If you want to upset a group of South Koreans, start referring to "computer gaming." Noses will crinkle, drinks will be lowered and conversation will stop. Just as you start to wonder what faux pas you could have possibly committed, someone will break the embarrassed silence to explain: "We don't call it 'computer gaming' here. We call it 'e-Sports.'" Resist the temptation to laugh them off, because doing so would not only compound the original gaffe: it would demonstrate your total failure to grasp one of the profoundest developments in contemporary sports culture.
The migration of games like Half-Life and Warcraft from darkened adolescent bedrooms and fetid bachelor pads to spotlit auditoriums where they are now played by well-paid professionals has kick-started an industry that entertains millions and employs 25,000 in Seoul alone. It has opened a brand new tranche of economic opportunity, worth billions of dollars annually, for a nation that just over 10 years ago was the recipient of an IMF bailout. If South Koreans take umbrage at the term computer gaming, it's because e-Sports are a serious business. "During the time that I've been here," says Nick Rumas, an American gaming journalist who moved to Seoul in 2001, "the domestic scene has exploded."
If computer gaming has only ever been a solipsistic, antisocial nonactivity to you, then a few days in its emerging world capital, Seoul, will come as a brain-scrambling revelation. Here is a parallel universe, where the matches of a 12-team professional league are broadcast around the clock on two dedicated TV channels to millions, and beamed live to the tightly clutched cell phones of office workers and students. Young Halo 2 or Counter-Strike players are fêted like rock stars primped for battle by female attendants in backstage dressing rooms, and led onto playing areas awash in dry ice and strobes, to the strained hysterics of an MC, the crash of power chords and the screams of thousands of teenage girls. The 2004 StarCraft league finals, held in the port city of Pusan, drew 100,000 spectators a far larger crowd than those of that year's English F.A. Cup final (71,140) or the Super Bowl (68,206).
This is no cottage industry. South Korea has 95 trade schools, including a special Game Academy, offering courses in game-engineering and related topics. The faces of famous players appear on credit cards, and a 21-year-old can earn over $100,000 a year simply by playing Warcraft. There is even a government department dedicated to gaming. At the fluorescent-lit offices of the game-industry division of the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism (MCST), the air is thick with talk of MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) and FPS (first-person shooter). Large cutouts of ogres and gorgons are propped next to the desks of unsmiling civil servants.
How did South Koreans take a solitary and sedentary pursuit and turn it into a massive spectator sport? The answer is television. It was South Korea's peculiar achievement to realize that computer games are telegenic. In 1998, when, in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis, an entire nation stayed home, forgoing movies and restaurants for cheaper diversions, the most popular game of the time was StarCraft, a sci-fi epic pitting humans against the insectoid Zergs and psionic, warriorlike Protoss. The South Korean pay-TV operator OnMedia decided, as an experiment in low-budget entertainment, to screen a few games of StarCraft. "This was regarded as something as a joke," recalls 39-year-old Paul Chong, a Spanish-literature graduate and hobby gamer who was working as a station announcer at the time, and was drafted at the last minute to provide live commentary. "In fact, the broadcaster treated it so casually, they put it on late at night on a cartoon channel." Screening two guys facing-off in a computer game was initially regarded as a slightly shameful cheat, even within OnMedia. "People thought that television should be reserved for nonvirtual entertainment," says Chong, "and that whatever you showed had to be physical, like a documentary or a drama."
But as ratings for the virtual-world warfare began to climb, everyone Chong, the broadcaster, the sponsors, the nation had a eureka moment. Computer games were not the unwatchable and hermetic preserve of pale and stammering geeks: they were sports television at its optimum! StarCraft, Warcraft these do not depend upon the weather, require no equipment besides a couple of PCs, and can be played in fast-paced bouts lasting roughly 10 minutes, ensuring that commercials can appear frequently without interrupting play. The visuals of Night Elves swarming the deserts of Azeroth, of Terran space fleets on the wing are blinding and hallucinatory. The stakes are life and death. Next to this, the sight of 22 men kicking a nondigital ball around an actual field seems laughably sluggish and old-fashioned.
Within five years of those first broadcasts, a proliferation of gaming leagues had been consolidated into one, industry associations had been formed and rules codified. Later, to address the concerns of parents, who were objecting to the amount of time their children spent gaming, a school league, sponsored by a uniform manufacturer, was set up. School teams, each coached and led by a teacher, competed for prizes that mollified achievement-oriented mums and dads. From school, the industry was able to offer a coherent career path. Youngsters could turn professional by securing entry into a team stable, where groups of players lived, ate and trained together, sumo-style or they could enter a related field, like game design and marketing.
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