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All Roads Lead to Seoul
Chong, meanwhile, became the world's first full-time TV gaming commentator, and later found himself heading the e-Sports unit of the JoongAng Media Network, one of South Korea's biggest media companies, with interests in publishing, TV and the Internet. In this role he now devotes himself to consolidating Seoul's position as the nexus of the gaming world. He chain-smokes and is never off duty (one evening, after a long meal in which great quantities of plum and pear wine were consumed, he excused himself around midnight with the abrupt words "I have a business meeting"). If he decides that he likes you, your Seoul entrée is assured. He can get you an audience with the mayor (who turns out to be a gaming evangelist, seeing gaming as a way to project Seoul's "brand image of the future"). Players who are the Beckhams or Ronaldos of their worlds (in stature if not income) welcome you into their homes. High above Seoul's Teheran Road the Wall Street of e-Sports leading developers beckon you into their glass-clad aeries on Chong's O.K., and reveal secret test versions of unreleased games.
There is a pleasant sense of anticipation on the pavements of Teheran Road these days, with the approach of the second e-Stars Seoul an annual three-day "digital sports festival" scheduled this year from July 24-27. Chong is putting it together with backing from the Seoul Metropolitan Government. Unlike the Samsung-sponsored World Cyber Games, which take place in a different country every year, e-Stars Seoul is designed to bring the world to the South Korean capital in homage to be to gaming what Athens was to the ancient Olympics. There will be dance parties, gaming-history exhibitions, country qualifiers and regional play-offs. But the event to which all eyes are turned will take place in the echoing halls of the Seoul Trade Exhibition Convention Center, and is known as the Continental Cup. Devised by Chong to mimic the Ryder Cup in golf, the inaugural Continental Cup will pit the best European players (Team West) against the best Asians (Team East).
The novelty of the format has attracted the participation of stellar professionals. Among those appearing for Team West is a 22-year-old Dutchman, Manuel (Grubby) Schenkhuizen, currently the world's leading exponent of Warcraft III. Schenkhuizen is well known in Seoul due to his three-month stint in the Korean league in 2004, after which he spectacularly deposed the national favorite, Tae Min (Zacard) Hwang during the World Cyber Games in San Francisco. "The Koreans have gotten rid of the stigma that gaming is a lonely, nerdy occupation," he says. "Obviously these guys aren't lonely. They're admired for their prowess because it's very hard to be a top gamer." Schenkhuizen will be joined by 20-year-old Swede Kim (SaSe) Hammar, one of the game's rising stars. "South Korea is the leading country in gaming for sure," says Hammar, who has taken up residence in Guangzhou so as to absorb the Asian style of play (which tends to focus on the mastery of one particular strategy, as opposed to the more improvisational European approach). "The first time I went there, the first TV I saw after passing through border control was screening StarCraft. That could only happen in that country, I think."
They will do battle on a custom-built stage, sitting before their PCs in sound-proofed booths, the action on their monitors projected onto massive screens so that the live audience can follow every move. Ranged against them are several Chinese and South Korean players, including hometown heroes Jun (Lyn) Park and Park's archrival, Jaeho (Moon) Jang. Both are highly remunerated, 21-year-old Warcraft players. Jang, the five-time world champion, made around $130,000 last year. Park and Jang came up through the stable system but today spend most of the year playing as salaried imports on foreign teams. When they walk into a cyber café or "PC bang" as they are called in South Korea customers crane their necks in astonishment. As they log on to play a game under their professional identities, other online players, unable to see that it is really them, deluge them with disbelieving, jeering ripostes. It's a bit like showing up at your local tennis court and announcing that you are Rafael Nadal. Only that you really are.
Slim and neat, Jang has won three of his five championships at the expense of Park, who, with his long hair and chunky earring has a rather more rakish air. To be left alone with them in an interview room without an interpreter is an excruciating experience. They cannot speak to their visitor, and they will not speak to each other, so they stare hard at the table in front of them in smarting silence. The easygoing, fraternal amateurism of the age of innocence is gone. Instead, we have the calculating rivalry of the age of professionalism.
Soon it will be the age of expansion. The South Korean gaming channel MBC Game, which has nearly 12 million cable and satellite subscribers, has already been invited to set up a gaming-broadcast facility in Dubai for the Arabic media group Spacetoon. "They want a business model like ours," says MBC managing director Edgar Joh, "and this is an opportunity for us to start developing a global infrastructure." Chong and Joong-Ang meanwhile are looking greedily at South Korea's giant neighbor: China. The market is already proven. In 2006, South Korean promoters staged the World e-Sports Games in Hangzhou; the event smashed Chinese records for Internet viewing. "Over 2.3 million people were watching the final online at the same time," Chong says. "Even Yao Ming can't get that. This is why the first target for Korean promoters is China." If they succeed in exporting their model, the South Koreans are looking at a sports machine of monstrous size. And we will all learn to use a term like e-Sports without smirking.
with reporting by Lauren Comiteau/Amsterdam
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