The LCK logo (Riot Games)
As the stove league continues in the League of Legends Champions Korea offseason, roster changes and transfers are being announced in preparation for the franchise system that will start in spring. However, player salaries and transfer fees, on which everyone keeps an eye every year during the stove league, are once again kept hidden, revealed only through rumors, without any official statements.
Despite the secrecy surrounding the exact price, the figures being tossed about this year are at an all-time high. This is the case not only for the top-tier veteran players, but for the rookie players who have a lot more to prove as well. Ryu “Keria” Min-seok, the rookie player of 2020, transferred to T1 from DRX on Nov. 18. The salary Keria was offered was insane, on par with the best players in his role, according to Kukmin Ilbo reporter Yoon Min-sub, who has long covered the gaming beat, posting on his personal Twitter account.
T1 announces that Ryu “Keria” Min-seok will be joining the team in 2021. (Twitter)
“The most interesting phrase I heard during the stove league was ‘pressing down hard with money.’ I thought it was a term used only in LoL,” Yoon tweeted.
As LCK heads to the franchise system that had an entrance fee of 10 billion won ($9 million) for teams already in the LCK, many South Korean teams are not hesitating to spend more than in previous years.
The inflation was triggered in part by the unofficial releases of player salaries by reporters. In June, Kevin Seo, CEO of Afreeca TV, announced through an online broadcast that LoL team Afreeca Freecs’ star player Kim “Kiin” Gi-in was being paid 4.5 billion won for a three-year contract. That was the only case where a current LCK player’s salary was revealed officially. Also, an ESPN Esports writer tweeted Son “Lehends” Si-woo signed a contract last December with Hanwha Life Esports for over $700,000 a year.
“When you hear a headline number for a contract, it’s impossible to tell what the actual number is because there could be so many unique nuances like performance bonuses, prize splits, and other considerations that aren’t necessarily guaranteed,” said GenG Esports Chief Operating Officer Arnold Hur during an interview with The Korea Herald in September. “However, this is changing quickly though so I think as the numbers get larger for the salaries, you’ll see more numbers come out publicly,” he added.
An LCK trophy alongside the LCK logo at LoL Park Arena in Jongno, Seoul (Riot Games)
Unlike in many other sports, the standard practice in the esports industry is to keep the information on transfers and salary secret. The new minimum salary for LCK players has risen to 60 million won with the upcoming franchise system, which is higher than the minimum salary of any other pro sports league in Korea. Still, the top players are thought to get much more.
One of the reasons is that there is no salary cap in the Korean LoL scene. The LoL Pro League in China announced that it would be imposing a salary cap for the 2021 season, the first such cap in the LoL scene.
When superstar player Lee “Faker” Sang-hyeok signed a multiyear contract in 2018, the CEO of esports team T1 said Faker had the highest salary of any professional player in Korea. Baseball team Lotte Giant’s Lee Dae-ho’s salary was 2.5 billion won at the time. While Faker could not confirm the rumors that his salary could be as much as 5 billion won a year during his many appearances on entertainment shows this year, he did confirm that he was offered a blank check at one point by a different team.
The alleged prices of LCK transfers are not preposterous compared with LPL or the NA league. Last year, ESPN reported Heo “Huni” Seung-hoon was offered $2.3 million for two years. Also, esports reporter Travis Gafford said that Nicolaj “Jensen” Jensen had signed a three-year $4.2-million deal last month with Team Liquid. Also, many Korean players are still considering going to the LPL for the money as well as the competition.
“I think as leagues continue to evolve and the business matures, leagues will have to become more transparent about their business. Right now, I think there’s a lack of standardization, which makes this difficult,” said Hur.
By Lim Jang-won (firstname.lastname@example.org