HANGZHOU, CHINA — An unlikely controversy between K-pop and e-sports fans has emerged online after it was reported that a top South Korean e-sport player could be exempted from mandatory military service if he clinches a gold medal at the Asian Games.
Lee Sang-hyeok, more commonly known by his in-game name Faker, is a professional League of Legends (LoL) player who is representing South Korea at the 19th Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, which began last Saturday (Sept 23).
The 27-year-old is one of 15 players from South Korea’s national team who is competing for seven different e-sports titles at the Games.
If all of them win a gold medal, they will be spared the 18 to 21 months of military service that all able-bodied Korean men must perform by 28 years old.
Reports of the e-sports players potentially skipping national service have riled up fans of K-pop megagroup BTS. Some lawmakers had floated the idea of granting the hit group an exemption so that they can continue performing.
However, the band’s agency Hybe last year said that all members planned to complete military duty by 2025.
The recent controversy has particularly been focused on Faker, who is regarded as one of the world’s top players in the multiplayer battle arena game and has been dubbed as the “Lionel Messi of LoL” and the “Unkillable Demon King”.
High-profile athletes have qualified for military exemptions, such as in 2018 when South Korean football player Son Heung-min clinched the gold medal at the Asian Games.
However, this is the first time that e-sports players such as Faker may have the opportunity to skip military service.
In 2020, South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense confirmed that e-sports athletes are eligible for exemption from the country’s mandatory military service, Nikkei Asia reported.
The ministry said: “According to Article 68-11(1)(5) of the Military Service Act Enforcement Decree, individuals who achieve first place in the Asian Games can be included as artistic and athletic personnel.
“Therefore, if a professional gamer wins first place in an official e-sports event, they can be included as artistic and athletic personnel.”
In South Korea, it is mandatory for all male citizens aged 18 to 35 to serve the military. However, service does not have to start at 18 years old and it is possible to delay it until the age of 28.
‘FAKER HAS DONE MORE FOR KOREA THAN BTS’
As of Tuesday afternoon, a post on online forum Reddit about Faker’s military service exemption has attracted more than 4,400 upvotes and 779 comments in less than a day.
A tweet by user “itto_inho” on Monday showing Faker posing with his trophies, captioned “Faker has done more for Korea than BTS” has garnered more than 2.2 million views, 2,000 likes, 1,752 retweets and 461 comments as of Tuesday.
Numerous BTS fans criticised the post for comparing the gamer with the K-pop group.
One responded to the tweet: “My family in the (United) States and in Korea have sung BTS’ praises up and down. Meanwhile, if I ever brought up Faker to anyone that doesn’t already play League, I’d get blank stares.”
Another remarked: “Ask random people on streets about BTS and Faker and they would know BTS, and have no idea who Faker is, like, seriously.”
One even mentioned the financial contributions of BTS to South Korea’s economy, writing: “No shade to Faker, I’m sure he’s a great guy but BTS was awarded Cultural Merit Order (youngest ever) and in 2019, contributed 0.3 per cent of overall South Korea’s gross domestic product. So, no, to your point.”
However, many were simply baffled by the fan feud, referring to Faker and BTS’ numerous public and friendly interactions, such as when Faker appeared on the K-pop group’s variety programme Run BTS.
One online user wrote: “This is what I hate, Faker is one of the most famous gamers in the world right now. Both BTS and Faker are making Korea proud in their own ways, how can you even compare both of them?
“Imagine both BTS and Faker getting hate because of this idiotic tweet. BTS’ contribution is invaluable.”