Korean Celebrity Idealism creeping into E-sports
I’m sure by now that those of you who follow competitive Overwatch are aware of the suspension of 2 players from Lunatic- Hai early in February. Lunatic-Hai are currently competing in OGN’s 2nd Apex season. The suspension happened mere days before their next scheduled game. While this has been covered by other outlets its worth exploring why this even happened. Was it drugs? Violent behavior?
No, they were trying to pick up girls via social media and have been suspended for an entire season because of it.
Now I am going to come right out and say that this is utterly ridiculous, sports stars (yes, I am classing them as sports stars) being benched for talking and ‘fraternising’ with fans, you can’t be serious. Now bear in mind, these players are adults, this is mutually consensual activities between adults, we are not talking about the players breaking any laws. In almost any other country around the world, you would not only expect sports stars to be fraternising with fans, you would be surprised if they didn’t! Half of the reason people want to be famous, guys especially, is so they can get the girl.
Rock-stars are a great example, they are infamous for booze, drugs and groupies. Sure they might have cancelled a show for an overdose or 2 but never because they were fraternising with fans. When was the last time you heard of an NBA player being benched because he was messaging some fan girls. It just doesn’t happen, why? Because a players private life is just that, private. It is their life to do what they want with it. As long as their in game performance isn’t affected, they can do what ever they want. But this is where the line can blur slightly.
Being a celebrity means your life, even your private life, is in the public eye. Also being a celebrity means you need to protect your image and your brand. However most people do realise that a celebrity has a right to their private life being private and whatever they do behind closed doors (as long as it isn’t illegal or over the top immoral) is none of their business.
However in Asia and in Korea especially, this is not exactly the case. Japan has the same issues but I will focus this on Korea.
It would shock many people not familiar to know that celebrities in Korea are treated much differently to those in the West. K-Pop stars especially have it rough. So why is Korean society different? I talked a bit with Michael Hurt who has looked into a similar issue with K-Pop stars (check out his great article here about K-Pop) to try and find out if this treatment rises from cultural ideals and he had this to say:
‘Korean society has its idea of cultural figures and stars to Confucian Ideals. That people should be more of examples and bleed through exemplary behaviour, even if that’s unrealistic in today’s modern world’
So basically celebrities need to maintain an image of perfection as a role model, in a country where image is everything this has extra importance. This coupled with various marketing strategies aimed at cashing in on this has created a culture obsessed with over the top expectations of public figures. There is a lot of societal factors that come into play here as well, from saving face to women stuck in Confucian roles. From the use of young girls as innocent looking objects of sexual desire to the image of males as the perfect husband. There is also the expectation that athletes and idols should be spending all their time practicing and rehearsing so that they shouldn’t have time for a personal life. As the modern world has evolved forward, these ideas have yet to advance with it and have created this culture of expectation. The thing to note is that this kind of idealism doesn’t really exist in the same way in the west.
No such expectations exist in American culture, where nobody cares about who I score after hours, and that’s almost expected in the days after the advent of birth control and women’s liberation
The best example of this is to look at the Korea music industry and their stars. K-pop stars face an interesting crisis, their image and marketing is built up around creating and maintaining fierce and loyal fandoms. Anything and everything they do is under extreme scrutiny. So in their contracts they have a lot of restrictions of what they can and can’t do, and yes these contracts do boarder on being a-kin to slavery. How they eat, sleep, dress, talk and act is covered here and also who they see and interact with, including partners and relationships. Now, the contracts don’t straight up say they can’t date, but they say if you are caught dating then it is a breach of contract and dating must be hidden from everyone (including your family, who might tell). In the K-pop world this makes some sense — having your favourite idol dating someone means that fans can’t fantasize over being with that star anymore (which is disturbing in itself how far this is often taken and encouraged in marketing) making that idols brand and “stock value” much less valuable. So, yes this makes twisted sense because of the way K-Pop idols brands have been built up around this notion of Confucian idealism mixed with sexual marketing and the creation of unrealistic fantasies.
But somehow this ideal has bled over to sports. A lot of people were up in arms over the fact Kim Yu-Na was dating. Others were angry that Olympic swimmer Park Tae-hwan was dating as well. And even this past week Korean female cage fighter Song Ga-yeon has come out with her story against the Road FC president for forcing her to do provocative photo shoots, snooping into her private life and treating her as a model and not as a fighter. These are sports stars. Their brand value should be rooted in their actual performance — they win, value goes up, lose, it goes down. If they do something really wrong and illegal then they face suspension and could lose sponsorship deals, but that’s it. Who they date and spend their time with has no bearing (theoretically) on their physical performance.
Yet, not only has this idea crept its way into sports, it has now bleed through into eSports with players being held to this ridiculous standard. Yes you can make the argument eSports is new and needs to be protected early on but this is not the way to do it. Stopping players from having relationships with fans is not protecting the brand, it’s making the brand look overbearing and encroaching on people’s basic rights. Fans have been allowed to believe in other industries, such as K-pop, that they almost ‘own’ the stars and how they should live their lives.
If they want an issue to tackle to protect the brand, the better issues would be player welfare, creating player unions, fair pay schemes, anti-drug regulations, fair contracts, player representation, sports psychologists and life coaches (teach these young player show to handle the fame and money properly). But by focusing on a couple of players who just want to use their new found fame to get laid? Give me a break…