SEOUL, Feb. 8 (Yonhap) -- On a cold, chilly night in Seoul, thousands flocked to an auditorium to witness this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. Several thousands more watched via live stream. As the event drew to a close, the audience drowned the auditorium with their cheers and deafening applause.
The big draw? StarCraft II. The December tournament brought cyber contestants to battle it out on the popular PC game.
Korea hosted the first StarCraft I World Cyber Games tournament in 1999, drawing participants from across the globe. The eventual winner, French-Canadian Guillaume Patry, said back then that "the future of video gaming would be in Korea." His words would be prophetic years later.
E-gaming, also known as e-sports, is relatively unknown to the general public but is followed zealously by gamers and tech savvy people. Prize money often goes up to hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars. Notable events -- GOMTV GSL (StarCraft), the World Cyber Games (various games), and E.V.O (fighting games) -- are backed by corporate sponsors.
In Korea, e-gaming has gone a step further. It is a legitimate career. Top players are said to make up to US$500,000 in yearly salary. Sponsors from gaming and tech companies usually come knocking on their doors with hefty contracts. Players also boost their income by endorsing products and getting TV exposure. They are not ashamed of telling their parents that they make a great living, playing video games.
Sony Ericsson GSL Jan. final held in Seoul in January 2011 (Courtesy of GOM TV)
Such e-gaming success in Korea is what brought Dan Stemkoski, who goes by the moniker "Artosis" online, and his friend Nick "Tasteless" Plott from the eastern U.S. to Seoul in 2007. Their goal? To promote e-sports to the rest of the world.
To them, moving to Korea was a no-brainer. "Nick and I were both professional gamers in the U.S. for years in StarCraft I. The dream for any StarCraft I player is to go to Korea, so we followed this dream however possible," Stemkoski said. The two, nevertheless, chose not be professional gamers anymore, but to be ambassadors to e-sports instead.
As recent as 2007, StarCraft did not have professional English broadcasters that could accurately talk about a game in real-time. The best broadcasters were all Korean, and for fans of e-sports living overseas, there was no easy way to access televised StartCraft matches or commentary. They would have to log onto Korean gaming sites or visit specialized sites, both of which made it a hassle to keep up with e-sports.
As it stood, e-sports was still a niche, and these obstacles made it hard for it to expand to other countries. Stemkoski and Plott, as e-sports casters, vowed to change that.
And that they did. In just five years, Stemkoski, Plott, and the e-sports community brought StarCraft to the world. "The West finally caught on," says Stemkoski.
Kim Jung-woo (R) poses for camera after winning the Star League 2010 sponsored by Korean Air in May 2010. More than 12,000 e-sports fans attended the cyber games competition hosted by the national carrier. (Yonhap file photo)
Much of the groundwork for StarCraft's success in Korea came in the late '90s. Back then, there was an embargo on console-based games from Japan, due to icy Korea-Japan relations. Koreans turned to StarCraft for their gaming pastime. Twenty years later, e-gaming competitors flock to Seoul to compete and launch their careers, especially if their chosen game is StarCraft. They have no choice. Korea is the only country that a gamer can become a professional with a steady salary.
Participants compete in many genres, from first-person shooters, fighting games, and real-time strategy. Like their sports brethren, e-sports participants play in leagues, professional teams are created, and their games are broadcast live. Players practice an average of eight to 20 hours a day. Like athletes, they work on everything from fundamentals to the little details. Strategies are honed, eye-coordination is noted, maps are intensely studied, and fast mouse-clicking -- known as actions per minute (APM) -- is practiced. Team coaches and fellow players will routinely critique one another's play for added improvement.
"Everyone here in Korea is so good at the game. Any little edge that a player can get means the difference between a win and loss," Stemkoski says.
StarCraft is entwined in modern Korean society. The game is installed in PC Cafes. Famous pop stars, such as T-ara, Girl's Day, and Rainbow, make appearances at StarCraft final events. There is a dedicated cable channel, OnGameNet, to StarCraft I and II. The country treats the game as a national sport. In fact, in a 2010 study, StarCraft trails only soccer and baseball in televised sporting and game shows.
Other countries have caught on. There are now major tournaments in Europe, the U.S. and China as well.
When Stemkoski shouts "Being a nerd is cool," gamers around the world echo his war cry. The e-sports caster says when he was growing up, the thought of video games being shown on live TV would be laughed at. Yet, that never deterred him. "Being a nerd is cool. Watching video games on TV is even cooler," he says.