Seo “Shark” Kyung-jong began his pro gaming career in 2002, at the age of 15. His transition from player to caster, following eight years of competition in StarCraft: Broodwar , is now a fairly common path that many players walk once their career ends. But only a handful have taken his next step of entrepreneurship; building a gaming brand in an industry where every venture has an added level of risk.
After completing his military service, as is mandatory in South Korea, the former StarCraft pro founded STILL8 (then known as Kongdoo Company) in 2014. The company now employs almost 90 people across offices in South Korea and China, including roughly 45 players, and has raised ₩21.1B KRW ($21M USD) in funding to date from investors including Kakao Ventures, Partners Investments, STIC Investments, and TS Investment.
“As an endemic esports company, STILL8 focused on two things; monetization of the esports industry and globalization of Korean esports.”
“All my business skills were learned after starting this company,” Seo told The Esports Observer. “Kongdoo Company was based on the idea of hiring retired professional gamers, like myself, and giving them a chance to advance their careers. That was the start of STILL8 and we have had many trials and successes over the last five years to become who we are now.”
One of STILL8’s strongest assets today is Team Griffin, a League of Legends outfit that has performed well on its native soil, acquired shortly after qualifying for South Korea’s top league in 2018. But as a pure esports company, STILL8 stands apart from several of the other team owners in the League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK). Many rosters are still run as marketing endeavors, either by telecommunications giants like SK Telecom and KT, or through other industries, like insurance provider Hanwha Life.
“For STILL8, it was both a challenge and an opportunity,” said Seo. “As an endemic esports company, STILL8 focused on two things; monetization of the esports industry and globalization of Korean esports.” Seo believes that there is great investment potential in Korean esports, and many teams in the region have the global market as their main objective—and not just as a source of sponsorships.
The allure of South Korean esports lies not only in its competitive accolades, but a cultural significance that other regions are only now experiencing. However, the avenues for Korean esports brands to gain global recognition remains slim. There are English language broadcasts of the LCK, even if just for Western fans willing to wake up early enough, and Korean stars have only recently started building profiles up on foreign social media sites.
“For example, several LCK teams are working with us to raise their global profile by live streaming via Douyu TV,” said Seo, referring to one of China’s largest live video platforms. “Producing various localized content, winning international competitions, are all efforts to increase the value of the team in the global market.”
Ever since StarCraft: Brood War first took over Korea’s PC Bangs (LAN gaming cafes) in the early 2000s, the country has been at the forefront of esports development; playing host to the very first World Cyber Games in Seoul in 2000, and bringing pro gaming to TV through channels such as OnGameNet (known today as OGN ).
“Franchising the league will grant the teams with a stable environment for growth.”
According to Seo, esports as a market only really started to surface within the last year. “That is why I believe investment in Korean esports will become more active in the near future, as some global brands have already shown.” Two of the LCK brands now have western companies behind them; Gen.G Esports , a global organization founded by a Silicon-Valley leadership team, and SK Telecom T1 , which is now run as a joint venture between the telco and Comcast Specatcor .
The LCK remains one of the only four ‘play-in’ regions of the League of Legends esports system to not have introduced a franchise-style initiative. China, North America, and Europe have each closed their competitions to outside qualification and required buy-in fees from teams in exchange for revenue sharing and a closer working relationship.
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“I also believe LCK should go in the direction of franchising,” said Seo. “The promotion-relegation rule that Korea now implements has become a reason why esports companies are hesitant to invest for the future. Franchising the league will grant the teams with a stable environment for growth.”
With professional rosters not only in League of Legends, but also PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS (PUBG), Overwatch , and Fortnite , the revenues for Team Griffin remain a significant source for STILL8. “Our coaching staff have also accumulated know-how on player training and have produced competitive players that the market desires,” said Seo. “I view this ‘primary’ revenue source as a sustainable form of ROI.”
Many former Overwatch players for Griffin, who competed under the Kongdoo Panthera name, were picked up by the London Spitfire —a Cloud9 operated team in the Overwatch League, which won the inaugural season. “I continuously followed the players, and when they won in the inaugural season, I was invited to New York to visit them.”
The company continued to nurture players and coaching for the league; with several more having been transferred to the Shanghai Dragons and Los Angeles Gladiators last year. According to Seo, the transfer fees for players have grown dramatically with each season. Yet despite South Korean players accounting for roughly 60% of talent in the OWL, to date, only the Seoul franchise spot has been purchased (by Gen.G Esports).
“STILL8 does not stop at brokering agreements, but can take responsibility for all production processes.”
“It is difficult to say that the Overwatch League is a perfect esports league, however, there is no doubt that it demonstrates the direction in which future esports franchise leagues should follow,” said Seo. “With our strong investment capability, we are preparing to dive in whenever a good opportunity arises.”
STILL8 segments its revenues from team business and other esports entertainment at a 4:6 ratio. In the latter, a key monetary source lies in managing the IPs of other Korean esports teams, including SKT T1, KT Rolster, Kingzone, and Gen.G Esports, as well as those of retired pro-gamers, commentators, and game content creators. This content ranges from master classes in League of Legends to the production, sale, and distribution of educational VODs.
“The reason STILL8 was able to sell broadcasting rights, although it is not a developer like Riot Games or a league rights holder like the Korean Esports Association (KeSPA), was because we did not limit ourselves to the ordinary role of an agency,” said Seo. “STILL8 does not stop at brokering agreements, but can takes responsibility for all production processes.”
STILL8 also manages the media rights for competitions, including the KeSPA Cup. While a team owner performing the role of a rights seller is another sign of esports’ nascent progression, the same trend can be found in the west. Swift Media (Team SoloMid’s parent) has a number of analytics tools in its portfolio, while Team Liquid runs its own community portal, production arm, and influencer talent agency. Regardless of region, diversification is often a means of survival In the esports market.
On top of breaking down the language barrier between China and South Korean esports, STILL8 also runs an academy business in China, and is looking to buy broadcasting rights for other leagues abroad. The company has also played the part of competition manager, having organized a PUBG league with streaming platform KakaoTV last year, and the Afreeca Starleague (ASL) for StarCraft: Remastered. “These trials, of organizing events and leagues, are one of the main focuses of our business in China,” said Seo.