Catalan leaders compare Spain to North Korea after referendum sites blocked | World news

The Catalan regional government has accused the Spanish authorities of behaving like Turkey, China and North Korea by blocking websites designed to help people vote in Sunday’s independence referendum.

Over the past week the Spanish government has stepped up its efforts to stop the unilateral vote by deploying thousands of extra police officers to Catalonia and taking control of the region’s finances.

It insists the referendum is illegal and a clear violation of the Spanish constitution.

The Catalan high court has assumed control of efforts to prevent the vote, instructing local and national police officers to stop public buildings being used as polling stations and to seize any material related to the referendum.

On Wednesday evening, Judge Mercedes Armas said the court would take over from the regional prosecutor, adding that recent events had shown that Catalonia’s pro-independence government had “clearly breached” the constitutional court rulings prohibiting this Sunday’s vote.

Armas said the Catalan regional government’s repeated attempts to circumvent a ban on using websites to promote and facilitate the referendum had “consistently shown that the poll will go ahead”.

The judicial intervention came hours after Catalonia’s regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra, expressed reservations over being tasked with shutting down polling stations, warning of the risk of “a disruption of public order”.

In a series of tweets on Wednesday, the force said it had told the regional prosecutor that following orders to stop the vote would not lessen officers’ “professional responsibility to consider whether applying them could bring unwanted consequences”.

It stressed the need for particular care over the “principles of opportunity, proportionality and agreement” when it came to the policing operation.

As well as arresting 14 Catalan government officials and seizing almost 10m ballot papers, police and the courts have been taking down websites connected to the referendum.

On Monday police summoned 17 people for questioning over the development of web platforms related to the vote.

A police spokesman told Agence France-Presse the 17 were suspected of “disseminating a website for people to participate in a referendum declared illegal by the constitutional court”. He said they were alleged to have “made it easy for people to get documents … to organise the plebiscite”.

Catalonia’s regional president, Carles Puigdemont, has tweeted links to websites telling people where to vote on Sunday, but the posts were removed after a court ordered that sites used to share such information be blocked.

The Catalan fight for independence explained – video

On Monday evening the website of the large pro-independence group the Catalan National Assembly (ANC) was taken down by Spain’s Guardia Civil. It reappeared at a different address within an hour.

“We received no notification whatsoever from the Guardia Civil,” said an ANC spokesman. “It shows that the government cares more about stopping people from voting than they do about preserving freedoms in Spain.”

A spokesman for the Catalan government described the latest moves as a threat to free expression and said a letter of protest had been sent to the European commission.

“What they’re doing by blocking domain name servers is doing what Turkey does and what China does and what North Korea does,” said the spokesman. “No western democracy does that. The internet is the kingdom of freedom.”

The letter says the online crackdown is part of “the ongoing unlawful repression of the institutions of autonomy of Catalonia” and calls on the commission to act as “the ultimate guardian of the open and free internet, which is truly at stake now”.

Asked about the legality of the Spanish authorities’ actions, the commission referred the Guardian to remarks made by its chief spokesman on Tuesday.

“We don’t have anything to say other than to reiterate our respect for the legal order – the constitutional order – within which all these measures have been taken,” Margaritis Schinas told reporters on Tuesday.

Spain’s interior ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

On Wednesday afternoon Spain’s national court announced it was planning to investigate whether sedition charges should be brought against protesters who took part in a 40,000-strong demonstration in Barcelona against last week’s arrests.

Two Guardia Civil vehicles were attacked during the protest. In a complaint lodged last week, the court’s chief prosecutor named the ANC and another independence group, Òmnium Cultural, as the organisers of the demonstration.

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Denmark and Sweden boost defence ties to fight Russian cyber-attacks | World news

Denmark and Sweden are to boost defence cooperation to counter what they described as a growing threat from Russia, including from “dangerous” fake news campaigns and cyber-attacks, the two countries’ defence ministers have said.

Peter Hultqvist of Sweden and Claus Hjort Frederiksen of Denmark said in a statement before a meeting in Stockholm that Russian hybrid warfare – cyber-attacks, disinformation and fake news – could create uncertainty.

When nations “cannot clearly distinguish false news and disinformation from what is true, we become increasingly unsafe”, the ministers said, adding: “We have both been exposed to forms [of this] and want to better defend our societies in this area.”

This year Stockholm’s Institute of International Affairs accused Russia of using fake news, false documents and disinformation in a coordinated campaign to influence public opinion and decision-making in Sweden.

The study said Sweden had been the target of “a wide array of active measures” including misleading reports on Russian state-run news networks and websites, forged documents, fabricated news items and “troll armies”.

