The Boys with the Flying Fingers South Korea Turns PC Gaming into a Spectator Sport
In South Korea, computer games have developed into a competitive sport and an audience pleaser. While thousands of fans worship high-paid computer gamers, millions of imitators are sinking into addiction. The craze has even claimed a few lives.
South Korea's "PC Bang" cafes are home to thousands of addicted gamers: "Pale, taciturn figures living off of packaged soup and cigarettes."
Lim Yo Hwan can't dance or sing. He's not an actor or a sports celebrity, nor is he a poet, a male model or an heir to a family fortune. In fact, he isn't even well-educated. But that hasn't done anything to detract from his fame.
It's Friday night in the South Korean capital, Seoul. Lim steps out of a minibus in an underground parking garage. His chauffeur has brought him here and his trainer is waiting, but he isn't alone. Because the bodyguards are off today, a dozen girls have pushed their way forward to the celebrity entrance at the CoEx Shopping Center. Some are beaming with joy, some are whimpering and some are simply ecstatic. But Lim hardly looks at them, passing another group of female fans as he walks into the building. Without so much as signing an autograph, he disappears into the wardrobe room, where he's met by a makeup artist and his manager, the press, a bunch of technicians and enthusiastic helpers whose only job is to make sure Lim is kept happy.
It's almost time for the game to begin.
Lim, 25, has rocketed to living legend status in South Korea. Practically everyone between the ages of 12 and 30 knows who he is, and he's recognized on the street throughout the country. Lim's Internet fan club, just a few years old, recently welcomed its 600,000th member. Tens of thousands of boys desperately want to be just like Lim, and every night tens of thousands of girls go to bed with images of Lim in their heads.
Lim Yo Hwan is so famous because he's one of the world's best, most popular and certainly wealthiest "pro-gamers," or professional computer gamers, a true master of the art of the online computer game. His specialty is StarCraft, a "real-time strategy game" from California that's been around for a few years -- a game that requires quick fingers and smart tactics.
The goal of StarCraft is to destroy intergalactic aliens, and nowhere on earth do people play this and other online games with as much devotion as in the occasionally whimsical, high-tech South Korea.
After spending an hour with the hair-stylist, who has transformed his hair into something spiky and decidedly anti-couch potato, Lim gets ready to make his appearance on stage. Lim knows exactly what his fans want. There are about 300 in the studio today, and the first four rows are occupied exclusively by girls -- all carrying photos of Lim or miniature Lim figures, their camera cell phones ready for action. The boys stand behind the girls.
A spectator sport
Then Lim steps onto the stage -- to thunderous applause and the screeches and squeals emanating from the four front rows.
Eleven professional StarCraft teams compete in various leagues for trophies, cash prizes and fame. Players like Lim -- and sponsors like Samsung and the country's wireless operators -- have transformed computer gaming into a rapidly growing spectator sport, one that generates millions in sales.
More than 100,000 spectators have already come together at live events to watch boys and young men compete in these virtual battles. Although electronic sporting associations have begun springing up and holding regular competitions in other countries (including Germany), these efforts are child's play compared with the Far East.
The game begins. The audience can watch what happens on giant screens, but nothing much does in fact happen. Boys and young men barely out of adolescence wearing Captain Kirk-esque uniforms work away at their keyboards, their fingers flying, staring at computer screens without displaying any evidence of emotion.
In Europe, video game fever may hold a fascination for some, but not all young people. In Korea, however, pro-gamers have a firm grip on their many fans. By now the room is so quiet that one would think Garry Kasparov were about to sit down at a chess board. Suddenly all eyes are on the screen as the action begins. Drones destroy drones and commandoes eliminate commandoes. When things get hairy for Lim the audience emits a collective "Uuuhhhhhh," quickly followed by a relieved "Aaaahhhhhh" when he manages to extricate himself from trouble.
Two TV cameras are trained on Lim and his opponent. The live audience represents only a tiny fraction of the event's real audience. Three television channels in Korea broadcast nothing but professional computer game matches 24 hours a day. TV ratings jump astronomically whenever professional game commentators appear to deliver their assessments of the sport's battles of the titans.
For the truly devoted fan interested in studying Lim's strategy in detail at home, a collection of his best games is now available on DVD -- with more than 30,000 copies already sold to date.
With yet another attack from above and then another jab from the right, Lim promptly dispatches his opponent into second place. The audience is ecstatic. Lim looks exhausted as he shakes hands with his opponent. The match has lasted 35 minutes, longer than usual.
What happened on that stage? Back in his dressing room, Lim spends 20 minutes quietly explaining his strategy to assembled journalists. They want to know every detail -- what he was thinking here, exactly what happened there. And they write everything down. After all, everything Lim has to say about his secret strategies is the source of endless fascination for electronic sports aficionados.
ES-Force a glossy magazine for the electronic sporting industry, is published once a week. Lim Yo Hwan's and his fellow pro-gamers' every move finds its way into the publication, which is filled with stories about their personal lives as well as reporting on important matches, interviews, pages and pages of photo spreads, commentary and news about new and old games. The magazine has already achieved a healthy circulation of 150,000, and reporter Lee Yung Hoon is proud to say that he attends at least 50 matches a week.
Lim, says Lee, is the most charismatic player, a man whose aura, whose special sorcery "puts him in a league with Magic Johnson and Pelé."
The star has long since left the stage, but the room is still packed with diehard fans waiting around for a chance to glimpse their hero leaving the building. When he does leave, his exit is about as unspectacular as his entrance was. He just walks out, smiling a little sheepishly. His driver is waiting in the parking garage, and Lim is back home within 15 minutes.
Home? Well, not exactly. A high-performance pro-gamer doesn't really have a home.
