In a now-famous Overwatch video, a Korean player is banned mid-match because of his shameless hacking. He's streaming himself as Widowmaker, effortlessly flinging himself across the map and landing perfect headshots in-air. A Hanzo approaches, and in a moment, he's gone. Widowmaker's crosshairs, which were feet away from him, rubberband to his head.
A few minutes in, he's locked out of the game. Someone reported his cheating. But it's no issue -- he just navigates back to the Battle.net website to make another account.
Cheating on the Asian Overwatch server is endemic and widespread. On the Battle.net forums and Reddit, complaints about hacking South Korean players' too-accurate headshots, immediate gun-downs and even DDOS attacks against winners in competitive mode are widespread.
Just today, 22,865 Korean hackers were banned from Overwatch. Between January 26th and 31st alone, 3,095 accounts were suspended. Harry, the Korean Blizzard representative who reported the ban wave on Battle.net, proudly gives the numbers, but doesn't explain steps Blizzard is taking to definitively stomp out Overwatch hacking in South Korea. For months, Korean fans have begged Blizzard to stop playing whack-a-mole and address the root of their servers' endemic hacking problem.
Based on my conversations with Korean players, it seems that hacking culture Korea is inexorably bound to the over 25,000 "PC bangs" where Koreans hang out, slam energy drinks and grind on Overwatch. They're like North America's now-antiquated '90s LAN cafes where patrons pay a small $US1.00 ($1)/hour fee to play on top-notch computers. At PC bangs, cheaters often download aimbot software with impunity. Recently, "nuking" has become widespread. It's a practice where people hack into enemy control systems to change maps or freeze them at spawn.
Since Overwatch's release last May, Thomas Lytwynchuk has frequented PC bangs to play the game. In Korea, Overwatch is the second most-played title in PC Bangs, second only to League of Legends. At the cafe, he grinded for months in Competitive mode to reach Platinum rank, where he says he's run into a lot of hackers. Recently, while defending on the Anubis map, he turned a corner and within a nanosecond, was pummelled by McCree's rapidfire, a little faster than human impulses permit.
"I checked the deathcam replay, and sure as hell, he's hacking," Lytwynchuk told me. "His crosshair instantly locked onto me, and as I'm jumping and crouch-spamming away from the corner, the crosshair perfectly follows my head." Later, that same player switched to Widowmaker, whose crosshairs, in his words, "would literally flick onto your head then perfectly track it, even through walls."
Lytwynchuk reported the player, but doesn't think it made a difference. In Korea, it's possible to play Overwatch on an infinite number of Battle.net accounts as long as you're in an unmonitored PC Bang. That's because Blizzard has a deal with Korean PC bangs that allows patrons to spend a meagre $US.80 ($1)-$US1.50 ($2) per hour to access the game. They don't have to buy it themselves. They can just make a new account each time they play. The cafes pay Blizzard a subscription fee in exchange.
"If you had to pay $US40 ($52) for a copy of Overwatch every time you hacked and got banned, like in the West, nobody would do it," Lytwynchuk told me. "Unless you got a lot of spare change to throw around."
Players don't even have to attach their personal information to these accounts. They will use VPNs to make North American accounts with burner emails. For home computers in South Korea, Blizzard requires a form of strong identity verification to play Overwatch. That's what empowers Cinderella's Law, which prevents kids under 16 from gaming after midnight, to know gamers' ages. So essentially, in several PC Bangs, anything goes.
"It is ruining the game for people and its endemic in Korea because of the free-to-play model," Lytwynchuk told me. "The fact that you can hack and play games with your friends for $US1.50 ($2) an hour with no repercussions is what's bringing out the worst in people." PC bang owners, I'm told, don't have much of an incentive to report hackers, since the ability to hack is a big draw to play there. Employees' pay is low and monitoring every user would require a surveillance panopticon.
Daniel Na, who is based in Seoul, mostly plays Overwatch at home, but estimates that he's encountered hacking 50 times on the Asian server. He's ranked at Diamond and says that, at higher levels, it's more widespread. "Usually the hackers' IGNs [in-game names] are famous enough that when a game starts, both teams just agree to tie the match if there is an aimbot in the room," he told me. He described it as a "manner system," so nobody wins or loses when there's a hacker.
When I asked Na why so many PC bang attendees enjoy hacking, he told me that "I believe it is all brought from the competitiveness that Korean culture has in general, especially for younger generations in gaming." He added, "Breaking the rules may be considered as fun when you are living in a world where you always have to listen to your parents and live your life in tight studying-schedules since elementary school."
If 22,865 Korean Overwatch hackers were banned today, it's easy to picture how toxic their server can get. Korea-based players I spoke with said they absolutely despise hackers. They decimate any possibility of fun and fair play.
That's why, in the very early morning, you might see Korean players on your North American server -- they don't want to deal with hackers. English-speaking players have widely complained about this, since they can't communicate with their Korean teammates. Some have even called for Blizzard to ban Korean IPs from the North American server.
Blizzard did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Korean players are constantly posting their pleas to Reddit and Battle.net, with one, "BLIZZARD DISREGARDS KOREANS OPINION," garnering over 17,000 upvotes. Relief is necessary, but Blizzard's licence agreement with PC bangs may tie up their hands. Mass account bans may look effective, but to cite one response from today's news, "And 22,865 new PC bang accounts were made."