The people of South Korea seem to be searching for an international identity, and unsure of what they can be known for on the world's stage. But there is one thing that the country is increasingly being known for, and that is its unique approach to computer gaming. The country is the only place in the world where a professional computer gamer can make over US$200,000 a year before the age of 21.
Mark Donald, editor of PC Gamer UK, a popular computer gaming magazine in England, was amazed when he took a trip to South Korea and viewed the phenomenon first-hand. Here is an excerpt from his account: "To a fanfare of Asian nu-metal and the sound of a thousand screaming fans, a young Korean man enters a dazzling arena. Like an American wrestler at the heart of a glitter-glazed Royal Rumble, he strides down a ramp towards the stage. Adorned in what appears to be a space suit and a large white cape, he heads out to meet his opponent on the stadium's ziggurat focus. Amid a blaze of flashbulbs and indoor fireworks he climbs the steps, and is exulted by the thronging crowd. Only twenty years old, and with no less than half a dozen TV cameras tracking his progress, this bizarre figure seems to be unfazed by his predicament. Diligently he waves to the crowd.
"My interpreter, the amiable Mr. Yang, leans forward. "To my brother he is a great hero. My brother can't get enough of this. He has been to see him play many times." "'So this guy has a lot of fans' I say, knowing the answer but nevertheless incredulous. "'Hundreds of thousands in his fan club,' says Yang. 'Impossible to track the number of people who watch him play.'
"Impossible, because the man on the stage is on Korean television almost every day. He is about to sit down and play what is close to becoming Korea's national sport: Starcraft. His name is Lee Yunyeol, or in game [RED]NaDa Terran. He is The Champion. Last year his reported earnings were around US$200,000. He plays a seven year-old RTS for fame and fortune and to many Koreans he is an idol. 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 peerless. Well, almost peerless. In fact there are two or three other players who command similar salaries. They might not hold the crown now, and one of them will probably take it from him soon, but for now at least, Yunyeol is king.
"The existence of people like Lee Yunyeol ensures that South Korea is unlike any other gaming culture on Earth. Here the PC is the most important games machine and major corporations such as Samsung and Fila will pay thousands of dollars to have their logo adorn the best players in the country. This is a culture in which one in twenty people has played an MMO (it's less than one in seventy in the UK), but where Half-Life 2 barely raised a mention. Regularly playing online sessions the Blizzard games, such as Diablo II, Starcraft, or Warcraft III is more common amongst Koreans than owning a PlayStation. This is a country in which having a subscription to an online game is becoming the rule, rather than the exception. There are five cable channels devoted to games and one of those just to RTS titles like Starcraft.
Recorded and edited bouts of top-level Starcraft matches accounts for viewing figures in the millions, taking up 1% of all the TV watched in Korea. There are two weekly newspapers and three four-hundred page monthly glossies that cater just to PC gaming. There are 26,000 gaming cafes in Korea, which make US$6 billion a year from tens of thousands of visiting gamers. Seoul is nothing less than a PC gaming hotbed of imagination-defying magnitude." This is the true next evolution of world culture, and South Korea is spearheading it before anyone else can do so. If the country wants to develop a unique niche in the world stage, developing this new technology is where they should concentrate their efforts.
Online PC and mobile games, and especially so-called casual games, were expected to push the South Korean gaming market to more than US$2 billion in 2007-- a rise of about 18 percent from its 2006 size of US$1.7 billion, according to marketresearch firm Pearl Research. South Korea's availability of PCs -- including the prevalence of home computers, high-speed Internet, and cybercafes -- was expected to foster the increase. But that was assuming the effect of software piracy or rising game-development costs on the Korean game market are kept to a minimum, said the firm, which studies emerging game and entertainment markets.
Easy-to-play, easy-to-learn casual games currently make up about 30 percent of the video-game market in South Korea. With 79 percent of South Korean households owning at least one computer, PC gaming is the largest sector of the country's gaming industry. The second-largest sector of the country's industry -- mobile gaming -- is also the fastest-growing. Expected to exceed US$275 million next year, mobile gaming will grow thanks to ubiquitous marketing and a strong selection of titles. Console gaming is the smallest sector, but the releases of the Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii and the availability of more online-enabled games will boost its presence.
The strength of the country's game industry is larger than that of neighboring China, whose market, despite possessing the world's largest audience, is well regulated by the communist government. Pearl Research also predicted that the Chinese game market in 2009 will rise to about US$1 billion -- half of South Korea's predicted figure for 2007.
"One of the key differences between South Korea and China is income level," Pearl Research spokeswoman Allison Luong said. "China is still an emerging economy with annual urban income levels of US$1,300, whereas South Korea's annual income levels approximate US$16,000." But expect that gap to narrow in the future, she said. "China's games market is also growing rapidly," she said, "and because of its growing affluence and large population base [it] is expected to exceed Korea in the future."
This good news on South Korea comes after a flurry of negative reports for the past few years that put the country under the spotlight. Most prominently, in June 2005 a man collapsed and died after a prolonged, 50-hour session of World of Warcraft, prompting the South Korean government to begin offering welfare programs that treat onlinegaming addiction.