There are plenty of professional sports leagues in South Korea. There’s K-League 1 and K-League 2, both of which are professional soccer leagues. There’s the Korean Basketball League (KBL) and the Women’s Korean Basketball League (WKBL). There’s the V-League, which has men’s and women’s professional volleyball teams. There’s even a League of Legends Champions Korea (LCK), a professional esports league in which teams compete against each other in the video game League of Legends. These leagues each have unique and skilled athletes, proud teams, competitive games, interesting stories and traditions, and loyal fans.
However, when considering each league’s history, popularity, and star players, there is one South Korean sports league that stands above all the others. It’s the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO). The KBO has a history that goes back nearly four decades, each year draws millions of fans to its stadiums, and has featured some of Korea’s most famous athletes.
Season Format and Rules
Like in most professional baseball leagues, the KBO season begins in spring and ends in fall. Each team plays 144 games in the regular season. The five teams with the best win-loss records at the end of the regular season advance to the postseason. Among those five teams, the one with the best record automatically qualifies for the KBO’s championship series, called the Korean Series, while the other four teams play a sequence of playoff series to determine who will play the team with the best record in the Korean Series. In the Korean Series, the team that wins four of seven games is the KBO champion.
After the Korean Series, the KBO has an end-of-season awards ceremony to honor its top players. Among the awards given out are the Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award, given to the best-performing player of the regular season, and the Rookie of the Year Award, given to the best first-year player of the regular season.
While KBO teams are comprised primarily of Korean players, each club is allowed to have a maximum of three foreign players on its roster. The KBO allows designated hitters in all of its games. In the regular season, if a game goes to extra innings and the score is tied at the end of the 12th inning, the game ends in an official tie. In the postseason, games can continue for 15 innings. If the score is tied after 15 innings, the game is declared a tie and is replayed.
History and Growth
The KBO started in 1982, making it Korea’s oldest professional team sports league (Korea has a professional golf tour that dates back longer, but golf is an individual sport). When the KBO was founded, it had six teams – the Haitai Tigers, in Gwangju; Lotte Giants, in Busan; MBC Chungyong, in Seoul; OB Bears, in Daejeon; Sammi Superstars, in Incheon; and Samsung Lions, in Daegu. Since then, most of the original teams have changed their names, and some have moved to different cities.
New teams have joined the KBO, and a few teams have disbanded. The league expanded until it had eight teams in the 1990s and 2000s, and then added two more teams, in 2013 and 2015, giving it the 10 it has now. The teams are named after companies or conglomerates by which they are owned or sponsored.
Korea’s Most Popular Sports League
The KBO is South Korea’s most popular sports league. It draws more fans to its games than any other league in the country. The KBO attracted more than 8 million fans in 2017 and again in 2018. The KBO’s most popular teams often have seasons in which they draw more than 1 million fans to their home games.
Each team’s fans have their own unique cheering culture, which may include yelling chants, singing fight songs, using cheering props or eating cheering foods that are associated with their team. KBO teams have cheerleaders and sometimes hold special events to show appreciation or encourage support from their fans.
In addition to drawing fans to stadiums, KBO games are popular with television audiences. The KBO is broadcast on multiple TV channels and attracts more viewers than any other sports league in Korea.
Major League Talent
The KBO has had players who have gone on to play in or have previously played in the best baseball leagues in the world, including U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) and Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB). Ryu Hyun-jin, for example, was a star pitcher for the Hanwha Eagles before leaving to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and shortstop Kang Jung-ho played for two KBO teams before going to the Pittsburg Pirates in the MLB. Long-time major league pitchers Park Chan-ho and Kim Byung-hyun finished their baseball careers in the KBO with the Hanwha Eagles and Kia Tiger, respectively.
KBO players comprise most of the roster of the South Korean national baseball team, which has fared well at major international competitions. South Korea, in fact, won the gold medal in baseball at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and finished runner-up at the 2009 World Baseball Classic in Los Angeles.
Information about the KBO is available on the official website, which also has English-language pages. In addition, KBO teams have their own websites, some of which include pages in English. There are also several apps that can be downloaded to provide information about the KBO.
Tickets to KBO games can be purchased online or by using apps. You can find online tickets at Interpark and Ticket Link. Tickets are often available at stadium box offices before games. Ticket prices vary.
The Doosan Bears are a team with a long and rich history. They were formed in 1982 as the OB Bears, based in Daejeon, and became one of the KBO’s original six teams. That year, the Bears defeated the Samsung Lions in the inaugural Korean Series to become the first KBO champions. The OB Bears moved from Daejeon to Seoul in 1985 and changed their name to the Doosan Bears in 1999. The Bears have now won five KBO championships – the third most of any team. They have appeared in 12 Korean Series – the second most of any team – including four in a row from 2015 to 2018.
