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[Interview] Bringing the sense of presence into esports – what and how: Yeong-seung Ham, Program Director at Riot Games.


GG Vol. 

23. 8. 10.

Translator’s note: The original title of this article is "Where Does the Hyeonjang-gam (현장감) Come From in Esports?" Hyeonjang-gam is a compound word in Korean, combining 'site (현장)' and 'feeling/sense (-감)'. It primarily refers to the immersive experience or the feeling of being fully engaged and present in a specific physical space, commonly observed in sports, concerts, events, and esports. It encompasses the physical presence and the ability to perceive the atmosphere and energy of a particular environment. To ensure clarity in this English translation, the term "Hyeonjang-gam" has been interpreted as "the feeling of presence.”


Editor’s note: The feeling of being part of the crowd is a powerful experience. In traditional sports, this empowering moment is known as "hyeonjang-gam," which can be translated as the "feeling of presence." Despite technological advancements and high-speed internet that allow us to watch sports matches remotely from home, many fans still choose to visit the on-site venue to immerse themselves in the passion, sweat, tears, cheers, and chanting that cannot be fully transmitted through a screen. Some become fans of a sports team after experiencing an engaging moment at the stadium, chanting alongside a group of people. Even in esports, numerous fans have missed spectating digital game matches at physical on-site stadiums during the Covid-19 pandemic.

This situation is somewhat ironic when you think about it. When we say, "It doesn't feel real when watching an esports match at home" or "I wish I could watch the match at a real stadium," it implies that we are not fully satisfied with esports existing in the virtual world, despite the inherent online nature of the games themselves. So, let's delve deeper into what is the "feeling of presence" in esports—the feeling, the sensation, the bonding, and the moments of realism that exist in the physical world. When there's no physical Summoner's Rift (a map in League of Legends) at the esports stadium, what else creates that sense of authenticity and engagement for esports fans on-site? What are the similarities between the feeling of presence in traditional sports and esports? To gain insights, let's turn to Yeong-seung Ham, Program Director at Riot Games, who has extensive experience in broadcasting production from conventional sports scenes at MBC (Munhwa Broadcasting Corporation), one of the leading South Korean television and radio broadcasters, and currently leads the broadcasting at LCK (League of Legends Champions Korea).


Interviewer, Do-won Seo: Hello! Please give our readers a brief introduction of yourself.

Yeong-seung Ham, Program Director at Riot Games: Hello, my name is Yeong-seung Ham, and I am in charge of the broadcasting division at Riot Games. I have been working there for roughly four and a half years now. Previously, I used to work at MBC in their sports broadcasting division where I was involved in various sports programs and content.

Seo: What were your most memorable experiences when you used to broadcast (conventional) sports during your time at MBC? Were you involved in many types of sports or just one particular?

Ham: I had the opportunity to handle basketball programs at the 2014 Asian Games, which were held in Incheon, South Korea. One of the most memorable moments was witnessing the Korean men's basketball team win the gold medal, marking the first victory since the 2002 Asian Games. It was definitely a significant highlight in my sports broadcasting career. The PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics Games were also truly mesmerizing. I was also once involved in motor racing broadcasting, which is considered a niche sports genre in Korea. Due to its limited recognition among the general public, we had to put in extra effort to produce various side-content such as documentaries and entertainment programs about motor racing, in order to build up the storyline for those races.

Seo: Then you moved to the esports scene. What makes esports broadcasting unique compared to transmitting (conventional) sports matches?

Ham: I believe esports broadcasting is perhaps the most real-time and responsive genre of broadcasting. The level of active engagement and feedback from esports viewers surpasses that of any other broadcasting shows in Korea. And that's where its beauty lies. We can quickly identify what we may have missed during the transmission, or what the esports viewers might have overlooked in the match. This allows us to iterate and address any issues promptly. Of course, there are certain aspects that cannot be immediately corrected. For example, when we released the first (LCK) opening video, if fans claim that it looks bad, there's very little we can do about it. Scheduling with the teams is not always flexible, as we have only a few days set aside for recording sessions. Even if we realize that the video didn't fully meet the fans' expectations, we still have to proceed with it until the next season. We have also received criticism regarding our recent (LCK) visual graphics, such as "there's too much purple." So, yeah, we hope to make improvements in the next season, and that's the mindset we have. If there's something we can fix immediately, we do so as soon as possible. This is where esports differs the most from regular sports broadcasting.