Moscow’s main aim was to “preserve the geo-strategic status quo” by minimising Nato’s role in the wider Baltic region and keeping Sweden out of the international military alliance, the study said.

Hultqvist and Frederiksen said the two countries would also increase more traditional forms of military cooperation, citing the increased presence of Russian naval vessels in the Baltic and airspace violations by Russian military aircraft.

“We already have good cooperation with Sweden and the other Nordic countries, but believe we can expand this more,” Frederiksen said. “We need to stand together when we have an unreasonable Russia moving into the Crimea and building up in our immediate neighbourhood.”

Joint exercises and more cross-border exchanges of military and intelligence expertise would follow, he added.

In January, after accusations that Russian hackers had interfered with the US presidential election, Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, told a national defence conference that he could not rule out Russia trying to influence the next Swedish elections, due in 2018.

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Airbnb faces EU clampdown for not paying ‘fair share’ of tax | Business

EU finance ministers will discuss how to force home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb to pay their fair share of taxes and in the right tax domains next month after the French minister for the economy described the current situation as “unacceptable”.

The European commission announced on Thursday that a joint proposal from France and Germany would be discussed at a meeting in Tallinn, Estonia, on 16 September. Brussels will also advise on how best to deal with the so-called sharing economy, in which Airbnb is a major player.

It was revealed this week that Airbnb paid less than €100,000 (£90,336) in French taxes last year, despite the country being the room-booking firm’s second-biggest market after the US.

In response, the French economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, informed the national assembly that the EU’s Franco-German axis would be proposing a pan-European clampdown. “These digital platforms make tens of millions of sales and the French treasury gets a few tens of thousands,” the minister said, adding that the current setup was “unacceptable”.

Le Maire further claimed in parliament that an ongoing consultation being led by the commission and the OECD to address the tax question were “taking too much time, it’s all too complicated”. Many digital platforms operating in the EU have a base in Ireland, including Airbnb, where they can exploit a low corporation tax regime. Le Maire said: “Everybody has to pay a fair contribution.”

In Brussels, a commission spokeswoman, Vanessa Mock, told reporters that the issue was sensitive as any reforms needed agreement from all member states. “Tax is complicated and it is a unanimity issue and that’s why we can’t necessarily race into a new area like this without reflecting on the best approach to taxing a digitalised economy … It’s essential we maintain a level playing field,” she said.

Mock added that developments in the field of the sharing economy would be looked at “very closely” and that Brussels would bring its own ideas to the table.

Airbnb insists that it does not make “important, long-term business decisions on the basis of taxation” and that it follows rules and pays all the tax it owes in the places it does business. The platform, whose headquarters is in San Francisco, contends that the overwhelming amount of money generated by Airbnb stays with hosts and their communities.

However, the company has endured a difficult summer in the face of growing antipathy towards its business model in popular tourist destinations across Europe, in particular Spain, for causing an influx of holidaymakers at certain locations and making it more difficult for traditional hotels.

Paris city council has already voted to make it mandatory from 1 December to obtain a registration number from the town hall before posting an advertisement for a short-term rental on its website.

The ruling potentially makes it harder for property owners using Airbnb to exceed the 120 days a year legal rental limit for a main residence, and easier for the authorities to collect local taxes.

In Barcelona, where tensions have been rising for years over the surge in visitors, the impact of sites such as Airbnb on the local housing market has led to anti-tourist protests. In Mallorca and San Sebastián, an anti-tourism march is being planned for 17 August to coincide with Semana Grande, a major festival of Basque culture.

In Ibiza, the authorities are placing a cap on the number of beds for tourists. Owners will also be banned from renting their homes, or rooms within them, via websites such as Airbnb and Homeaway unless they obtain a licence. Owners face fines of up to €400,000 if they break the law. The websites face the same fine for letting people advertise without a valid licence number.

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Sweden scrambles to tighten data security as scandal claims two ministers | World news

Sweden’s government has sought urgent assurances on data security from national agencies including the health, education and pensions services after a huge leak of private and sensitive information that has cost two ministers their jobs.

Amid reports by the Dagens Nyheter newspaper that confidential medical details were being handled by unscreened IT workers in Romania, the national broadcaster SVT said data outsourcing arrangements at six state agencies were being checked.

The checks follow a cabinet reshuffle last week in which interior minister Anders Ygeman and infrastructure minister Anna Johansson both stepped down after what the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, called an “extremely serious” security breach.

Several ministers had known about the breach, which followed a botched 2015 data outsourcing contract between the national transport agency and IBM Sweden, for at least 18 months but failed to inform the prime minister, media reported.

The former head of the agency, Maria Ågren, was fired in January and fined after security police found she had waived security clearance requirements for foreign IT workers when signing the agreement, in breach of privacy and data protection laws.