The Bears are one of two KBO teams that play their home games at Jamsil Stadium, the other being the LG Twins. The stadium is famous for hosting the baseball events of the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.
The Bears, who have a large and loyal fan base, often have special events for their fans. These events include Bear’s Day, on which the team offers extra activities for children and families; Player’s Day, on which the Bears’ players wear throwback uniforms; Mr. Doo Day, on which the team honors male fans; and Queen’s Day, on which the team honors female fans.
The Eagles were the KBO’s first expansion team. The KBO began as a six-team league in 1982 and then, in 1986, added a seventh team, the Binggrae Eagles, to play in Daejeon. The Eagles went to the Korean Series four times during a five-season stretch from 1988 to 1992 but lost each time. The team changed its name to the Hanwha Eagles in 1993. The Eagles won their only KBO championship by defeating the Doosan Bears in the Korean Series in 1999.
Pitcher Song Jin-woo set KBO records for career wins (210), strikeouts (2,048) and innings pitched (3,003) while playing for the Eagles from 1989 to 2009. In 2006, Eagles pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin won the KBO’s Rookie of the Year Award and MVP Award, making him the only player to win both honors in the same season. After the 2012 season, Ryu left the Eagles to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the U.S. major leagues.
The Eagles play most of their home games at Hanwha Life Insurance Eagles Park, also known as Daejeon Hanbat Baseball Stadium. The stadium, which opened in 1964, is the oldest currently being used by the KBO. The Eagles also play some home games at Cheongju Baseball Stadium.
Having won the Korean Series 11 times, the Tigers have more KBO championships than any other team. They were founded in 1982 as the Haitai Tigers, one of the KBO’s original six ball clubs. The Haitai Tigers won the Korean Series a total of nine times in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2001, the Tigers got new owners, who changed the team’s name to the Kia Tigers. The Kia Tigers won the Korean Series in 2009 and 2017.
Tigers players have won a total of nine KBO Most Valuable Player Awards, tying the Samsung Lions for the most of any team. Pitcher Sun Dong-yol was a three-time MVP and six-time Korean Series champion and compiled a 146-40 win-loss record and a KBO-record 1.20 career ERA while playing for the Haitai Tigers from 1985 to 1995. Infielder and pitcher Kim Seong-han was a two-time MVP and seven-time Korean Series champion while playing for the Tigers from 1982 to 1995.
The Tigers have played their home games at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field since the stadium opened in 2014. Before that, they played at Gwangju Mudeung Baseball Stadium from 1982 to 2013.
The Heroes were founded and became a KBO team in 2008, but their roots in the league go back much further than that. When the KBO began in 1982, it had a team in Incheon called the Sammi Superstars, which later became the Chungbo Pintos (from 1985 to 1987), Pacific Dolphins (1988 to 1995) and the Hyundai Unicorns, who played in Incheon from 1996 to 1999 and Suwon from 2000 to 2007. The Unicorns won the Korean Series four times. Before the 2008 season, the Unicorns disbanded, and a new team, the Woori Heroes, was founded in Seoul and signed former Unicorns players and staff. Due to changes in sponsorship, the new team’s name changed from the Woori Heroes (in 2008) to the Heroes (2008 and 2009), Seoul Heroes (2009), Nexen Heroes (2010 to 2018) and now the Kiwoom Heroes.
While playing for the Heroes, infielder Park Byung-ho won the KBO’s Most Valuable Player Award in 2012 and 2013 and then became the first player to hit 50 or more home runs in back-to-back KBO seasons, hitting 52 in 2014 and 53 in 2015. In 2014, the Heroes played in the Korean Series, where they lost to the Samsung Lions.
The Heroes play their home games at Gocheok Sky Dome, which opened in 2015 as the first indoor baseball stadium in South Korea.
The KT Wiz are the newest team in the KBO. The Wiz were founded in 2013 and first played in a lower-level professional league. They were later admitted into the KBO, where they began playing at the start of the 2015 season. The Wiz struggled in their first four KBO seasons, posting a losing record and finishing among the bottom two teams in the league standings each year. A highlight for the Wiz came when outfielder Kang Baek-ho won the KBO Rookie of the Year Award in 2018.
The Wiz play their home games at Suwon KT Wiz Park, also known as Suwon Baseball Stadium. The stadium, which opened in 1989, used to be the home of the now-defunct Hyundai Unicorns. The stadium underwent major renovations in recent years.
