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TRAVEL Children are

TRAVEL Children are sitting on the floor, gazing intently at a robot. Despite having something like an iPad for a face, the machine resembles a preacher performing for a rapt audience. We are inside the Robo Park in Bucheon, to the west of Seoul and, while there are other robots vying for attention, the kids are unanimously focussed on this particular model. Their young minds are repeatedly blown as the robot goes through a classic magician’s ruse: making balls disappear and reappear in metal tubes. The kids gasp at this vanishing act but, from their low vantage point, they can’t see that the balls are actually coming in and out of the table it is positioned behind. “It’s deceiving you!” I want to cry out. “There’s no magic here!” But even in a society as advanced as Seoul’s, I realise that shattering children’s dreams is probably not cool. If the robot seems remarkable to them now, by the time they are teenagers, it will seem much less so. While tech is everywhere in most large cities these days, few places have encouraged it to permeate every level of society quite as much as the South Korean capital has. Around the city, ground-breaking tech already ranges from the practical to the fantastical, from the profound to the ridiculous. There’s some combination of all of this on show inside the new LoL Park in the centre of Seoul. Built by Riot Games and opened in January 2019, it is a dedicated arena for players and fans of League of Legends, a computer-based team game first released in 2009. So popular has it become in South Korea that elite players have become celebrities, commanding team contracts worth millions of dollars. The best have amassed seven-figure fortunes in prize money. LoL Park is a culmination of skill and fandom, a place where the two factions can overlap. The main arena is a 500-seat, neon dreamscape in which five-men teams sweat it out on a virtual battlefield below colossal HD screens showing what’s happening in the game. The setting is impressively professional: the crowds have chants for their champions; there are instant replays; as well as domestic commentators inside the arena, two North American announcers break down the action for foreigners watching online. The global audience can be as large as 127 million. It is, in almost every measurable way, a real sport. Talking to OnFleek, the outstanding player in the victorious Sandbox team, immediately after the match it seems as if he has been in a real battle. The tall 21-year-old, real name Kim Jang-gyeom, keeps having to wipe away sweat from his brow as he talks. “I turned professional just six months ago,” says OnFleek. “I started with it about five years ago, but didn’t take it too seriously at first. Now, I practise about eight hours a day. During the season I don’t play anything else. And when I’m playing, I’m completely focused.” That sort of singular mentality is the kind of thing that’s common with top level sport stars and, while OnFleek has a sizeable following already, it’s nothing compared to the polished stars of Korea’s KPop scene. 62 THE JAGUAR

Robots are just a fact of life for Seoul’s young generation. Gaming arenas such as LoL Park (below) host spectacular events that rival other major sporting audience numbers “ IN SEOUL, TECHNOLOGY RANGES FROM THE PRACTICAL TO THE FANTASTICAL, THE PROFOUND TO THE RIDICULOUS”

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