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South Korea, the Mecca of e-Sports

“You may not know StarCraft, but surely you must know who Lim Yo-hwan is, right?”

This may at first not ring true. StarCraft is a real-time strategy video game that has captivated gamers around the world since its debut in the late 1990s. Lim, known as the Terran Emperor or BoxeR, is one of a number of professional gamers who has gained fame through the game. However, those who know of his tremendous feats and fame in the field of professional gaming are also well aware that the remark holds a great deal of truth. In his prime, numerous foreign fans came to Korea to watch him play. There were even people who called themselves “Lim Yo-hwan’s kids” and looked up to him as a role model. As a result, they jumped into the world of professional gaming with both feet.

Lim is past his prime, but there are many South Korean professional gamers who follow in his footsteps and continue to enthrall gamers around the world. Among them are Hong Jinho (YellOw), Lee Yun-yeol (NaDa), Lee Junghoon (Marine King Prime), and Han Lee-seok (FnaticRC aLive), to name a few.

The final battle of WCG had the entire world watching The final battle of WCG had the entire world watching (photo courtesy of WCG).

Early this April, fans of competitive gaming from across the world flocked to Las Vegas with the same single aim of watching South Korean gamers compete in the StarCraft II IGN Pro League (IPL) 4 tournament and the finals of the 2012 Global StarCraft II Team League (GSTL). It was the first time for any South Korean gaming league to be held in Las Vegas, the center of the sports universe. IGN, which is North America’s most representative entertainment media and service provider focused on video games, had reportedly asked GomTV of South Korea to hold the event in Las Vegas, testifying to the rising stature of South Korean gaming leagues and gamers. Fans around the world who watched the matches— online or offline—were all enthusiastic, boisterously cheering and chanting.

Fans from more than 140 countries who could not be in Las Vegas watched the GSTL finals and the StarCraft II IPL 4 tournament on the Internet.

What is it about Korean professional gamers that game enthusiasts go so crazy for?
The answer is their pure skills and strategies, which amaze, entertain, and thrill the spectators. Even when defeat seems inevitable and a player can be expected to type “gg,” which stands for “good game” and expresses that he is conceding, that player will in many cases stubbornly keep up the fight and turn the game around to clinch an incredible, come-from-behind victory. Such dramatic turnarounds are not uncommon in matches involving Korean professional gamers.

Another question: What is the secret to their astute performance? The answer is South Korea’s social environment. It is especially conducive to professional game players. The country truly lives up to the moniker “Mecca of e-Sports.” Professional gaming teams can thrive in this country, and they sweep the honors at all sorts of e-sporting matches.

Dominant leader in E-sports

Last December, Busan attracted the attention of game lovers around the world. The port city hosted the 2011 World Cyber Games (WCG) Grand Finals, dubbed the e-Sports Olympics, the largest competition of its kind in the world. The 11th WCG was joined by over 600 players from 61 countries. “I enjoyed the fantastic matches,” said John Pauls from the US. “Korean gaming is never a bore; it is always fascinating.”

Cheonan, a city in the province of Chungcheongnam-do, will host the IeSF 2012 World Championship in October this year. The event is held by the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF), which has 33 member countries including China, the US, the UK, and Germany.

What is striking about these two events is that the leading country is not the US or another advanced country where the gaming industry is well established, but the small country of South Korea.

A scene from the popular StarCraft A scene from the popular StarCraft II game

StarCraft (which reshaped global villagers’ perception of video games), Angry Birds (which is the most popular mobile game), and other games that enjoy global popularity including World of Warcraft (WoW), Diablo, Winning Eleven, and League of Legends were all developed in advanced countries such as the US and Japan. However, it was the Koreans who enjoyed them the most and created a whole new culture out of them, making South Korea the Mecca of e-sports.

“Do you want to become a pro-gamer? South Korea is naturally the best place to cut your teeth in the field. The country is a veritable e-sports Holy Land.” So said Krzysztof Nalepka (Draco) from Poland when he took his first step in South Korea as a professional gamer in 2006.

Guillaume Patry (Grrrr…) from Canada and Bertrand Grospellier (ElkY) from France ruled the world of StarCraft from the late 1990s to the early 2000s and were dubbed “Blueeyed Fighters.” They developed as professional gamers in South Korea and won many league competitions, and they, too, recommended South Korea as a country that professional gamers should visit, which is still very true even today.

e-Sports continues to grow

The South Korean government supports e-sports as a popular leisure-time activity in a number of ways.

Lee Jung-hoon holds the team flag after winning at the GSTL finals in Las Vegas Lee Jung-hoon holds the team flag after winning at the GSTL finals in Las Vegas (photo courtesy of Greetech).

On December 13 last year, the government launched a council that seeks mutual development of both the gaming industry and e-sports. The council involves the government, e-sports groups, the gaming industry, the media, and academia. Before then, business alone had led the e-sports industry, but now the public and private sectors and academia have all joined hands to push the country’s e-sports culture to the next level.

On the 30th of the same month, the National Assembly of South Korea enacted legislation for the promotion of e-sports to lay a foundation for the e-sports culture and industry and help raise their competitiveness.

Now that the act has passed the floor of the National Assembly, the Minister of Culture, Sports and Tourism will devise medium and long-term plans to advance e-sports and will formulate annual action plans for each area in order to support e-sports more systematically. The act mandates the ministry to develop human resources for the promotion of e-sports and designate training institutes. It also enables the government to fund organizations such as the International e-Sports Federation (IeSF) and carry out overseas PR campaigns to spur international exchange and Korean businesses’ forays into foreign markets.

President Kim Jun-ho of the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) says, “Related agencies’ efforts should be coupled with government support for the development of e-sports.” He and other experts see the act as paving the way for the rebirth of the e-sports industry, and express their high expectations for the outcome with the government’s full support.


*Article from Korea Magazine (June 2012)

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