One transport agency official told police the data that IT workers in the Czech Republic, Serbia and Romania were processing without security clearance under the agreement was equivalent to “the keys to the kingdom”, Dagens Nyheter said.

Besides the entire national driver’s licence database, the records potentially included information on intelligence agents, military and police transport and personnel, people with criminal records and those in witness protection programmes, Swedish media have reported.

The Swedish military confirmed that details of its staff, vehicles, and defence and contingency planning could have been included in the breach, although the transport agency insisted it held no military data and there was no indication that any of the data had been “spread in an improper way”.

Although there is no evidence of actual harm being caused, Löfven said the incident was a “disaster” that had “exposed both Sweden and Swedish citizens to risks”. IBM Sweden has consistently said it does not discuss its dealings with clients.

But after opposition parties threatened the coalition with a vote of no confidence, Löfven promised to “take responsibility” and stay on at the head of his minority left-green government rather than call snap elections.

“I have no intention of plunging Sweden into political crisis,” the prime minister said, adding the country faced “formidable challenges” including Brexit, mounting tensions in the Baltic region and much-needed economic and social reforms. Sweden’s next general election is due in 2018.

Löfven resisted calls for the resignation of defence minister Peter Hultqvist, who has admitted knowing of the scandal since 2016, noting that he was not responsible for the transport agency and the army took protective steps early on.

Swedish IT experts told SVT the incident showed the government’s ignorance of how state agencies handle confidential and sensitive information. “This really shows their low level of expertise on how IT security is handled by the authorities,” said one consultant, Lars Mårelius.

Another, Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder of the Internet Foundation, said agencies that handle citizens’ data should be subject to strict transparency and reporting requirements on all their data protection measures.

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The Guardian view on a Swedish scandal: the precedence of privacy | Editorial | Opinion

It’s hard to believe that a government could be threatened with collapse because of the way it dealt with driving licences. But that is what has been happening in Sweden in the last week, and the story shows just how vulnerable and delicate the integrity of personal identity is once everything about everyone is recorded in a database somewhere. The story started in the recesses of the bureaucratic state: the transport agency, a branch of the civil service which has to keep records of every car, boat and aeroplane in the country. Since some of these vehicles are military and some of the drivers are people whose identity the state protects with special zeal from criminals, either because they are witnesses or spies, there are rules that state this can only be seen and altered by Swedish citizens who have been cleared by the security services.

In 2015, the incoming director general, Maria Ågren, discovered that this work was to be outsourced to IBM. That was part of a wider pattern which has seen both the left and right of Swedish politics privatise large parts of the old welfare state this century. The law said this couldn’t happen unless IBM’s data handlers had all had security clearance. Her own department told her that couldn’t be done in time. So she decided to ignore the law. IBM, in turn, had the work done in Serbia and elsewhere in eastern Europe. Complaints about security from within the organisation – and, later, from the security police – were ignored. The defence minister and the interior minister knew in the spring of last year but could not find the time to tell the prime minister until January this year, when Ms Ågren was quietly sacked and, later, fined. The government hoped that any potential scandal would disappear along with her.

It almost worked. The affair was only brought to light by the determined digging of journalists at the Stockholm paper Dagens Nyheter. Once the story was out in the open, the Social Democratic prime minister, Stefan Löfven, who heads a weak minority coalition, sacked two of the ministers responsible, but stood by his defence minister, Peter Hultqvist. The opposition parties propose a vote of no confidence in him when parliament returns in September. This they can easily win with the help of the far-right Sweden Democrats, whom all the other parties normally shun.

This is a case that has implications far outside the vicious intricacies of Swedish domestic politics. Sweden is often, rightly, praised for its transparency. But opening data to everyone can be as harmful as suppressing it. The care of citizens’ private data is now one of the tasks that any modern state must perform. In the Swedish case, applications for a driving licence can require a doctor’s certificate, which, being electronic, implies access to medical records. It is not enough to point to rules and procedures. The rules were all present in the Swedish case. They were simply ignored, and with no consequences, for far too long. What’s needed are robust methods of enforcing privacy protections, and institutional cultures that take them seriously. The more of our lives we trust to the databases of authority, and the more these are interlinked, the more power we give away to people who might mean us harm. Privacy and security have to take precedence over administrative convenience wherever governments deal with personal information.

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The rise of eSports: are addiction and corruption the price of its success? | Sport

If you had been away from the planet for the past quarter of a century, one of the few things you might find comfortingly familiar on your return is the world of sport. While the digital revolution has transformed the way we shop, chat, date, do politics and consume culture, sport looks largely unchanged. From football to cricket to golf, it’s still the same old staples, hitting a ball into a hole or goal or over a boundary. There hasn’t been a major new sport invented for more than a century. Or has there?

