It's a muggy August afternoon on Gwangali Beach in Busan, South Korea, and even the children have abandoned their sandcastles in favor of lounging under umbrellas. Pairs of elderly men and women snooze, buried up to their necks under piles of sand. From the far end of the beach, pounding ThunderSticks and the high-pitched shrieks of teenaged girls suggest there is one group here that hasn't given in to summer sluggishness. Today is the StarCraft Proleague Final, and thousands of young men and women, many of them accompanied by parents, are gathered on the far end of the beach to watch the KT Rolsters professional StarCraft team face off against their enemies, SK, in one of Korea's annual professional videogaming tournaments.
"Guys are getting paid five times what I'm getting to play a computer game."
Hunched in a soundproofed Plexiglass booth under the orange lights of the event's stage is KT's Kim "Stats" Dae Yeop, 18, motionless except for his flashing fingers and darting eyes. Across the stage, his opponent, Kim "Bisu" Taek Yeong, a pouty 20-year-old player for SK, maintains an identical position of slouched concentration. In the crowd, teen girls hold posters of his face and scream like they're in pain. Between the two players' booths, three announcers flail their arms and shout frenzied Korean into their microphones. Projected on an enormous screen behind them, Stats' army of pixelated warriors is marching across the surface of an alien planet, closing in on Bisu's territory. Falling upon Bisu's troops with much robotic whacking, Stats' squarish avatars reduce his opponent's soldiers to a pile of broken carcasses leaking blue goo.
Defeated, Bisu slinks from his cubicle to join the rest of his team and their coaches offstage as Stats takes a gourd with his opponent's name printed on it and gleefully stomps it to pieces. His team is now up 2-0, and just three matches stand between KT and the title of 2009-2010 StarCraft ProLeague Champions.
StarCraft is a multiplayer online real-time strategy game that challenges players to build settlements on alien planets while simultaneously wiping out their opponents' settlements and has made minor celebrities of a handful of highly skilled Korean gamers. If recognition as one of the best digital settlement destroyers in the country doesn't sound impressive, consider this: the prize for the winners at the Proleague Final is 40 million won (about $35,000 USD), on top of the hundreds of thousands of dollars many players get each year in salary. And then there's the fame; the Proleague championship will be seen by millions of people via the two channels devoted entirely to eSports in Korea, MBC Game and OnGameNet, and through streaming on internet stations like GomTV, which acquired exclusive broadcasting rights for StarCraft II in 2010.
Vasana Haines, a 36-year-old English teacher in Busan, is one of the many eSports fans who caught the Proleague Finals from home. Though he's played StarCraft since he was a teenager growing up in New Zealand, he hasn't always been an eSports watcher. "It's only since I came to Korea," he says. "I mean, in Korea it's just huge. Guys are getting paid five times what I'm getting to play a computer game."