Seoul, South Korea. A twenty-year-old Korean man walks down the ramp of a dazzling arena where “a fanfare of Asian nu-metal and the sound of a thousand screaming fans” were desperately waiting his arrival. The young man is dressed gracefully, wearing a motorcycle jacket, which is filled with sponsors from Shinhan Bank to Samsung and wearing a large white cape, “he heads out to meet his opponent on the stadium’s ziggurat focus”. He seems to be very calm even though there are half a dozen TV cameras tracking his progress, indoor fireworks, flashlights blazed directly at him, “he climbs the steps and is exulted by the thronging crowd”. “He waves to the crowd diligently” (Rossignol, 2005).
According to Yang this young man has a fan club of more than hundred’s of thousands of people and it is almost impossible to track down the number of people who watch him play on TV.
Why is it impossible to track down the number of people who watch him play? This young man is on Korean television every single day. He is a Professional Starcraft gamer, a game that is close to becoming Korea’s National sport according to a lot of analysts. His name is Lee Yunyeol, known to the gaming world as [RED] NaDa. He is a Terran (One of the three races in Starcraft) macro style player and is second to none when is come to “Starcraft”. In the year 2004 “his reported earnings were around 200,000 USD”. An Idol to many Koreans he has been playing Starcraft, a real-time strategy (RTS) game for the past seven years, “for fame and fortune”. Koreans who dream of one day becoming as good as Yunyeol login every single day on the online Starcraft server, Battle.net and “make war in space”. The number of Koreans who play this game on a daily basis are over half a million, an overwhelming number of gamers for an online Real-Time strategy (RTS) game (Rossignol, 2005). For a person to become a professional at this game it takes a lot of dedication and time, professional gamers practice this game for up to 13 hours a day. “They do little but eat, sleep and practice”. They do this for around six days a week (Fairbairn, 2007). “The existence of people like Lee Yunyeol ensures that South Korea is unlike any other gaming culture on Earth” (Rossignol, 2005).
Starcraft might look like a random war game but in reality “Starcraft requires a real grasp of strategy where each player must wipe out his opponent”. Professional gamers need to be able to complete a dizzying number of actions per minute and players are required to make tons of tactical decisions every moment. Players on an average require around 400 to 500 actions per minute, which is a staggering 7-8 actions per second (Bellos, 2007).
So what made Korea the Garden of Eden for the gaming marketplace? How did one particular computer game, namely Starcraft, acquire such a massive amount of active gamers? There are a few people who believe that Starcraft was at the right place, at the right time but if we look deep into it and look into some facts through research there seem to be a lot of key factors, due to which Starcraft is so huge in Korea.
“In Korea it’s all study, study, study, learn, learn, learn,” said Park Youngmok, Blizzard’s Korean communications director. “That’s the whole culture here and so you can’t go buy a game console because all it is, is an expensive toy; all it does is play games but a Personal Computer (PC) is seen there as a dream machine, a learning machine. You can use it to study, do research and if someone in the household ends up playing games on it, that’s life” (New York Times, 2006).
“Many Koreans easily become obsessed with activities or games that test their ability to think and react rapidly, and excelling in such activities for competition during youth is highly encouraged “says Nick Rumas (2010), a South Korean-based filmmaker and writer. “This can range from mathematics to science to Rubik’s Cube, and while Starcraft generally is not a ‘recommended’ pursuit, it falls under a similar obsessive mindset.”
According to Rossignol (2005) “it has taken some unique economic and political circumstances to make this strange situation into a stone cold reality”. Due to the uncontrollable Japanese imperialism for decades in South Korea, there was a lot of trade restrictions due to which an average Korean could not afford the gaming consoles that were being created at that era. “During the 1990’s when gaming really took of in Korea”, the Korean community was playing games on the PC platform as it was the cheapest means of gaming. In the late 1990’s the Korean government had decided to install state of the art broadband technology in almost every building in Seoul, South Korea. This is one of the major factors affecting the growth of PC gaming in Korea.