Seo: But I do remember that during basketball broadcasting on major Korean TV channels they often displayed text messages from viewers while the match was live. How does receiving feedback through this type of viewer participation system differ between conventional sports and esports?

Ham: Yes, that reminds me of when I used to lead the broadcasting of Major League Baseball on MBC regularly on weekends. That was the time when some of the most well-known Korean baseball players, such as Hyun-jin Ryu, Shin-soo Choo, Byung-ho Park, Hyun-soo Kim, Seung-hwan Oh, and Jeong-ho Kang, were active in the US Major League. We broadcast their matches simultaneously in real-time. It wasn't just core baseball fans who were watching, but also many Korean baseball fans who specifically wanted to see those Korean players in action instead of watching an entire 9-inning match on television. However, due to limited channels, it was not possible to show all the Korean players' matches at the same time on separate channels. So we conducted an experiment where we dedicated one program solely to Korean players. It was similar to broadcasting the Olympic Games, where we focus on specific matches among the many sports events happening simultaneously during the Olympics when Korean players were performing. So we received every feeds of the baseball matches involving Major League teams with Korean players and selectively aired them when the Korean players were at bat or pitching. Even when Byung-ho Park was sent down to the minor leagues, we captured the Minor League's online live stream (as those matches were not televised) and included it in our Korean-player-specific baseball program. And during that time, MBC had a TV show called "My Little Television," which took inspiration from real-time streaming services like Twitch. It was sensational all across Korea at the time. So, we decided to take inspiration from it and introduce a real-time chat system to our live sports broadcasts. This allowed viewers to see how people were reacting to the match and find out what they liked or didn't like about the program.

But, I think the major difference between the esports and conventional sports scenes is that the latter is often player(/athlete)-centric. Fans focus on an athlete's performance, cheering for their impressive plays and such. In esports, they not only discuss an athlete's performance but also talk about the game itself. When you think about baseball or football, people don't usually talk about the game mechanics. But in the case of League of Legends (LoL), the entire sports genre per-se is developed by a single company. So, let's say there's a bug in the game or a certain champion in LoL is considered OP (overpowered). Then fans might start trolling the game and Riot Games on live-chat. In this situation, we find ourselves in an ironic position. We are not just random TV staff broadcasting sports matches; we are part of the company that developed and operates the game, as we are affiliated with Riot Korea. So if there's something wrong with the game then fans may direct their frustration towards our company. If there is a conflict with a referee's decision that is also the responsibility of Riot Korea. If we, the production team made a mistake during live stream then it also becomes the company's problem.

This adds a layer of complexity that I have to endure in a more active manner. I am aware that we are not perfect and have sometimes disappointed our esports audience. But I also want to address that even the most well-prepared cable channels have made mistakes in their early days of operation, and eventually settle down and learn from their mistakes. We are also collecting our viewers' valuable opinions and gradually expand our workforce and improve our infrastructure. We sincerely hope for our fans' continuous support and feedback as we move forward.

Seo: I'd like to ask about the on-site venues of esports. We now have physical esports stadiums despite the game happening virtually online. From a production standpoint, how would you compare the esports on-site scene with other conventional sports?