In the East End of London, Sam Mathews is holding court at Fnatic’s HQ, otherwise known as the Bunkr. A pop-up shop that opened last December, it is marketed as the “world’s first eSports concept store” and is as knowingly hip as its Shoreditch surroundings. Here at the Bunkr, you can buy eSports equipment, meet players, view streamed events and even watch matches live.

ESports: the digital revolution has arrived – video

ESports consist of a variety of video games, for which you need nimble fingers and a fast brain to succeed. Just as with traditional sports, fans follow teams, watch matches and even attend cup finals, cheering on their favourite stars from around the world. Mathews founded Fnatic 13 years ago, with financial support from his mother, and has built it into one of the world’s most successful teams, competing in more than 600 tournaments globally, in games such as Counter-Strike, Dota2, Call Of Duty, Overwatch and League of Legends. Fnatic’s League of Legends team won the first world championship in 2011 and its Counter-Strike team are considered one of the best of all time, though few of the players are British. In truth, British players are not yet good enough to compete at the top level. “eSport is the first world sport outside of football that is truly global,” Mathews says.

Already, football clubs such as Manchester City have started signing Fifa stars who are players of the virtual game, rather than the real thing. The most ambitious clubs, such as Paris Saint-Germain, have signed up a whole squad of players in a number of different eSports, including League of Legends. The thinking is simple: digital gaming is where the next generation of fans will come from (often, a young person’s first interaction with a professional football club is through the Fifa game), and so eSports are a vast reservoir of future income.

The revenue from eSports is expected to rise from $130m (£100m) in 2012 to $465m (£365m) this year, according to Newzoo, the eSports data expert. The global audience will reach 385 million this year, made up of 191 million regular viewers and a further 194 million occasional viewers. ESports stars such as the South Korean player Faker, who has just turned 21, are already paid up to £2m a year, and that’s not including bonuses and sponsorship. But will they ever compete with, say, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo? And should we be worried if they do?

Poland’s eSports ‘Olympics’

The vast Spodec stadium in Katowice, south west Poland, is humming with activity. It is February, and this saucer-shaped building is host to the world’s biggest eSports event. Thousands of boys and young men (nearly everyone is male) gather to watch the Intel Extreme Masters finals, a kind of annual Olympics.

It is much more than a tournament. The halls are crammed with companies showing off their latest wares; visitors can try out new games on elevated seats that revolve 360 degrees. The noise is deafening – constant explosions and the rat-at-at-at of guns – while the screens light up with every new kill. You wouldn’t come here to find peace.

The professional eSports companies and players come here to make big bucks, while sponsors attend in the hope of tapping into tomorrow’s market. (Britain hosts its equivalent at Wembley Arena, but it is small fry by comparison.) The Fnatic team is competing against the top Korean, American and European teams. Fnatic might be British-based, but it is regarded as a global company; few British players are good enough to compete at the top level.

This is the fifth year the Intel finals have been held in Katowice. Once a weekend-long event, it now takes place over two weekends. This year’s figures are record-breaking: 173,500 attending, more than 46 million viewers watching online (up 35% from last year).

The event is the most widely broadcasted in the history of ESL, the eSports company that organises competitions worldwide. In 2015, Swedish media company Modern Times Group acquired a majority stake in ESL for $87m. That figure already looks like a bargain. ESL broadcasts its competitions on Twitch, the leading eSports streaming service. In 2014, only three years after it was founded, Twitch was bought by Amazon for $970m. Another bargain: this is a huge business.

Fans watching a killing in the game on the big screens during the Intel Extreme Masters Counter-Strike eSports tournament at Katowice’s Spodek Arena in March 2017.

Fans watching a game on the big screens during the Intel Extreme Masters Counter-Strike eSports tournament at Katowice’s Spodek Arena in March 2017. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

What has astonished people – even those who dreamed it up in the first place – is the extent to which gaming has become a spectator sport. ESL founder Ralph Reichart blinks in disbelief at the thousands of young men staring at screens inside the Spodec. “We thought, let’s just build this stage and it’s going to be great.” He smiles. He didn’t expect it to be this great. “Most people thought we were crazy, including my father and my peers.”

The Intel Masters was founded in 2006, and Reichart puts its growth down to four factors: social media, live streaming, a faster internet, and the longevity of more established games. There is something fantastical about the way Katowice, this redundant mining town barely 30 miles from Auschwitz, has become an emblem of tomorrow’s world. Reichart explains how it happened. “Five years ago, the mayor contacted us. He said, ‘We have a fantastic stadium called Spodec, and our city is changing. It used to be all mining, and now we want it to become an entertainment city – video games can help’.” Nowadays, Katowice is largely known for the Intel masters, which Reichart calls the Woodstock of eSports. “Some music festivals are more special and longer-lasting than others, and Katowice is like that. It’s more than a festival – it’s a movement.”

