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Capture the Flag

Rachel Bailey | 31 Aug 2011 21:00
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All that money comes from corporate sponsorships, and even one sponsorship from the Korean Air Force, for the league's twelve teams, which sport rosters of a dozen players each. Those sponsorships, in turn, are made possible by the popularity of Korea's gaming channels and for-pay streaming of matches online.

Some of the most popular television programming for young men in Korea today is something that most Westerners complain about when they're subjected to it: watching other people play videogames.

In 2010, MBC Game was the third most-watched channel among males aged 13-25 in Korea, and since StarCraft broadcasting has shifted to streaming online, StarCraft and StarCraft II programming continues to dominate the eSports market. The highest-rated programming consists of screenshots of videogame matches between professionals, accompanied by commentary. In other words, some of the most popular television programming for young men in Korea today is something that most Westerners complain about when they're subjected to it: watching other people play videogames.

Indeed, thanks in large part to eSports programming, StarCraft remains popular in Korea over a decade after it was originally released, continuing to draw viewers even after its sequel, StarCraft II, hit the market late last year. Of the 11 million copies of the game sold worldwide, 40% were purchased in Korea. That's 4.5 million copies, or one game for every nine Korean citizens.

The StarCraft franchise's popularity in Korea is enduring and pervasive, and one group responsible for promoting it, the Korean E-Sports Association (KESPA), is looking for new ways to expand StarCraft's success. "One of KESPA's goals is to make eSports an international sport," says KESPA's Shin Seung Jae. "We want to make this a pro league, like Major League Baseball."

Jung Won Chae, director of GomTV's Global StarCraft II League, shares this goal. "GOMTV's vision for eSports is to prevent it from becoming a local sport that is only enjoyed in Korea," he says, via an interpreter. "It is not right to make a game that is enjoyed by everyone from all over the world into something that is only enjoyed in a certain country. We have the infrastructure to deliver our streams to countries outside of Korea and are providing English broadcasts for viewers outside of Korea."

It's a lofty goal tied to Koreans' sense of national pride - the country has won the StarCraft portion of the World Cyber Games every year since its inception in 2001, recently beating 82 other countries for the title - but the question remains: Can this kind of success and legitimacy for eSports ever be realized abroad?

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Close your eyes on a summer day in Seoul and you're liable to mistake the city for Egypt circa the plague of locusts. The red-eyed monsters are everywhere, filling the spaces between the city's skyscrapers with a maddening drone. Inside MBC Game headquarters, a squat brown brick office building, Coach Ha Tae Gi, 40, of the channel's own MBC Hero professional StarCraft team, gazes calmly out the window of a fifth-floor conference room at perhaps the only thing more ubiquitous in Korea's rapidly growing capital than cicadas - across the street, a cluster of cranes lays the foundations of yet another high rise. Seated beside Coach is Jang Jae Hyuk, 41, one of MBC's producers. The two men couldn't be more different - Coach is tall and round, a rare breed of Korean who sports a sparse goatee, perpetually smirking. Meanwhile, Jang is short, lithe and prone to frequent, nervous glances at his iPhone.

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