Ham: There are similarities in terms of the vibrant atmosphere and the feeling of presence that you experience in a particular physical setting. Even though the game is happening virtually online, you can witness the professional esports athletes in action right before your eyes. Moreover, in LCK, we have an open stage where audiences can hear the urgent communication between players, such as "go here" or "attack now," unlike the closed-booth stage. I think the major difference between esports and conventional sports lies in the audio experience at the venue. In esports venues, the audience can hear the live voices of casters and commentators. If you imagine attending a baseball or football stadium, you'll hear various sounds made by athletes and the cheering of fans, but the voices of casters and commentators are typically muted in the physical venue and only televised. In esports, the game itself is online, but it is displayed on a large physical screen with the echoes of casters and commentators resonating throughout the physical venue. This creates a more spectacular atmosphere for on-site esports spectating compared to physical conventional sports. And to further enhance fan engagement during the match, we even incorporate audiovisual elements into the scene. For example, when a team defeats one of the elemental drakes (NPCs in LoL that provide buffs), we illuminate the audience with lights that match the drake’s color. If a team defeats Baron Nashor, we then also switch the lights to the corresponding color. These added elements make the overall experience more immersive, more lively for fans. But I think it all comes down to the role of casters and commentators. They are the most distinctive features of esports, enhancing fan engagement and adding excitement throughout the show. Unlike baseball, football, or basketball casters, esports casters are able to maintain high tension throughout the program, injecting bursts of energy into every solo-kill and team fight, as if there were home runs happening every minute. They truly play multiple roles in creating an unforgettable experience.

Seo: So the exciting voices of casters and commentators broadcasted on-site are major factors that enhance the feeling of presence in esports. Then what about the players on the stage? What if there’s no players on the stage? Would the fans still enjoys the feeling of presence there?

Ham: I believe we're already making progress in that aspect. As you may be aware, CGV Cinema (one of the largest multiplex cinema theater and IMAX franchises in South Korea) recently screened the LCK summer finals. With 90% of the tickets sold, approximately 8,000 fans watched the LCK finals in movie theaters nationwide.

[One of the posters of LCK Summer Finals 2022 in CGV theater. Fans had the opportunity to watch the final match on August 28, 2022, starting from 13:40, at one of the 32 CGV cinema theaters nationwide. The ticket price was 20,000 KRW (approximately 15 USD).]


Seo: Yes, I was also there, and I was truly amazed.

Ham: Exactly. Apparently a lot of people are enjoying esports in this way. Even though the esports players were not physically present at CGV, fans were still able to connect through the spectacularity of the big screen, the immersive sound, and the shared experience of cheering with fellow audience members. I'm not aware of any other sports genre (in Korea), where fans actively participate in these kinds of "viewing parties" as much as they do in esports. During the recent LCK playoffs, there were many fans who couldn't enter the stadium because the tickets were sold out. But there were still fans gathered around here at LoL Park (League of Legends Park, an esports stadium in Seoul run by Riot Games), using this physical space as a communal gathering place for people who love LoL and LCK to come together and enjoy the event. Because you could hear chants and cheers emanating from the inside even outside the stadium. That's why people showed up, even without tickets, to watch the match together on small screens in the lobby area, where we also broadcast LCK matches. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many people gathered in those areas outside the stadium, spectating and cheering together.

Seo: That sounds like a mix between attending a live sports event and watching sports at a bar. Would you say it's similar to the sports bar culture where people gather in pubs to watch the Premier League together?

Ham: Or the street gatherings of fans during the World Cup. Because it is obviously more fun watching sports together. Sometimes I think, "Wouldn't it be amazing if the LoL esports scene becomes more developed, and we can have a massive fan gathering during the LoL finals at a place like Gwanghwamun Square?" (One of the largest public squares in Seoul.) After attending the LCS (League of Legends Championship) finals, one thing that left a lasting impression on me was that their LoL matches took place at an American football stadium. The one I saw was NRG Stadium, a large stadium in Houston with a retractable dome structure. Only half of the stadium was covered by the dome where they had sort of like a fan festival event setup. There was also a sponsor zone and various events inside. Even though the area under the dome was quite dark due to the lack of natural light, people were there from morning to evening, immersing themselves in the esports culture. It strongly reminded me of what we, as Riot Games, are striving for - why we develop and provide live services for the game LoL, organize esports events, and create additional content like Arcane. It's because we want to create meaningful experiences for our users, even in the offline world, through the game. So at that LCS finals, fans were enjoying the event together, cheer for their favorite players and teams, while having fun with various activities on a physical setting, which creates a deeper sense of belonging and solidarity with the "League of Legends" culture. This later became our inspiration for the “Fan Festa” that we recently did in Gangneung (in Korea) in August 2022. We thought, "How about a one-day event with a festival-like atmosphere?" and that's how it became a reality. Of course, there's always some risk in trying something new. Two of our project leads for Fan Festa were worried so much, saying ‘what if people don’t show up?’ They even joked about the potential scenario of only the two of them standing in a massive stadium, imagining how awkward it would be. Fortunately, that didn't happen. We had nearly 7,000 people attend our Fan Festa. It was a valuable learning experience for us, as we ventured into organizing not just broadcasting programs but also other forms of cultural events and festivals. I believe such endeavors are what bridges the gap between the online and offline worlds, even though the game is an online medium. It’s the physical setting that fosters a sense of closeness among people.