Seoul searching

If you want to get to the heart of gaming, you don’t go to Poland – you go to South Korea, the cradle of eSports. It’s Friday night in Seoul and I’m spending it the way many Korean youngsters do: at a PC bang. PC bangs are gaming cafes and by 9pm this one is packed. Many of the youngsters here will play through the night. The hundreds of computer screens are all busy. Most people are playing the hugely complex League of Legends; some, simpler shoot-’em-ups such as Counter-Strike; others are playing Fifa. You can buy energy food and drinks, cooked meals, alcohol, and there is a smoking room. You can spend as long as you like without ever needing to leave.

The teenagers and twentysomethings are too absorbed in their games to chat to each other. However, some play team games that involve talking animatedly to strangers in different parts of the world. PC bangs were initially opened by the South Korean government, keen to promote the internet and gaming. Apart from taekwondo, South Korea did not have a national sport and eSports presented an area in which they could excel (the country has one of the fastest and most developed broadband networks in the world). Today, PC bangs are not only cafes; they are the parks and playgrounds of South Korea.

Jeong Hyeon-seok is an impressive young man, a 28-year-old maths teacher who is about to leave for the United States to do a PhD in brain science. He comes here three or four times a week, staying for two to four hours each time; occasionally, he stays overnight. Jeong says it’s cheap compared with other forms of entertainment and exhilarating. Like many men, he says, he is reserved and awkward in conversation, but here he feels happy, uninhibited.

Young male gamers in a PC bang in the Hongdae area of Seoul in March 2017.

Gamers in a PC bang in the Hongdae area of Seoul in March 2017. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

He is not embarrassed about visiting PC bangs but he does not tell his father where he goes. It’s a generational thing, he explains. “The older generation think of eSports and gaming as something that people who have failed would do to waste their time. Parents would expect you to do something productive; to study.”

Why is there such a high proportion of male to female players? “Girls prefer chit-chatting in a coffee shop. Boys don’t do much chit-chatting,” Jeong says. Playing a team game at a bang provides a release. He can hook up with strangers and share a common goal: defeating the enemy. Jeong is transformed when he starts playing Overwatch, a team game that involves transferring goods to different areas and, of course, killing. He speaks fast and excitably, barking instructions to anonymous team-mates. When he finishes, he looks exhausted and is out of breath. Does he feel good? “Yes. You feel good if you’ve won a football match. It’s like that.”

Schooling future superstars

Ahyeon polytechnic high school is the equivalent of a sixth-form college and takes students who have struggled in the mainstream. When the principal, Bang Seung-ho, realised many students were bunking off because they had spent all night playing games, he took radical action: he opened a PC bang in the school. So long as students studied regular subjects in the morning, they could play eSports to their hearts’ content in the afternoon and evening.

Bang, a charismatic man who could pass as a film star, believed having a PC bang on tap would prove an incentive for students to attend school. And so it did. The students were transformed. “It was incredible to see how good their attitudes towards the classes became,” he says. “Once you embraced those kids, recognising what they are good at, their mentality changed. They started studying as well.”

Bang became something of a star in the process. He had always considered himself a singer-songwriter, sidetracked from his destiny, so he wrote a song about eSports addiction. Don’t Worry became a hit in South Korea.

Meanwhile, at his school, the youngsters became better and better at games as they trained with a talented peer group. Before long, Bang realised the school was becoming a training ground for future professionals.

He takes me to the PC bang where the students (all boys) are too absorbed to look up. How many want to become professionals? Now they look up. Everybody raises their hand instantly. How many hours a day do they need to dedicate to games to succeed? The very minimum, they agree, is 10 hours a day. So far, seven or eight of Bang’s students have turned professional. “I always say: ‘You have to give me a percentage of your earnings,’ but they never do!” He grins.

The Ahyeon Polytechnic School League of Legends squad in a practice session at the school in Seoul.

The Ahyeon Polytechnic School League of Legends squad in a practice session at the school in Seoul. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Bang does not like to use the word addiction for problem users; he prefers overindulgence. I ask if he would rather be remembered for curing overindulgence or for creating eSports stars. “Both. The school can cure the students and train them to become a professional beyond the cure.” But if he had to choose one? For once, Bang is lost for words. Finally, he answers: “If I really have to choose between curing and training to become a professional, it would be the latter.”

