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IEM Gyeonggi Marks the Transformation of South Korean eSports

Jason Johnson Freelance writer and editor
IEM - Intel Extreme Masters

Returning to South Korea after an eight year hiatus, IEM Gyeonggi celebrates how far eSports culture has come.

William Cho’s first PC bang was literally underground. In 1998, when the famous South Korean computer cafes were first emerging, PC bangs were often found in sketchy subterranean basements that, according to Cho, probably wouldn’t pass a safety inspection today.

“I remember thinking, ‘Yeah I probably shouldn’t tell mom that I went here,’” said Cho of the dingy basement in a local high-rise. Through the haze of cigarette smoke he saw about 30 people in front of clunky CRT computer monitors and knew he’d arrived. “More than anything I was just excited to try StarCraft.”

Cho, who will be producing the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) Asian qualifiers on Dec. 16-18 in Gyeonggi, South Korea, said those musty underground dungeons marked the beginning of a transformation.

Starting with the release of StarCraft in 1998, South Korean eSports have not only matured, but are now an embedded part of its social culture. The country has embraced its role as the capital of the multi-million dollar global eSports scene.

IEM - Intel Extreme Masters

“South Korea is the mecca of eSports,” said George Woo, events organizer for IEM at Intel.

Over his decade of heading IEM, Woo has watched the home of South Korean eSports transition from backroom dungeons into the heart of the Goyang Sports Complex. After an eight year hiatus, the IEM Asian Qualifier will return to a South Korean audience that’s equally transformed.

“Back then, eSports didn’t have a spectatorship. We didn’t even build a big stage,” said Woo. Now IEM shares its stage with the South Korean Basketball League and the biggest stars in K-pop.

IEM - Intel Extreme Masters

South Korea isn’t the only region that sells out Olympic-sized stadiums to eSports competitions. This year’s North American IEM qualifier, for instance, took place at Oracle Arena, which can house up to 20,000 fans.

But South Korea is one of the few places where eSports is treated like a national pastime.

“Unlike almost anywhere else in the world, those who are good at playing digital games are quite highly regarded,” explained Dal Yong Jin, a media scholar specializing in South Korean tech culture.

The best players, such as Lee Sang-hyeok, a.k.a. “Faker,” are even routinely mobbed by adoring fans armed with cell phone cameras. He also recently threw out the first pitch at a pro baseball game, an honor Americans usually reserve for presidents and pop stars.

The cultural passion for eSports in South Korea began inside those PC bangs. Instead of owning computers at home, most South Koreans opted to pay about $1.50 per hour to use communal PCs.

“PC bang culture is very prominent here,” said Susie Kim, a well-known eSportscaster. “When people want to meet their friends, they go to the PC bang.”

A watering hole for young people, they serve the same function of a Starbucks or shopping center in the U.S. Far from the nefarious hideaways reserved for only the hardest of hardcore players, these days PC bangs are a refuge for people from all walks of life.

“Everyone goes to PC bangs,” said Kim. A typical crowd, she said, consists of adults in need of some “me”-time, students searching for an after-school hangout, and people killing time while waiting for a bus. “Even couples go on group dates to play 2-v-2.”

IEM - Intel Extreme Masters

Many of today’s PC bangs speak the universal language of food, with a menu of fried cutlets and ramen. There are even Karaoke-fueled multibangs.

Despite their popularity, Korea’s communal approach to eSports are on the decline. The number of PC bangs dropped from about 22,000 in 2010 to about 14,000 in 2013. While there are many factors involved, Jin attributes the wane to the rise of mobile games and the end of Starcraft I.

Yet South Korean eSports remains as strong as ever, and Jin sees tournament culture at the center of it.

While spectatorship used to be nonexistent, there are now 2 cable TV channels, (Ongamenet and MBC Game), 5 Internet Protocol Televisions (IPTs), and two websites exclusively dedicated to competitions and player content.

“In South Korea, gamers enjoy eSports by attending lots of games, watching them on television, and going to stadiums to support players,” Jin said. “They aspire to be like famous professional gamers in many respects, which contributes to the national passion for games.”

While other countries mostly consume eSports on the web in isolation, South Koreans come together to form loyal communities of fans that consider eSports players akin to TV or movie stars.

Jin points to eSports as just one example of how South Korea has transformed over the past 10-15 years through a unique convergence of digital technologies and pop culture. While others perceive technology as isolating, in South Korea paradigm shifts like the rise of mobile devices lead to new ways to socialize, like the hugely popular Kakao Talk app.

Likewise, the rise in popularity of team esports like League of Legends and Overwatch is pushing the communal aspect of eSports. People now flock to brightly lit, smoke-free PC bangs in packs.

“Team gaming has taken over in South Korea,” said Cho. “People realize they would rather spend time with a group than just one-on-one.”

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