Seo: That’s true. While we refer to it as e(lectronic)-sports, there has always been a consensus that the final matches, the grand finals, should take place in a physical venue. As you mentioned, this might be because of the feeling of closeness and bonding that arises when tens of thousands of fans come together to cheer. Despite the era of constant online connectivity, there are still many things that cannot be achieved in the virtual world. Let's delve deeper into this topic. You first discussed the important role of casters and commentators, and then the importance of on-site engagement of fans that creates a lively atmosphere and a sense of bonding. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Ham: I want to add about the interactions with the players (esports athletes). During the Covid-19 pandemic, we fully online streamed all our matches. Although it went reasonably well, there was always something missing. And it wasn't just the staff and the fans who felt that way; the players felt it too. Several esports athletes expressed how much they missed playing at the on-site venue. They shared sentiments like, 'I want to play at LoL Park again,' 'I want to compete in a place with an audience,' 'I want to feel the enthusiasm and vibrant energy of the crowd.' This is because, even though players are mostly isolated from what the crowd is saying during gameplay, they can still hear or feel the eruption of cheers when they achieve something remarkable. They also feel the crowd's presence. That resonance, that energy, fuels their adrenaline. For instance, FPS games like Valorant are a good example because the game has immediate feedback. When a player gets a kill, the crowd's cheers erupt instantly. I think this also leads FPS players to have more pronounced reactions compared to other more subtle game genres. And it's this immediate burst of energy that prompts fans to start chanting.

Seo: Oh, so the player's performance not only generates further engagement from fans – such as chanting – but it also elicits reactions from the players themselves. Sounds like a feedback effect in the physical venue. That's a good point.

Ham: Yes, exactly. And there’s the moment when players enter — the awe-inspiring moment when they come onto the stage. I know what that feels like too. I've attended many on-site matches as a fan myself, and the energy that emanates from a packed crowd is completely different from being in an empty venue. It can make your heart race even if you're just standing still. Such energy is what brings the joy of spectating sports. So it's not just about players and audiences physically being in the same space; it's more about how they interact, how players and audiences engage with each other. That's what makes the scene livelier and more exciting. For example, many people missed the chanting of "1-2-3, OOO fighting!" (Translator’s note: A Korean esports fan chanting culture where fans chant in an organized manner with '1-2-3, (player or team's name) fighting' at the beginning of a match to cheer for their favorite player/team.) We even pre-recorded that chant, along with a bunch of Riot Game staff, production teams, and agency people, "1-2-3, XXX fighting!" and "1-2-3, YYY fighting!", and played it at the beginning of the match when the entire audience seating was empty due to the pandemic. Some fans said that was cringy but there were still others who said, 'Yeah, I missed that.' In a way, we all wanted to experience the thrill of being part of a large audience, that sense of solidarity with the culture we love. There's also this unique fan meeting culture in esports, where players come to the front of the stage to say hi to the fans before the game starts. And after the game ends, there's always a brief fan meeting, similar to K-Pop fandom. Conventional sports may have moments where fans can take pictures or get autographs near the exit after a game, but I've never seen this type of dedicated fan meeting procedure as normalized as in esports. I think that's also unique to esports.

