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.”

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.

The producer may have reason to be frazzled. Under pressure to grow StarCraft and eSports in Korea, he’s struggling to match the success of the country’s top game. A few months after our 2010 interview, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of the StarCraft franchise, will sue MBC Game for intellectual property violation and sign an exclusive broadcasting deal with GomTV. Last summer, Jang was scrambling to keep ratings up.

A few months after our 2010 interview, Blizzard Entertainment, the maker of the StarCraft franchise, will sue MBC Game for intellectual property violation and sign an exclusive broadcasting deal with GomTV.

“Currently, I do most of my broadcasting with StarCraft, but I will try to develop some other programs, also utilizing StarCraft,” he said through an interpreter, explaining that he was developing variety and talk shows based on the game. “There are lots of computer games existing in Korea, and some of the games actually have a huge number of followers. That’s well known for almost a decade now – World of WarCraft, such games. Unfortunately, when those games are converted into broadcasting material, there are so few games that have been getting the popularity and that have been getting good viewing rates.”

Nine years after Jang helped launch MBC Game in 2001, his programming was still based on the channel’s original centerpiece. While there are many reasons for StarCraft‘s continued popularity, players and industry insiders agree that it all starts with the quality of the game itself.

“I liken it to war. One country attacks another country,” says Haines, who notes that the game’s increasing complexity over the years has helped it stay relevant. “They’ve obviously read The Art of War,” he says of the creators.

As in real war, players – represented in the game by their choice of human Terrans, insectoid Zergs or psychic humanoid Protoss – are tasked not only with fighting the enemy, but also with collecting resources, managing an economy and making critical decisions about what kind of soldiers and supplies their armies should contain. “It’s geeky,” says Haines, “but I think that’s why it’s held on.”

Also crucial was the dovetailing of StarCraft‘s release in the late 1990s with the explosion of PC baangs, or internet cafes, in Korea. A severe financial crisis had rocked the Korean economy, leaving many middle-aged, middle-class workers unemployed. Looking to start their own businesses and seeking to avoid higher-maintenance enterprises, such as boutiques and restaurants, many of these people opened PC baangs. At the time, Korea had widespread broadband internet penetration while Americans were still using dial-up, making online play with many others common in Asia before it was even possible in the U.S.

“Before the 1990s, Korea didn’t have a really proper socialized culture. Like, in the West, they have a ‘party culture,'” Coach explains. “It stemmed from some political and economical reasons. Korea has been running forward since 1950s and 1960s, since the war […] We constantly just ran ran ran in order to be developed into the current thing, right now, so people didn’t have much time to look back and think about what they can do to enjoy their lives.” Korean homes tend to be quite small, not ideal for entertaining. Coach says that before the rise of PC baangs, recreation, especially for young people, was limited by a lack of space. “After the culture of internet cafe launched in Korea, a new type of party culture was born,” he says. Because PC baangs are typically safe and inexpensive, a whole new sector of entertainment became available to Koreans of all ages and incomes.

Lee Dae Hoon is a 33-year-old accountant in Busan. He was a university student when StarCraft was released, and he remembers enjoying this newfound party culture with a twinge of nostalgia in his voice. “When I was young, I was attending university – freshman,” he says. “We usually spent the whole night playing StarCraft, in the PC baang until sunrise.” Though he mostly plays from home these days, he says he still visits the PC baangs with his friends. In big cities, where there are few parks or places for public recreation, the internet cafes offer both children and adults one of few venues to hang out with friends.

In big cities, where there are few parks or places for public recreation, the internet cafes offer both children and adults one of few venues to hang out with friends.

Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on an unofficial national pastime, OnGameNet developed in 2000 with MBC Game coming the following year and GomTV launching online in 2006. An infusion of capital, merchandising and celebrity quickly built a multimillion-dollar business around competitive StarCraft playing, and in 2006, the industry was regulated. It now contains twelve pro teams and a semi-pro league from which the best players are drafted. First through matches organized by KESPA and now through tournaments held by GomTV, amateur players can rise through the ranks of semi-professional StarCraft and StarCraft II players, perhaps eventually being asked to join a pro team. KESPA hosts conferences, called Courage Matches, 6-10 times a year for amateurs. “Whenever they have these matches, there are 500, up to 1,000 players, amateurs, gathered in order to get in,” says Coach. “If you get ranked up to sixth place, then that’s how you get qualified for a semi-professions status.” This structuring of StarCraft ranks, the development of the gaming channels and the stream of corporate money did something important for gaming in Korea -legitimized StarCraft and eSports in a way that hasn’t been replicated outside this country.

Lee’s attitude toward watching eSports on television seems to reflect this. “It helps me play better,” he says as he plucks a dumpling from a bubbling hot pot at a shabu shabu buffet in Busan. “I watch it, and I can learn some strategies.” From the seat beside him, his wife, An Ji Hyeon tosses a skeptical glance at her husband.

“Oh, it makes you better?” she asks. For Lee, getting better at StarCraft is a worthy thing to devote his free time to. But for An, even the well-attended tournaments, the profusion of PC baangs, the corporate sponsorships and the 24-hour channels haven’t made her forget – at the end of the day, you’re still just watching other people play videogames.

Flash walks to the edge of the stage, waving a flag bearing the logo of Alleh, the wireless internet provider that sponsors his team.

With the launch of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty last July, now seems like the perfect time to grow eSports outside Korea. To that end, Blizzard has partnered with GomTV to start the Global StarCraft II League with the first year of tournaments and finals to take place in Seoul. The United States’ own Major Gaming League, which streams matches online, added StarCraft II to its rotation, which also includes Halo 3, World of WarCraft and Super Smash Brothers Brawl. In China, eSports clubs, which were a precursor to eSports programming in Korea, have been around for years, though the corporate sponsorships that made pro teams and eSports channels possible have yet to materialize there. Still, without the special circumstances under which the StarCraft culture began in Korea, it remains to be seen whether eSports can match the success it’s had in this country internationally.

GomTV’s Jung Won Chae seems to think now is the perfect time to expand StarCraft-based eSports on a global scale. “The old generation did not get to enjoy playing games growing up,” he says. “However, when our generation, which has been enjoying games while growing up, becomes a part of the upper class and the next old generation, more investments will be made to the game industry. This will become a cycle that guarantees the explosive growth of the eSports industry.” Chae believes that new viewing platforms, like the streaming video his company provides, will catalyze the growth of eSports into an international phenomenon.

Back on Gwangali Beach, the Rolsters’ Lee “Flash” Yeong Ho has crushed SK’s Park “Hyuk” Jae Hyuk in the last round of the StarCraft Proleague Finals. SK’s fans look utterly anguished, their half-deflated ThunderSticks dangling at their sides. Fireworks deafen spectators, silver streamers rain on the stage and the Rolsters form a circle, tossing each of their beaming, suited coaches in the air in turn. Flash walks to the edge of the stage, waving a flag bearing the logo of Alleh, the wireless internet provider that sponsors his team. After pausing a few beats for photos, he descends onto the beach. As he jabs the flag into a mound of sand, one thing seems clear – though eSports has a long way to go before it captures the hearts and remotes of audiences abroad, it has certainly staked its claim here.

Rachel Bailey is a contributor to The Escapist.

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