‘It cannot be good for your health’

The Sangam eSports stadium in Seoul looks like a cross between a cinema and a conventional sports stadium. One of the biggest eSports teams, SK Telecom (owned by the telecoms operator), is playing a qualifying League of Legends match, and I can’t hear myself think for explosions. The huge screen is a dizzying array of electric pinks, blues, purples and yellows. League of Legends fans tell me it took them months to understand it: it’s a strategy game set in a fantasy arena with three or five players on each side, which involves destroying towers and killing opponents, but there is no obvious way to distinguish the two teams. I cannot tell who is attacking whom, though the neon scoreboard keeps me abreast of what is happening. The crowd is young and more than 50% female. This is surprising, because League of Legends, like all eSports, is male-dominated.

Faker the top Korean eSports League of Legends player of the SK Telecom team.

Faker, the top Korean eSports League of Legends player, of the SK Telecom team. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Most of the girls are here to see Faker, SK Telecom’s star mid-laner (status-wise, the equivalent of a central midfielder in football). The team has the appeal of a boy band. Faker is not only SK Telecom’s leading player, he is the biggest star in League of Legends, full stop. Even I can tell he has something special about him; he tends to score and assist with more kills than other players. But there is something else: he is deceptive, subtle, appearing out of nowhere to strike with a swirling flourish. The crowd roars and claps him on. He may be a superstar, but he looks like most eSports players: bespectacled, spotty, exhausted and pasty-faced. You sense he may not have seen the sun for years.

I follow Faker past the crowds of selfie-chasing girls to a private room. He wears a stylish red and white jacket with his nickname inscribed on the back in capital letters (his real name is Lee Sang-hyeok: “I thought Faker sounded cool,” he says). He is a sweet and sombre young man, determined to answer every question as fully as he can.

I ask whether it is his reaction speed that makes him such a good player. “No. Actually, my reaction velocity isn’t so good. What’s more important is concentration.” In some ways, he says, League of Legends is like chess or the abstract strategy board game Go, but in others it resembles traditional team sport games. “It is like football and basketball, in that strategies become more important than individual skills as you go to a professional level.”

Faker enjoys his fame. He recently went to Seattle and began to understand the scale of his success when he was recognised in the streets. That gave him a buzz, he says. Is it true he will only marry a girl who is as good at League of Legends as he is? He smiles. “What I said about my ideal woman was a joke, but people actually believe it now, which makes me worry about my future.”

How many hours a day does he put into League of Legends? “I practise a minimum of 12 hours a day. Sometimes 15 hours a day when it’s close to a match.” Does he get bored? “I am still enjoying it but probably not as much as I was before I became a professional. Yes, I do, I get a bit bored.” But, he says, that is a small quibble. He knows how lucky he is.

Does Faker think of himself as a sportsman? “You don’t always have to use your physical mobility in sport,” he says. “So, to that extent, I think it’s a sport – apart from the perception that eSports damages your health.”

Is that a fair perception? “As you sit for long hours without much movement, inevitably it cannot be good for your health, but I do believe it contributes to brain development.”

It’s 10pm and the world’s leading League of Legends player has to return to the team house. When I get back to my hotel, I turn on my television. The first channel I flick to is showing today’s SK Telecom match. There are endless replays, analysis of Faker’s form, interviews with the players. Suddenly, the scale of League of Legends hits me. This channel shows eSports for 24 hours a day. I am watching South Korea’s Match of the Day.

Death by a thousand games

It has not been easy to get time with the chairman of the Korean eSports Association. Jun Byung-hun is a busy man. He is also the chairman of the International eSports Federation – possibly the most important man in this world. Finally we meet at his office in Seoul. He is wearing a smart black suit and shoes you can see your reflection in.

Jun’s ambition is to make eSports as popular worldwide as they are in South Korea, and he sees little standing in his way. “Older people think games poison the youth and take time from their studies, but this is wrong,” he says. “It is like stopping the flow of a river. The support policy should be to help the water not to flood, and lead them in the right paths. By doing so, we can maximise the effectiveness of the regulations.”

In truth, Jun is not a big fan of regulation. In 2011, the Korean government acknowledged the country had a problem with young people addicted to gaming and introduced the Cinderella law, which forbids children under the age of 16 from playing computer games between midnight and 6am. Jun is contemptuous of it. “The Cinderella law is anachronistic. I’ve been vigorously campaigning to eradicate it. Games should be established as a leisure culture within family. Trying to restrict them creates bigger side-effects.” He looks at his watch. His minders say he has to leave.

Mr. Jun Byung Hun, the President of the Korean eSports Association and President of the International eSsports Federation.

Jun Byung Hun, the President of the Korean eSports Association and President of the International eSports Federation. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Before he does, I ask if eSports should be in the Olympics. “Yes, of course. It should have the same status as sport.” For the chairman, it is not a question of if, but when: eSports will be included in the official programme of the 2022 Asian Games. “In the digital era, eSports will not just be established as a major sport, but also the most beloved sport.”

