A Korea in gaming

Gamers were once stigmatised in Western society as skinny, pale-faced geeks with no social life. Although sometimes fitting, this stereotype is changing as gaming becomes more mainstream.

In South Korea, gamers are superstars – poster boys for adolescent girls – who easily attract audiences of 100,000 to arenas most often used for pop concerts. Pro-gaming is not an underground competition away from the spotlights. The tournaments are played during TV’s prime time. The players are celebrities earning tons of cash and respect throughout the country and its borders.

Among the pro-gamers is a 29-year-old called Lim Yo-hwan, who uses the gaming name, Boxer. In the gaming world, he is seen as the Emperor of Starcraft. When he sits down at his gaming machine, fans cheer and wave banners bearing his name. With bated breath, they watch him attack his opponent with an army of aliens. His face appears on cereal boxes, his “best-of” came out in a 7 DVD set. As Westerners talk about the Champions-League final 1999; South Koreans talk with the same amount of passion and excitement about “Boxer vs Moon 2006”.

It’s no longer a secret that someone can earn a living because they are good at playing video games. Now, I don’t mean with the gold pieces your elf warrior has saved to buy the new dragon sword at the dwarf blacksmith. Korean pro-gamers are starting to earn annual salaries that are moving towards 6- digit figures by playing Warcraft 3 or Starcraft. Like successful sportspeople, it’s a matter of being the best.

In Western society, the closest we get to this type of craze is at LAN parties where people, not only watch, but can play too. However, many fans of Starcraft are not even active players. Just like sports fans in our culture.

With the upcoming Starcraft II, it’s worth taking a look back to see why people still swear their alliance to the prequel, after over 11 years.

Ministry of Gaming is the first and only internet-café in Edinburgh dedicated to gaming. David MacGraw, its founder, says: “You cannot compare our gaming society to Korea’s. Pro-gaming is not a job people should go for here, the games that are dominating the pro-gaming scene change too quickly, plus there is simply not enough money for everyone to make.”

Stephen Yu, a software developer said the devotion to gaming is viewed differently depending on location. “People here look down at you if you play video games all day,” Yu explained. “In Korea they look up to you, admiring the amount of time you sacrifice to improve in gaming.”

You could call South Korea the birthplace of professional gaming. Chances are you have heard of Counterstrike. Even though both games were created by Western developers, in terms of success and professionalism, Counterstrike would be our equivalent to Starcraft.

Seeing their favorite lose in an 11-year-old videogame invokes crying fits by teenage girls, reminiscent of the experience of Take That fans when the band’s split.

If you happen to be in Korea and want to generate small talk, you should just ask how “Boxer” is doing. That’s the equivalent to asking how the weekend’s games had been.

While we were busy buying every new gaming system thrown on the market and being in absolute awe of the possibility of playing Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 in split-screen-mode (2-4 players simultaneously), Koreans dismiss consoles because of their lack of online capability. Another reason for the failure of Sega, Nintendo and Sony consoles in South Korea is the tainted relationship with the home country of these companies: Japan. If that wasn’t enough reason for the average Korean to reject them, the expensive price tags that Japanese products carry would be. The reason for a Korean to buy a PC was simple: to play Starcraft.

It may not seem like your average 9 to 5 job but this is their work shift. However, if they want to stay in shape, they would have to ‘work’ overtime. Starcraft pro-gamers easily play 10-12 hours a day. Nothing less is expected from the paying sponsors. They are constantly looking over gamers’ shoulders in their “pro-gaming villas” where facilities are built around their every need from cooks to coaches.

To compare the competencies of each player in a match is quite simple: Just count the number of mouse clicks in a minute. The higher the number, the better the player usually is. It can be as simple as that. In hectic game situations, a good player may reach up to 300 clicks per minute with keyboard inputs at the same time. This is executed at a speed mortals can’t possibly follow.

To the untrained eye, it is impossible to understand what the player is doing on the screen. Even for a gaming enthusiast, pictures of this hero-worship and pro-gaming academies are hard to grasp.

Unsurprisingly it needed a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game from the same developer to actually have a chance on the market. Warcraft 3 by Blizzard should’ve been the successor, and in fact it nearly reached eye height.

The video game industry soon will be as proficient as the music and film industry combined. New games advertise with improved graphics but it is the balanced core game play that the real gamers want. Games survive online if they play well, not if they look pretty. For them, Counterstrike and Starcraft are perfect as they are.

But in the end does this definition of popular culture seem so much stranger than ours where fans idealise the potential winner in XFactor

To see an example of an event’s commercial spot on Korean televison, check out Gametrailers.com’s Video.

Words by Maxim Lewerenz

Photography by Wikipedia

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