According to the Financial Express (2006) South Korea is the most ‘wired’ country in the world. South Korea has an eight-megabits per second Internet connection, which is the fastest in the world. Rest of the world has a Internet speed of two-megabits per second. “This has transformed the country into a tech-savvy, click happy society. One of the most significant cultural fallouts of having these bit-guzzling pipes crisscrossing the nation has been the rise of online gaming.”
Thanks to the super fast Internet speed in Korea and the Korean community accepting gaming, a new concept of ‘PC BANGS’ (Bang meaning room in Korean) came up in Korea. PC bangs is a Korean term used for cyber cafes. These were designed, for comfortable gaming. Each PC bang had around 50 to 200 high-speed computers with very comfortable chairs and alongside a snack bar.
“The proliferation of PC bang has much to do with Korea’s small business environment.” PC bangs were perfect business opportunities for people at the age of 50. As the Korean government does not guarantee a social pension people had to look for new ways to earn money and earn it without a lot of hard work. Setting up a PC bang was an ideal situation for such people . Once the computers were setup and the famous games were installed there was very little work required, to take care of PC bangs (Askakorean.blogspot.com, 2010).
PC bangs in Korea had become a social phenomenon. People from all age groups would go there to play games, have fun and socialize. Teenagers would go there to avoid their crowded homes and hang out with their friends while “young adults go there to hangout with friends the way Americans go to bars or clubs.” There are even couple seats available in Pc bangs where there would be a loveseat with two PC’s (Kosak, 2003). There are over 25,000 PC bangs in Seoul alone and with a minimal charge of 25 USD per month; they are easily accessible to teenagers (Financial Express, 2006).
“Once PC bangs came to be everywhere, it began to infiltrate Korean people’s habits. People go because they are there, and because they are an easy way to pass time. It became another version of the self-expanding cycle: People go to PC bangs because PC bangs are there. More entrepreneurs open PC bangs because people go there. More people go to PC bangs because more of them exist, and others are going too. It was only a matter of time when TV executives caught on and turned this into an even bigger phenomenon” (Askakorean.blogspot.com, 2010).
According to Huh Hyeong Chan a 42 year old mathematics teacher from Seoul, “Among people in their 20’s and 30’s, I think there is no one who hasn’t been to a PC bang because it is the main trend in our society.” Lee Chung Gi, owner of the Intercool bang, said: “It’s impossible for students in any country to study all the time, so they are looking for interesting thing to do together. In America they have lots of fields and outdoor space. They have lots of room to play soccer, baseball and other sports. We don’t have that here. Here, there are very few places for young people to go and very little for them to do, so they found PC games, and it’s their way to spend time with their peer and relax.”
Once the Korean government realized how big Starcraft had become and how Starcraft affected their society, they decided to start a government organization to support electronic sports (e-sports) in Korea. Korean e-sports players association, also known as Kespa was setup in 2000. This organization main goal was to congeal e-sports in all the sectors and make e-sports an official sporting event. This organization has encouraged young kids to take up gaming (playing of video games) as a professional career. They started doing events such as teen and family participation in video games and game character festivals. They were organizing seminars, symposiums and expositions to support development of outstanding games (www.e-sports.or.kr, 2010).
Kespa started organizing various professional and amateur level competitions. From these competitions they were selecting players for the national team and gave them an opportunity to play at an international level. Kespa started their infrastructure development for e-sports in Korea. They built e-sports stadiums around Seoul and created game museums. After the infrastructure was done Kespa started hosting Starcraft leagues and started broadcasting them live on Korean television. The major channels where Kespa regulates broadcasting by e-sports are Ongamenet, MBC Game, GomTv and Pandora TV. These channels are dedicated for Starcraft matches. (www.e-sports.or.kr, 2010).
