Inside HGC Korea's VSL Studio
Last year's HGC Korea may have been held offline, but it wasn't an offline event. Teams played in an enclosed studio environment with only cameras and referees around them. There was no crowd. There was no cheering. There were no reporters. The casters were five floors away from the players. The only place in the building where you could sit down to watch the games was the locker room.
Nothing fuels you in the moment like a well-timed roar from a crowd. Nothing makes all the hard work worth it more than a smiling fan's sparkling eyes. Receiving positive messages through Twitch and Twitter meant a lot, as it always does, but it couldn't replace direct human presence.
But things have changed for the better this year. With HGC Korea production moving over to Twitch Korea's VSL Studio, the top flight of Korean Heroes has become a proper offline event again.
On opening day, I went to the studio. The place was huge; the building complex was made up of three towers, the studio was on the 23rd floor of Tower B, and Tower B alone had seven elevators. It was mostly an office hive, but the first floor was full of restaurants and cafes: sushi, hot dogs, kimbap, coffee, budae-jjigae. The eateries weren't as fancy as the ones near Shanghai's Blizzard Esports Hall (which is nestled right within MTR City Plaza, a sparkling-new shopping mall), but there were enough decent options for food and drink.
I arrived at the arena early. There was already a long line of about 50 people waiting for the doors to open; many of them were in Heroes-themed shirts. One stocky man with a buzz cut was wearing a rare red-and-blue Heroes jacket from 2015 and waving around a selfie stick, talking to it. "We'll be inside in just a minute, brothers!" I found out he was Byeong-Yeong "BaengBoong" Ahn, one of Korea's most popular Heroes streamers. He was broadcasting an IRL stream. A few other streamers were standing in line as well.
Soon enough, the doors opened and everyone piled inside. There weren't any plush bolted seats—VSL hadn't intended to house an audience back when the arena was first built—but around 40 grey plastic chairs were set up in front of the stage. They filled up right away.
BaengBoong had managed to find a seat in the back row. He was yabbering away to his viewers about how cool the stage looked, his face flushed with excitement. I tiptoed past him to get a better angle for a photo. He turned around and waved at my camera.
"Hey, what about me?" he said, with a huge grin. "Take one of me!"
Meanwhile, GLuck and Feliz were busy setting up their peripherals on stage. There were no booths; it was an open-air setup with soundproofing, just like Blizzard Arena Los Angeles. I was vaguely concerned about the possibility of someone chucking an Abathur hat and knocking over a monitor during a team fight, but figured that things would be fine (they were).
At the very back of the arena, furthest away from the stage, there was a small lounge-like area for shooting on-air interviews. There was an Abathur hat (oh no), a couple of huge, heavy-looking HGC plates, and a Stitches scale model. Next to the lounge there were a few wooden shelves stocked full of Heroes goodies: duffel bags, canvas bags, water bottles, shirts, caps, baseball jackets, mousepads, and more. Never did shoplifting feel so tempting.
The press room was just across the hall, only a few steps from the arena doors, which made things very convenient for the photographers. It was small but had all the necessary amenities: wifi, desks, chairs, TV, water. There weren't any free cookies, but some nice person had ordered pizza for the reporters. Sadly, the pizza wasn't very good—Korean delivery pizza rarely is.
Finally, at the far end of the floor was the locker room, closed to the public and separated from everything else. It was somewhat bare—a couch would have been nice—but perfectly serviceable. The best thing about the room was how it was just close enough to the arena to hear the crowd roar at big plays. I was there when one such roar occurred. Everyone in the room smiled.
"The guys on stage must be really happy to be playing right now," one player said. "I missed it. This is what it's supposed to be like."
Offline esports events come in all kinds, shapes, and sizes. Some are held in World Cup stadiums. Some are held in commercial aircraft hangars. Some are held in 2,000-seat, three-story amphitheaters. And some are held in front of 40 people in a cozy studio. Each come with their charm.
Big esports events, like BlizzCon, are supposed to be spectacles. They're the top-dollar blockbusters that make you walk out of the cinema all flushed and giddy and think, “Damn, that was insane, I really hope the sequel comes out next year.” That's not what regular-season HGC matches are. Regular-season HGC is your favorite weekend sitcom where sometimes the plotlines are too predictable and some of the jokes are lame, but you love it to pieces nevertheless. When it ends, you get up from the sofa and stretch your arms and think, “Wow, tonight was great. I can't wait for next week.”
The VSL Studio captures that identity very well. It has a special intimate atmosphere. When the action gets crazy, the floor gets wonderfully cacophonic, with both teams’ shotcallers screaming their lungs out, the Korean casters trying to one-up that with a frenzied yelling contest, and the crowd’s slightly delayed oohs and ahhs crashing down upon it all like big frothy waves. Then, when it dies down and you're made aware of your surroundings once again, you notice how unnervingly close you were to the stage and the players during all of that. You notice the guy with the weird curly hair next to you drawing a new KSV Black fan sign with his black marker. You notice the two girls clutching their "TEMPEST WIN" placards to their chests, hands clasped in prayer. Then you look up, swivel your head, and realize that the tasteful and sleek décor of the arena still looks nerdy as hell. It makes you feel like you're in the Heroes-themed rumpus room of a delightfully mad and filthy rich relative. And it feels good. It feels great.
This is what it's supposed to be like, you realize.
Come watch HGC Korea live at the Twitch VSL Studio. The arena is located on 23F of Tower B, Hyundai Knowledge Industry Center, 70, Doosan-ro, Geumcheon-gu, Seoul, Korea. Entry is free.