At the National Centre for Mental Health in Seoul, Dr Lee Tae-kyung knows exactly why the government introduced the Cinderella law. Lee is in charge of the addiction department at the government-run psychiatric hospital. He used to deal mainly with drug and alcohol addiction but today it’s all about gaming. Problems typically emerge, he says, when children enter middle school, at the age of 11. They lose interest in academic work, friends and family; they stop sleeping; they eat poorly or hardly at all. “There was a young man who immersed himself without sleeping or having meals, and finally he died after finishing his game,” Lee says. “People asked whether we should ban internet gaming or restrict players’ times after this case. But the harsh regulations depress the industry.”

Does he think the government is doing enough to tackle addiction? “No. I support the Cinderella law but it is not enough.” He describes the industry’s lack of support for addicts as “immoral”.

Lee treats his patients with a programme he has created called Hora, after a character in Momo, a fantasy novel written by the German author Michael Ende in the 1970s. Momo is about an eponymous girl whose life is ruined by the arrival of a species of paranormal parasites that steal time from humans. Momo and the human race are eventually rescued by their saviour, Hora, who returns time to them. For Lee, the story of Momo is the perfect metaphor.

Choi is an addict and an inpatient at Lee’s hospital. He is 31 but seems younger. He talks gently and movingly about how his addiction alienated him from the real world and his job assisting an interior designer. He says he played at PC bangs for four to six hours every night, and stopped eating properly.

Did his habit affect the quality of his work? “Very much. My work could be quite dangerous, because some of the materials are very sharp and need special attention, but I was feeling so sleepy, the designer was worried about me.”

He says he began to confuse his own identity with characters in the games he played. He stopped relating to people. At the hospital, he has undergone music and poetry therapy. Choi talks about a particular poem that has had a profound effect on him, in which the poet sends a letter to a loved one on a lettuce leaf. He smiles as he thinks about it. “When I was playing games in which I was only killing, breaking, attacking, I was not really living, not thinking about my family. I realised it would be beautiful if I could return to normal life.”

Choi has no intention of giving up games but he hopes when he leaves the hospital he will be able to play in moderation. Lee’s conservative literary therapy seems effective but he is not overly optimistic. “Choi is in remission but the temptation will always be there.”

Other therapies are more radical. The Easy Brain Center in downtown Gangnam is a private clinic, apparently modelled on easyJet; it even uses a similar orange and white motif. This is where desperate parents with money bring their children when they have run out of hope.

Dr Tae Kyung Lee, a mental health doctor specialising in addictions, at the National Centre for Mental Health, Gwangjin, Seoul.

Dr Tae Kyung Lee, a mental health doctor specialising in addictions, at the National Centre for Mental Health, Gwangjin, Seoul. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Dr Kim Hyun-soo is less formally dressed than doctors at the government-run hospital. He talks about how patterns of addiction have changed in South Korea. “In the 1990s, the addiction issues were associated with glue or gas. In 1998, internet games were commercialised, and in 2000 I started seeing gaming addicts. Many of the glue and gas sniffers moved on to gaming. Since then, the top-ranked addiction among young people is game addiction and 90% of the addicts are male teenagers.”

Kim has a kindly face and a gentle laugh that belies some of the terrible stories he tells. He talks about the addicts he has seen who wear nappies so they don’t have to leave their game to go to the toilet; the gamers so obsessed that they stop eating and sleeping altogether. And then there are the horror stories, those that made the news all over the world. He says he was one of the psychiatrists on a committee that investigated the case of a games-addicted young man who killed his mother before killing himself. “There have been many tragic social cases that are related to game addiction.”

One case that particularly affected him involved a 23-year-old addict whom Kim successfully weaned off eSports in 2005. “I treated him for six months and thought he was cured.” But he killed himself two months after completion of the treatment. “We realised he had wanted to keep the relationship with his gaming friends but he was chucked out of that community. The fact that he thought he had lost all his social relationships led to his suicide.” It was a painful lesson for Kim. “I realised it wasn’t a simple issue of not playing the game at all – it’s not black and white. I had to go much deeper into the psyche.” He discovered there were different types of gaming addictions: some people were addicted to moving up the ranks; some to the money-making aspect; and some to that sense of belonging to the gaming community.

Those addicted to the money side, he says, are most difficult to treat. Gambling in eSports already seems more advanced than in traditional sports. Professional players have been banned for betting on themselves to win matches or, more commonly, to lose. Last year, one of the biggest names in Starcraft, Lee “Life” Seung-hyun, was imprisoned after being convicted of match-fixing. He has been banned for life from eSports in South Korea.

Kim says younger and younger people are becoming addicted. He has seen six-year-olds refusing to go to school because they are addicted to smartphone games. He treats his patients with “talking therapy”: addicts talk out their problems and hopefully reach a solution. If they are addicted to the competitive element, Kim may suggest an analogue sport that would suit them; if they play because they are lonely, he may suggest they join a small community less prone to addiction. It is a moderate approach to treating addiction.

But that is only half the story. Next door, his partner, Dr Lee Jae-won, sits in a room full of terrifying, hi-tech gadgetry. When talking does not work for youngsters, he turns to electric shock treatment. One machine delivers basic shocks to stimulate the frontal lobe; the other provides transcranial magnetic stimulation, a less brutal therapy. These treatments, particularly the first, are controversial, especially when used on young people. But Lee insists his treatment is much more sophisticated than the crude electroconvulsive therapy of yesteryear. As he talks, he regularly flicks a switch, gives himself an electric shock and twitches. He seems unaware that he is doing it.

How old are the youngest people he treats? “There are kids who are obsessed before they enrol in their elementary school. With gaming, it is the frontal lobe that degenerates. And it is the frontal lobe that makes humans act like humans. So having it damaged makes them antisocial, impulsive and unhappy.” The electric shock stimulates the frontal lobe, he explains.

I ask if the brain zap is random. Yes, he says, but it does not matter. “If one part of the brain is stimulated, the surroundings will get stimulated accordingly, too.”

I ask if he will give me the most powerful shock he gives patients, on my hand. It’s only a single zap, but the impact is violent. My bones resonate as if struck by a tuning fork. I can still feel it hours later. These shocks are meant to be applied to the head.

On the way out, I see a little boy, possibly nine years old, in the waiting room with his mother. The boy has a League of Legends tattoo on his arm. This is a cultural taboo in Korea, where tattooing is illegal, and a clear sign the boy is far gone. I wonder whether he will get the talking therapy, electric shock or both. This is the flipside to the glamorous world of Faker, the packed out stadiums, the fans and the multimillion-pound deals.

Fans watching the League of Legends eSports match between Rox Tigers and SK Telecom at the Seoul eSports Stadium.

Fans watching the League of Legends eSports match between Rox Tigers and SK Telecom at the Seoul eSports Stadium. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian

Policing the opportunists

Ian Smith, the British first head of the eSports Integrity Commission (Esic), says it is the wild west out there. The world of eSports is exciting, largely unregulated and ripe for exploitation. It’s his job to make sure things don’t get out of hand. Smith, the former legal director of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, has plenty of experience of dealing with corruption, not least spot- and match-fixing.

In eSports, cheating is relatively easy, he says. You can slow opponents down using technology that messes with their internet connection, or take drugs to speed yourself up. Or you can simply lose. And it is becoming increasingly susceptible to corruption, because so many people are betting on matches. The casinos in Las Vegas are now streaming matches to attract young people. In March, Esic signed a memorandum with the Nevada Gaming Control Board to share information about suspicious betting patterns. Next year, the Luxor hotel will become home to the first eSports arena on the Las Vegas strip.

Smith wants eSports to benefit from the lessons learned in other sports: “We can save time and bypass the pain,” he says, “because traditional sport has already gone through this. You will get guys riding it, coming in and looking at the money. They are already doing it. The industry can say, we don’t want Fifa, we don’t want Sepp Blatter, a bunch of corrupt old men telling us what to do and making millions off us. But what do they want? At the moment, they have no idea.”

Is the industry supportive of his ethics code? “I have been accused more than once of building a highway for cars that don’t yet exist. The trouble is, I know the cars are coming, because I’ve spent 20 years looking at them. People want to wait until they’re run over by that car.”

In Britain, we are just starting out on the eSports road. Traditional sport still dominates, yet every day new evidence emerges of change. BT Sport is broadcasting the Fifa 17 Ultimate Team Championship Series in the UK for the first time this year. Last month, Tottenham Hotspur announced their new ground will host live eSports matches, with potential crowds of 50,000 and revenues of £3m a match.

While the London Olympics were intended to “inspire a generation” to play sport, it has emerged the number of people playing traditional sport or exercising at least once a week in the UK has dropped 0.4% since 2012, to 15.8 million. In March, a YouGov poll revealed 91% of parents said their children did not get the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day. They worry their children are lost in sedentary, virtual worlds. Korea’s problems may seem a world away but it is already seven years since the UK’s first eSports addiction clinic opened, in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. British therapists may prefer a 12-step programme to electric shock treatment but who knows what the future holds?

  • Additional reporting and main image by Tom Jenkins

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