthusiastically high-fived every single fan on their way out, "but so many fans came out to see us, and everyone had fun, so I was very happy. I especially loved the quiz sessions, watching the ending video together and handing out the memory books."

It was all very K-pop ...

Methods to monetize

... and K-pop is a highly lucrative industry.

OGN Global commentator Christopher "MonteCristo" Mykkles said Korean esports production so far has been all about striking the right spot between badass and adorable.

"What OGN does is walk the line between lionizing the players -- making them look so f---ing cool," MonteCristo said, "but then, at the same time, realize it's a bunch of nerds playing video games, and make fun of them, or show their humorous side, in the same broadcast."

For broadcasters, for viewers and for fans, this formula seems to have been foolproof. Competitive gaming has always been very popular in South Korea, and OGN's content in particular has always done well internationally.

But for organizations? Despite their overwhelming competitive success, South Korean esports organizations have never really managed to monetize.

Kongdoo's path -- a little more K-pop, a little less corporate -- might be the answer, and the future of South Korean esports.