Throughout their history, the LG Twins have been part of Seoul. When the KBO started in 1982, the league had only one club based in Seoul, a team called MBC Chungyong, which played at Jamsil Baseball Stadium. MBC Chungyong went to the Korean Series once, losing to the Haitai Tigers in 1983, but had no other postseason appearances. Before the 1990 season, MBC Chungyong was bought by LG Corporation. The new owners changed the team’s name to the LG Twins, but the club remained in Seoul and continued to play at Jamsil Stadium. In their first season under LG’s ownership, the Twins won the Korean Series in 1990. Then, the Twins won the Korean Series again in 1994.
The Twins still play in Seoul, which is now the home of three KBO teams. They still play their home games at Jamsil Stadium, which they now share with the Doosan Bears. As a result of their long-time presence in Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city, the Twins are one of the KBO’s most popular teams, usually drawing more than 1 million fans to their home games each season.
The Lotte Giants are the oldest team in the KBO. In 1975, before there were professional sports teams in Korea, the Giants were founded as an amateur club in Seoul. When the KBO started in 1982, the Giants became a professional club, moved to Busan and became one of the league’s first six teams. In 1984, the Giants won their first KBO championship. That year, Giants pitcher Choi Dong-won won 27 regular-season games, set a KBO single-season record with 223 strikeouts and then became the first pitcher to earn four wins in a Korean Series. The Giants won the Korean Series again in 1992. In 2007, the Giants became the first KBO team to hire a foreign manager when they brought in American Jerry Royster, who managed the team until 2010.
The Giants are known for having enthusiastic fans. In 1991, they became the first KBO team to have more than 1 million fans attend their home games in a season. In 2009, they set a league attendance record by drawing 1,380,018 fans to their home games. The Giants play the majority of their home games at Busan Sajik Baseball Stadium, which is one of Korea’s most famous ballparks. They also play some home games at Ulsan Munsu Baseball Stadium.
In 2010, three smaller cities on Korea’s southeast coast – Changwon, Jinhae and Masan – merged to become Changwon, one city with more than 1 million residents. In 2011, as part of the city’s rapid development, video game company NCsoft founded a professional baseball team, the NC Dinos, in Changwon. After playing a year in a lower-level professional league, the Dinos joined the KBO to start the 2013 season.
Despite being new to the KBO, the Dinos have been competitive, posting winning records and qualifying for the postseason four years in a row, from 2014 to 2017. In 2015, Eric Thames, an American outfielder who has played in the U.S. major leagues, batted .381 with 47 home runs and 40 stolen bases for the Dinos, making him the first player to hit 40 or more home runs and steal 40 or more bases in the same KBO season. In 2016, the Dinos played in the Korean Series, where they lost to the Doosan Bears.
The Dinos play their home games at Changwon NC Park, which opened in 2019 and is the newest ballpark in the KBO.
One of the original six KBO teams, the Samsung Lions have had some of the league’s biggest stars. In fact, Lions players have won a total of nine KBO Most Valuable Player Awards, tying the Haitai/Kia Tigers for the most of any team. First baseman Lee Seung-yeop, a five-time MVP, played for the Lions from 1995 to 2003 and then, after playing in Japan, took the field for the Lions again from 2012 to 2017. Lee holds several KBO records, including those for career home runs (467) and RBIs (2,156). Lee Man-soo, the 1983 MVP, was a catcher for the Lions from 1982 to 1997 before he went to America and became the first Korean to coach in the major leagues, as a member of the Chicago White Sox staff from 2000 to 2007.
The Lions have won eight KBO championships, including four in a row from 2011 to 2014. Their eight KBO titles are the second most of any team. One of their titles came in 1985, when the Korean Series was not held, but the Lions were declared KBO champions because they had the best regular-season record that year. The Lions have played in 17 Korean Series, the most of any club.
The Lions play their home games at Daegu Samsung Lions Park, which opened in 2016. Before that, they played at Daegu Baseball Stadium from 1982 to 2015.
The SK Wyverns were born when another team collapsed. In 2000, the Ssangbangwool Raiders, a KBO team from Jeonju, disbanded when their owners went bankrupt. To replace the Ssangbangwool Raiders, the KBO added a new team, the SK Wyverns, based in Incheon, and allowed it to fill its roster with former Raiders players.
At first, the Wyverns struggled, posting losing records in each of their first three seasons, but then they emerged to become one of the KBO’s most successful teams. The Wyverns have played in the Korean Series eight times and won four KBO championships. Kim Sung-keun became the Wyverns’ manager in 2007 and led the team to the Korean Series in each of his first four seasons – winning it three times – before he was fired midway through the 2011 season. In 2018, American Trey Hillman managed the Wyverns to a Korean Series victory over the Doosan Bears. In doing so, he became the first foreign manager to win a KBO title.
The Wyverns play their home games at Incheon SK Happy Dream Park, which is also known as Munhak Baseball Stadium. The stadium opened in 2002.