Like a Japanese sumo wrestler, Lim lives in his team's training camp. The 15 members of "T1," sponsored by Korea's largest wireless provider, live in two adjacent luxury apartments in a well-to-do Seoul neighborhood. But there is little evidence of luxury inside the apartments. The cyber athletes share bedrooms, two or three to a room, and a cook comes in every day to prepare their meals. But cleaning the place is entirely up to the boys of "T1," with the brunt of housework being heaped on the shoulders of the team's younger, and therefore less proficient, players.
The lives of these cyber stars are tough and filled with sacrifices. The female fans they could easily entice back to their lair are strictly off-limits. The sport requires ironclad discipline and isolation bordering on celibacy. The boys get up at about 11 a.m. They eat breakfast and walk a few steps into the living room, where 15 high-speed computers are set up. This is where the team spends its work day, and it's a long one. StarCraft professionals have to play the game at least 10 to 12 hours a day (except Sundays), and those who are unable to keep up are promptly booted from the team.
Lim Yo Hwan stays healthy by taking vitamins, lifting weights and running on a treadmill. But the parts of his body that arguably get the most exercise are his fingers, which he moves more than 300,000 times a day, or about 400 times a minute.
Lim's fingers glide across the keyboard as elegantly and deliberately as those of a pianist, but training is torturous. A member of his team complains about constant "back and shoulder pain, and burning eyes." Another says that what hurts most are the balls of his thumbs, red and swollen from hour after hour of computer gaming. Lim says that training is sometimes monotonous. "Besides, my stomach is getting fatter from all that sitting." Needless to say, Lim doesn't have much time left over for his two hobbies: "movies and bars."
Trainer Seo Hyung Suk, 27, describes the profession as "extremely difficult," and says that outsiders who idealize it so much are completely mistaken. "There is tremendous competitive pressure." But all the hardship and drudgery seems to have paid off. According to Suk, "Koreans are the world's best StarCraft players."
It also happens to be a lucrative way to make a living, at least for a top player like Lim, who earned about 260,000 last year alone. His earnings consist of his salary, prize money and the fees he earns for being an ad spokesman for a wireless phone company, a chocolate manufacturer and a microchip maker. But it isn't much, says Lim, compared with the costs involved.
Still, Lim can't exactly complain when it comes to his earnings and cost of living. After all, he doesn't spend a single Won on rent or food at the team's luxury apartment camp. While the money piles up in his bank account, Lim is busy searching for someone to manage it for him. Three other players on Team T1 can claim annual earnings of more than 80,000, but most of Korea's 240 professional players can only dream of making that much money.
Even worse off are those who never even make it to the professional level. South Korea is filled with dim, smoke-filled Internet cafes known as "PC Bangs." Thanks to the world's fastest Internet connections, PC Bangs have become the venues for a round-the-clock, mass electronic sports craze -- one that threatens to plunge the country into a crisis.
A deadly addiction
Lee Seung Seop was a mechanic who repaired boilers by day and butchered dragons by night at his local PC Bang. But soon his cyber sports evenings turned into entire nights. He lost his girlfriend, then his job, and before long he was spending most of his time at his local PC Bang. A few months ago, Lee Seung Seop fell from his chair after playing nonstop for more than 50 hours. Exhaust and dehydrated, the 28-year-old former mechanic died of heart failure. According to his autopsy report, "he forgot to drink."
Seoul psychiatrist Kim Hyun Soo says that he is aware of seven computer game deaths in 2005 alone. Kim treats game addicts every day, including schoolchildren who have stopped attending school and college students who abandon their studies to play computer games. Treating these patients, he says, is "very difficult."
"For young Koreans," says Kim, "online games are now a greater threat than alcohol and illegal drugs are for adolescents in the west." But while the Korean government takes a draconian approach to illegal drug use, "it looks the other way when it comes to online gaming addiction" because, Kim believes, it wants to encourage growth in the local computer game industry.
Seventeen million Koreans, or about one-third of the country's population, play online games. Those who are unable to play or simply are not interested in playing quickly turn into social pariahs. "Whoever doesn't play," says a 24-year-old female student, "has no fun. He has to eat alone, and he'll be lucky if people don't punch him."
Up to 2.1 million players in South Korea are considered at high risk for addiction. And, according to official figures, about 750,000 are already so addicted that they no longer lead normal lives. Instead, they spend most of their time playing computer games, while education, work, relationships, family and friends are downgraded to secondary status. This group of computer game addicts, say experts, are steadily headed for unemployment. "It poses a risk for the entire society," says psychiatrist Kim.
Step into any of South Korea's 26,000 PC Bangs in the morning and you'll see them in full view: pale, taciturn figures living off of packaged soup and cigarettes. "Society has to do something for these people," says professional gamer Lim. Psychiatrist Kim agrees, adding that no young person should spend more than two hours a day playing computer games.
To its credit, StarCraft isn't one of the more dangerous games. As with chess and some card games, each player ultimately meets his downfall after a reasonable period of time. More dangerous are online games like "Lineage," which transport their players into an almost endless parallel universe. In these kinds of games, status and the amount of enjoyment players derive from the game depend mainly on how much time they invest. Spending thousands of hours in these virtual worlds is unavoidable for those with ambition.
Celebrity player Lim, however, is reaching the end of his career. He'd like to keep playing until he's 30, or perhaps even longer, but it just isn't in the cards. Like every man in South Korea, Lim is required to serve in the military for more than two years, and he won't be able to put off enlistment much longer.
Given his qualifications, Lim Yo Hwan hopes that he'll at least be given a special position in the army, and he envisions serving his country as a so-called strategy simulation soldier. But a professional computer gamer has never been accepted into the elite unit made up of these specialists, says Je Hunho, 48, head of the Korean e-sports association.
The problem with the pro-gamers, says Je, is that "their education isn't sufficient."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan