A memorable illustration of the differing generational attitudes toward video games comes at the very beginning of Demystifying Esports, a book by Baro Hyun (Ph.D. ’11) aimed at bridging that divide. His mother-in-law is frustrated by his younger son’s absorption with his Nintendo Switch, an irritation that had been brewing since the day Hyun bought his son the console as a birthday gift. One day, Hyun writes, “the clouds broke in dramatic fashion.
“With a speed that belied her age, she brought a pair of scissors from the kitchen and mercilessly cut the charging cable.”
For those who grew up before video games were widespread, Hyun says, time spent gaming can seem isolating, meaningless, and even harmful. With his book, Hyun aims to remove that stigma for generations who never had a chance to appreciate these types of games. His goal is not only to foster individual understanding (and possibly spare a few charging cords), but also to build awareness among potential clients in his work as an esports consultant. Video games are now a global pastime, and esports—organized public competitions between multiple players—have begun to rival traditional sports in both popularity and commercial potential.
A New Player Has Entered the Game
While most traditional sports are still larger than esports in terms of revenue and viewership, that dynamic is rapidly changing. For instance, each fall Michigan Stadium routinely hosts crowds in excess of 110,000 per game and announces that those in attendance are part of the largest crowd watching a football game in America that day. Consider, then, that a 2017 esports event in Poland drew 173,000 in-person spectators, in addition to over 40 million viewers online.
“My bosses were like, ‘You just want to play games in the office, right?’ I had to show them that it’s actually more than that.”
Last year, an esports event known as The International offered total prize money of more than $32 million. This summer’s U.S. Open men’s golf tournament, by comparison, had a total purse of $20 million. And while the FIFA men’s World Cup final and the NFL’s Super Bowl remain the most watched sporting events in years when they both occur, a year’s most popular esports event would rank third in that list and dwarf the championship audiences of nearly every other sport. Why would so many people invest time and money to watch others play video games? For Hyun, the answer draws a parallel to sports, as well.
“People watch soccer, but they might not necessarily play soccer,” he says. “I used to play back in high school, but I haven’t touched a ball since then, even though I still follow and watch European soccer. It’s the same for esports—interested viewers want to watch professional players competing at an elite level.”
Hyun was introduced to gaming while growing up in South Korea. Being the son of university professors led him to pursue a Ph.D. with original hopes of continuing in academia. He came to Michigan in 2008 to study aerospace engineering (inspired partly by seeing the Jodie Foster movie Contact when he was younger). After attaining his doctoral degree in that field and completing a postdoc, he returned to Korea to work for about five years in research and development, first for Hyundai Motors and then for Bosch in Japan.
“It was really good pay, and the working conditions were perfect,” he says. “But I wasn’t really satisfied on a day-to-day basis. I wanted to do more on the business side and also to use more of my communication skills.”
In 2017, an opportunity arose for Hyun to join one of the “big four” business consulting firms, KPMG, while based in Japan. He soon had the idea to pitch esports consulting to company leadership.
“Japan is the number three gaming market in the world, after the U.S. and China, but nobody really knew about esports,” he says. “My bosses were like, ‘You just want to play games in the office, right?’ I had to show them that it’s actually more than that.”
While his career shift took him away from his studies as an aerospace engineer, Hyun says that his Ph.D. training was still integral to his work at KPMG, where he relied not only on his analytical research skills, but also his ability to communicate his findings.
“My advisors taught me a formula for reporting in preparation for my qualifying exams. When the meeting starts, tell them what I am working on, what’s the grand mission. And then tell them what I had been doing until last week. And then tell them what progress I made this week. Then start back again. What progress will I make with my next step? And how’s that going to help meet our future goal for the entire project?
“And guess what? That was exactly what I needed to do when I faced CEOs or boards of executives. They don’t have a lot of time and they look after a lot of things, so I need to be as effective as possible. Most of my business communication training came from that grad school training.”
Hyun secured approval to begin working on esports consulting, eventually positioning KPMG as the first major consulting firm in the world to do work in that industry. He began by returning to familiar territory, working with professors at Keio University in Tokyo to sponsor an esports business course.
“We were expecting 10 people,” he says, “and then 30 showed up on the first day.”
By inviting guest speakers to the class from within the industry—esports teams, game publishers, event organizers—Hyun was able to build relationships for his business. His list of clients grew, and by 2019 it included Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry. Today, he has started his own strategy firm, LunaTone, Inc., and is also teaching esports business at Temple University Japan during the fall 2023 term.
The Power of Connectivity
The success of his consulting venture aside, Hyun is still interested in changing people’s attitudes toward gaming, particularly in how it can actually be used to create community rather than isolate people. He began to organize workplace tournaments, which grew into a competition between several companies. And he never lost sight of skeptics as critical as his mother-in-law.
“We’re developing a web service for seniors,” he says. “They start by clicking a mouse and by typing, which is a white belt. If they can log in properly, then they move on to the yellow belt, like a judo system. And when they eventually become a black belt, they can play Fortnite with their grandchildren and even compete with their peers. And we’re seeing a great reception for this kind of service.
“Gaming is a playground for everybody, where you can make friends. It’s more of a communication channel with entertainment, one that requires self growth and dedication, because it’s not easy to be good. It’s a different era, I think, but it’s the era we’re living in.”
Game on, Blue
Esports are no stranger to the U-M campus. What started with about 30 members as Arbor Esports in 2011 became an official student sponsored organization in 2020 under the name Michigan Esports. According to director Kevin Palmer, the organization is built in two parts. A competitive side, with approximately 150 students, plays in collegiate leagues and matches against other schools across North America throughout the academic year. The recreational side has about 3,000 student members and serves as a community for gamers at Michigan.
“Currently, Michigan is one of just a couple of Big Ten schools that does not have a dedicated esports or gaming facility on campus,” Palmer says. “Our current push and drive are to find funding to build a dedicated space for our student body.”