With the help of Kespa, the Korean society came to terms with Starcraft and the opportunities a mere computer gamer had to offer. Starcraft is the only game with an active professional competition circuit. From 2002 large Korean companies such as Samsung, SK Telecom, and Korean Air etc sponsor these events. Ongamenet and MBC Game now have their own starleague. Starleague is a league where all the top Starcraft players in the country would play games against each and the person with the highest number of points at the end of the year would win the league. These leagues are very similar to the soccer leagues around the world. The Ongamenet starleague and the MBC Game starleague are broadcasted on their channels and they have millions of viewers. These leagues are the world’s largest computer gaming leagues in terms of prize money, global coverage and participants.
The players who play at these events tend to practice a lot and most of them collaborate to create teams. Because of the large viewership and fan following Starcraft had to offer, teams and players got sponsored by corporate (Nation and International alike), similar to the sponsorships seen in other major sports such as F1 and Moto GP. The players live together in team houses, which are designed for the players so they can practice all they want to improve in the game. They live together, eat together and play against each other. Every team has a coach who comes up with strategies and gives the players morale boosts. The teams also have a manager who manages their endorsement deals and appearances (Financial Express, 2006). The best of the best gamers in South Korea don’t get much time to relax. South Korea’s most famous gamer Lim Yo-Hwan, know to gaming world as Slayers_Boxer said in interview to the New York Times “Normally our wake-up hours are 10 a.m. After we wake up we have our breakfast, and then we play matches from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. At 5 p.m. we have our lunch, and then at 5.30 for an hour and a half I go to my gym, where I work out. Then I come home and play until 1 a.m. After 1 I can play more matches or I can go to sleep if I want.” In the most recent tournament that is going on right now called as the Global Starcraft 2 League (GSL), the only non Korean in the tournament ‘Jonathan Walsh’, known to the gaming world as Liquid Jinro said in an interview to Dan ‘Artosis’ Stemkoski that he practices every day for more then 14 hours to get to where he is now. He plays around 50 to 60 games with his teammates everyday. These players also get trained on how to give interviews and how to have a good personality on TV. Ho Yoon says that, “The personality of the players he films. It is that personal appeal, along with their skill, which fills out the fan clubs and keeps the TV ratings high” (Rossignol, 2005). Hyong Jun Hwang, general manager of Ongamenet, one of the country’s full time game networks said, “Television needs stars. So we set out to make the top players into stars, promoting them and so on. We also do a lot of education with the players, making them look good and making sure that they are always ready for any sort of interviews” (New York Times, 2006).
There are 11 professional teams in South Korea and around 300 professional Starcraft gamers. Large business conglomerates run all these teams. These companies pay all the gamers and the coach’s salary (Bellos, 2007). Sean Oh a manager of one of the most popular teams in South Korea says that its cost around 20 million USD per year to run a team (2007). On average a gamer gets around 200,000 USD per annum with out any endorsement deals etc. The top 5 players in Korea on an average get around 500,000 USD per annum excluding their endorsement deals. These were figures given by Guillaume “Grrrr_ca” Party, the only non-Korean player to be a champion in Korea during the interview with www.greatest.com in 2004, Guillaume also said that “It’s like all of those professional hockey players and baseball players from 30 years ago, the salaries and sponsorships keep getting bigger”. According to this we can assume that the current players get way more pay then 500,000 USD. According to the Financial Express players appear on everything from T-shirts to drink cans (2006). There are even Korean Air jets with players and team names on them.
Due to the high amount of salaries gamers are getting paid in South Korea, young kids are encouraged by schools and their parents to take up gaming as a professional career. There are full time schools in South Korea, which teach kids how to play Starcraft and how to get good at the game. Cho Duck Koo a father of a school kid and a photographer said in his interview to the New York times that “Certainly the games can be a distraction, and now that he is studying for the university exam he plays much less, but in general gaming helps the children with strategic thinking and to learn to multitask” (2006).
“In some nations gamers are looked down upon, but in South Korea professional gaming, e-sports, is worth billions of dollars and players are seen as heroes” (Bellos, 2007).