Seo: You mentioned the engagement between players and audiences, which reminds me of what happens when a pause occurs in esports. In other sports, for example, when a rainstorm temporarily pauses a match, the atmosphere cools down. But in the LCK broadcast, there were many moments when casters and commentators interacted with the audiences during the pause situation.

Ham: I feel really bad about the frequent pauses that happened during this LCK season, especially as they often occurred due to technical game issues. In the case of interactions during a pause situation, yes, the casters and commentators play a big role. We monitor the viewers' reactions in real-time, and the casters are able to respond to them during the pause. For example, Caster Seong (Seung-heon Seong, one of the LCK casters) and commentators seem to feel an obligation to shake up the mood again during the pause situation. I can see that this could be a psychological burden for casters and commentators. But we work hard to check the fans' real-time comments and respond as energetically as possible during those awkward pause moments. Thanks to the efforts of many people, we also have content around us that we can utilize, such as pointing the camera to cheer signs (cheer placards) from fans or videos that we can play during long pauses.

Seo: It's difficult to define the essence of "hyeonjang-gam (feeling of presence)," but I think we are getting closer to understanding it. Now, for the last and final question. As an esports content creator, how do you feel about the empty moment after the stage?

Ham: During the pandemic, it was only us, the staff, at the site. The players were playing games at their facility, while the audiences were all watching the match from home. It was just us on the empty and hollow stage. We felt somewhat depressed and down during that time. Every day when we commuted to work, being the only ones maintaining the scene, we couldn't shake off this feeling of emptiness in our minds. We felt like janitors taking care of a forgotten building. I still feel that way when I see an empty stage, after the game is over. It’s sort of similar to the feeling of seeing an empty theater after a performance. You know, there's a subtle excitement around the stadium before the show, like when you go to the cinema and waiting for the movie to start while munching on freshly cooked popcorn. Such excitement from the audience is what makes us, the production staff, feel excited too. We sense it. And the players feel it too. And then the game ends, after the fan meeting, suddenly the buzz stops. The lively energy just disappears. So I would say that LoL Park after the match is pretty scary, like a ghost town (laughs).


[The empty LoL Park after the LCK season. Like Ham said, it feels empty and lonely without the audience and players.]


Seo: Okay, then one extra question, which could be a difficult one. How do you see yourself? Are you a broadcasting production manager? Or do you see yourself as an esports event manager? Because you are involved in both the broadcasting (streaming) and on-site aspects of LCK.

Ham: I would say my job is more involved in the broadcasting side of things. So, production.

Seo: But you also mentioned a lot about fan engagement on-site, the atmosphere, and the feeling of excitement in the physical venues of esports, which, as you said, is something unique compared to the conventional sports scene.

Ham: Perhaps that's the main reason why I decided to move here and join the esports scene, choosing a career in esports broadcasting. We (Riot Games) have a stadium, a physical space. And that's a big deal. Since we have a physical venue, we can experience things live on-site while also broadcasting and streaming, closely monitoring what is happening inside the stadium. In the past, with conventional sports, we would travel around South Korea with a broadcast truck, capturing footage of every single match across the country, but it never felt like the show was ‘ours’. Those stadiums were not ours; we were just there capturing the footage. But here, with LoL Park, it is us who must prepare everything. It's like how we say it in Korean, "we have to set our own food table". We have to brainstorm how we can better convey the story to our audience, design events to engage with our fans, work closely together with other teams – such as event teams, league management teams, game product teams, etc. In a sense, we are like the KBO (baseball league in South Korea), a sports cable channel, and Olympic baseball stadium operation in one set. We are a combination of these three. That's why I moved to the esports scene and still remain here, as there's no other scene in sports where I can be involved in such a comprehensive experience.

Seo: It was insightful to hear your role as a program director in broadcasting division while also being closely on-site. Thank you for sharing your precious time for the interview.



Media Culture Researcher

I study culture for the fun of life. I have curiousity in all sorts of things like games, religion, and films.


(Doctoral researcher at Aalto University, Finland)

Born and raised in Korea and now in Finland, Solip’s current research interest focused on immigrant and expatriates in the video game industry and game development cultures around the world. She is also the author and artist of "Game Expats Story" comic series.

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