Connect to share and comment

South Korea: Big-league problems for a chair-bound sport

The videogame StarCraft is a national pastime, complete with celebrity players and paparazzi.

Editor's note: Blizzard Entertainment has announced the release date for StarCraft's sequel. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty will be available come July 27.

SEOUL, South Korea — Koh Seok-hyun walks on stage wearing a red and white race-car uniform. He sits under glimmering orange lights, and contemplates the strategy he’s been preparing for weeks.

Training has been rigorous: he’s dissected his rival’s style and calculated his own moves down to the second. He plans to finish in 2 minutes and 13 seconds, with no room for error. The 22-year-old wipes sweat from his brow.

The announcer calls it on and Koh's fingers whiz across the computer keyboard. Quickly, he sends six skimpy zerglings (killer alien bugs) to crush his adversary. As he had hoped, his opponent built a sluggish defense. Game over in 3 minutes, 16 seconds — a bit later than he had hoped but not a poor showing. Koh leaps from his seat, and high fives his teammates. Outside, he is greeted by a crowd of squealing female fans.

In a country where StarCraft has become a national sport, Koh and his teammates live like rock stars. The pastime, a military science-fiction video game, has become a sort of baseball for South Korea. Competitions like this one in Seoul earlier this month, are broadcast across the country and thousands of gamers each year try to become professionals.

The best players are celebrities said to make as much as $300,000 a year. Tabloid magazines drool over paparazzi photographs of the more glamorous gamers dating well-known models and actresses.

But the life of stardom is a hard one, says Koh. That’s because the road to becoming a professional gamer is rocky, part of a cutthroat competition that prompted Koh to dedicate his life to StarCraft in high school.

Every year, about 6,000 South Korean players try to become professionals by entering monthly tournaments; after a few stages of elimination, 50 or so are drafted by professional teams each year. “I couldn’t win the semi-finals several times,” Koh said. “So the last time, I let out all of my anxiety and stopped caring. Then I was drafted.”

Koh’s coach, Ha Tae-kee of a team called MBC, explains how gamers are picked. “I look for players with mental strength instead of only the best ranking,” he said. “Once we reach the top players, the difference between rank one and rank 50 is not a large gap.”

The gamers will need a lot of that mental stamina, he says, because being drafted is hardly the final step to making it as a pro. After Koh joined the team in 2006, he and four other players were still not allowed to compete on television. Rather, they trained in isolation for eight hours a day for one year. Three of those players dropped out before joining the regular matches.

But as a mafia-style scandal sweeps across the professional StarCraft league, many are questioning whether some players have taken the game too far. Last month, authorities charged 16 people with illegal betting and match rigging in a debacle that has touched some of the most revered players on the peninsula. Police alleged that three brokers from an illegal gambling ring had since the mid-2000s offered players between $2,000 and $6,000 to purposely lose matches.