According to Bellos, a BBC reporter, Korean professional gamers are seen as sex symbols in Korea. Ma Jae-Yoon who is current champion in Korea has several fan clubs and websites devoted to him. Ma Jae-Yoon in an interview to BBC said, “I always appreciate the love and support of the fans. Especially in one game I played a couple of weeks ago and one girl was crying because I lost. On Saturdays when I go downtown I sometime get surrounded by fans. I feel so embarrassed. I always try to wear a hat” (2007). In another interview taken by the New York Times of the most famous Starcraft gamer, Lim Yo-Hwan said, “Without covering myself up in a disguise it’s really difficult to go out in public, because of the Internet penetration and with so many cameras around, I don’t have much privacy in my personal life. Anything I do will be on camera and will be spread throughout the Internet, and anything I say will be exaggerated and posted on many sites” (2006). Hoon Ju, the coach of SK Telecom gaming and a former graduate student in sports psychology thinks that “It is thanks to modern technology and people having cameras and Internet facilities on their phone, whenever the players go out I know where they exactly are as picture of them are constantly put up on the Internet” (2006). Patricia Chung of Samsung-Korea says, “Guillaume is a huge star, as big or bigger than the most famous Hollywood movie stars. Guillaume is swarmed by fans when he goes to restaurants or competes in tournaments” (Greatest.com, 2004). Woo of the federal game institute estimated that 10 million South Koreans regularly follow e-sports and said that some fan clubs of top gamers have 700,000 members or more. “These fan clubs are actually bigger in size than the fan clubs of actors and singers in Korea, the total number of people who go to watch pro basketball, baseball and soccer put together is the same as the number of people who go watch pro game leagues” (New York Times, 2006).
Starcraft players in South Korea act in advertisements show up in famous talk shows and a few of them also act small scenes in dramas. There is a lot of Starcraft influence in Korean movies and their dramas. Comedians in Korea use the help of Starcraft to come up with jokes. In an article written by Cybulski he says that it is only in Korea to see commercials with Starcraft professional gamers. Professional gamers wearing their tournament uniform appear in commercials all the time. After watching the commercials he says “These commercials are a testament to their status as national celebrities” (2009).
Blizzard, the makers of Starcraft had come up with the sequel Starcraft 2 after 12 years of the launch of Starcraft. The game was launched in 2010 and since its launch it has sold over 7 million copies in the world and this number excludes South Korea. In South Korea, Blizzard-Korea has sold 11 million copies of Starcraft 2 (Westbrook, 2010). Even before the launch of Starcraft 2 there were millions of people in South Korea practicing it. There were teams already being made and a lot of companies started sponsoring these teams. Some teams had setup their houses and were practicing on the Beta version (Test version launched by Blizzard to check for Errors and Bugs) of the game. Since the official launch of the game, there are various tournaments going on around the world. In South Korea Blizzard and GomTv had launched the tournament “Global Starcraft 2 League” (GSL). The prize pool for this tournament was 500,000 USD and the tournament would be held every 45 days. Blizzard has also announced that the prize for this tournament from 2011 will be increased from 500,000 USD to 1 Million USD. After the launch of this tournament a lot of teams for Starcraft 2 were setup similar to Starcraft. All the major companies that were sponsoring Starcraft teams started sponsoring Starcraft 2 teams. The winner of the first GSL WON-KI Kim, know famously as TSL_FruitDealer became a national icon in the country. Thanks to the launch of Starcraft 2, old Starcraft players who had quit the game have come back to play (Shacknews, 2010).
Last edited by weeA; Mon, 13th-Dec-2010 at 4:15 AM.
I nice read indeed but it's really a huge wall of text. May be it's the stie layout that's making it appear longer than it is but I got dizzy just by scrolling. Your Evolution of E-Sports looks much nicer, with bold headings and smaller paragraphs. But thanks for taking your time to educate lazy bums like me.
in southkorea is sc2 a traditional sport with a lot of puplic stuff as televison, open events, 3 ! sc2 tv-channels and very big tourneys with a ton of pricemoney. you can make you life when youre good in sc2 in korea. the korean army has a sc2 team to, comparison in germany is foodball the national sport with the same things and big tourneys.
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