South Korea Declares Game-Boosting Services Illegal


If you’re caught offering ‘boosting’ services to video game players in South Korea, you may now face a USD$17,800 (£14,000) fine, or two-years jail time.

Boosting sees less-experienced users of a given game grant accomplished players access to their account for that title. The high-level player then 'boosts' the accessed account, deploying their skills to rapidly progress a player-character through a game. 'Levelling up' the player account typically opens access to higher levels of game competition, increased powers, and new weapons and abilities. It’s a practice most commonly seen in the online competitive games that are embraced as eSports titles, where player-character level or rank dictates eligibility for different contests and matches.

So, for example, in the popular online shooter Overwatch (pictured), a new user might ask a booster to play the game for them, via the low-skilled gamer's account. The idea is that boosting accelerates the less-accomplished player's route to the top, by taking the effort out of the early part of that journey.

It’s a practice that occurs all over the world; and it is prolific in South Korea. And now, as reported by The Korea Herald, the South Korean National Assembly has deemed commercial boosting punishable by law. The commercial element is important. It is charging money to boost a game that has been deemed a crime.

That means a user could casually boost a friend’s account without attracting the attention of the authorities. But the myriad individuals and companies that provide game boosting in South Korea will now be offering an illegal service. That will come as a blow to the well-regarded eSports players who do supplement their competition earnings by charging to boost.

Partners in (game) crime

The news may seem surprising for two reasons. Commercial boosting isn't immediately obvious in terms of negative impact. And tricks to ramp up skill in online games might appear relatively trivial as a focal point for state legislation. But the South Korean government has – with others across the world – long taken 'in-game crime' seriously. If a player has invested real money into building a virtual character or in-game item, for example, the hijacking of those assets can be considered a theft of property.

As long as 15 years ago, the South Korean police had 22,000 open cases involving in-game crime during a single six-month period.

But what harm can boosting really do?

“Many popular games have been suffering from professional businesses specialising in boosting without a concrete way to resolve this issue”, stated Representative Lee Dong-sup of South Korea's minor opposition Bareunmirae Party, as quoted in The Korean Herald. “The newly passed revisions will provide immense support to efforts to forge a healthy eSports ecosystem in Korea.”

The concern is this: beyond breaking a title's terms of service, letting low-skilled players into the upper levels of competitive online games – be it in ordinary play or as part of organised eSports – can do much to upset the balance of the games involved. That, in turn, could impact the quality of game matches, the regard of the titles published, the value of eSports events, and the interest of the millions of spectators who enable monetisation through advertising around streamed content.

Man City vs The Queen Vic

The impact is easy to appreciate by drawing a comparison with real sports. Imagine if it suddenly became possible for amateur Sunday football teams that play down the park to join matches in the UK's Premier League. If a well-intended pub team could go up against Manchester City, the games that would be played in the Premiership could be rather shambolic, turning off visiting spectators, viewers, sponsors, advertisers, and those in the industry. And, as such, threatening the economic prospects and contribution of a vast sector.

And, in Korea, online gaming is a tremendously large industry. According to Newzoo data, South Korean gamers will spend USD$5.6bn (£4.4bn) on games in 2018, making it the fourth biggest national games market globally. That's particularly impressive in a country with a population some way smaller than the UK's.

With so much of that market focused on online gaming – and with so many employed in the online gaming sector globally – the impact of boosting could clearly be seriously detrimental. As such, it is reasonable to protect the gaming economy with law.

On the other side of the coin, those in boosting companies will likely feel rather unhappy that they have had the rug pulled out from under their business model. Many will say they were operating unscrupulous businesses and should have had more foresight. Others may feel concerned about state laws coming down on gaming business models. Could match-hosting platforms or in-game item trading platforms suffer a similar fate?

It certainly appears that, as online games as a market become more significant, so will state interest in the ecosystems therein. But as long as a business doesn't violate a game's terms of service, it is very likely on safe footing.

Either way, state legislation is likely to continue to play a more prominent role in online games; and, as such, it is a movement TheGamingEconomy is watching closely.