Take a look at this picture. What comes to mind?
What that picture actually is, however… Is a picture from the 2005 Sky ProLeague Grand Final, a gaming championship in South Korea that is held to honor the best and the brightest of the 10 year old PC computer game, Starcraft. In Korea, Starcraft has evolved to be far beyond just a normal computer video game; it has turned into a cultural phenomenon.
Weird? Or normal? At first, the idea that a video game (much less a 10 year old video game) could be as popular in Korea as Starcraft is may seem odd, or even impossible, but, as YNK president Young Seog Yoon puts it, “The way in which this game has become a part of the Korean culture can only be compared to the way in which the Star Wars Phantom Menace movie became a cultural icon in America.” And we all know how much a part of culture Star Wars has become here. Merely say the name “Darth Vader”, and people who’ve never even seen the movies will probably know what you’re talking about.
In Korea, there are two channels dedicated not only to gaming itself, but to Starcraft. Think of it as ESPN for gamers.
The top Starcraft player, Lim Yo-Hwan makes about USD $400,000 a year for training with the game 8 hours a day and participating in proffesional tournaments. He is currently part of the Korean Air Force Pro-gaming team.
The success has been in tandem with so-called "game rooms" where people can come to a public place to play for a fee.
Today there are even corporate-sponsored teams whose entire jobs consist of practicing their gaming skills all day.
So, why didn’t it do the same for the U.S.? There is no definitive reason why the South Korean people took so well to the game, but they did. While StarCraft had sold wildly in the US, it was still a computer game. In South Korea it had literally become a phenomenon. And it's only grown bigger! Aside from sponsored teams and tournaments, there is merchandising from bags of Doritos with pictures of major Starcraft hero characters on them to strategy videos. To give an even greater scope of how wildly popular this game has become, it sold 1 million copies within a few weeks when the average game in Korea sells 10-15k at best.
Pictured on the left are professional StarCraft players SlayerS_'BoxeR' (real name Lim Yo-Hwan) and Nal_rA (real name Kang Min). Both make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for daily practice and tournament entry.
StarCraft is also the most popular computer game competition during the annual World Cyber Games thanks to its Korean fanbase, and it is overall one of the world's largest computer and video game competition in terms of prize money, global coverage and participants.
Another major competitor in Starcraft is a man named Lee Yunyeol.
Every night over half a million Koreans log on to Battlenet and make war in space, many of them with dreams of becoming like Yunyeol. But his skill is almost supernatural. Few people who play all day long will be able to claim a fraction of his split-second timing and pitiless concentration. Practicing eight hours a day, Yunyeol ’s methods and tactics are all but peerless.
In conclusion… Wrapping things up, Starcraft is to South Korea as Star Wars is to America, meaning it’s something that everyone knows at least a little bit about whether they’ve played the game or not. In addition, it has become as popular as sports like Tennis and Nascar, drawing millions of viewers for every professional match.