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

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

South Korean law prohibits the police from releasing the full names of those implicated. But of the 11 players charged, at least two have been forced to retire and another five have apologized publicly. “I can only say that I will do my best to reflect on my actions and to be discharged as a better, more rational person,” one charged player, Moon Sung-jin, wrote on his online profile on CyWorld, a South Korean social networking website. “I am truly sorry once again.”

Some Korean commentators have been comparing the incident to the 1919 Chicago White Sox Scandal, when eight team members were banned for life from playing professional baseball — after they purposely lost the 1919 World Series in exchange for bribes from gamblers. That’s a testament to how central StarCraft has become to sports in South Korea.

In recent months, other aspects of the pro-gaming circuit have come under fire. At an industry conference last month, one StarCraft newspaper columnist criticized low living standards in “StarCraft academies,” or dormitories where amateur players practice for entire days to become professionals.

In April, the government responded to the growing problem of video game addiction by ordering a national night-time curfew for gamers. Starting in September, players under 18 will be disconnected from their games from midnight until 8 a.m. (Existing laws already bar teenagers from visiting internet cafes, or “PC Bangs” in Korean, at night time.)

Lawmakers approved the stratagem right after a bizarre gaming-related death in March: police discovered that a 3-month-old infant had starved because her parents were too busy raising a fake baby on a computer game in an internet cafe.

Still, that step has put some in the industry on edge — especially for a massive domestic market valued at $2.4 billion in which 30 million people (mainly teenagers) are thought to play regularly.

"Korea is popular for its gaming industry,” said Koh Byung-hun, head of the Korea Game Development Association, a trade association based in Seoul. “This kind of regulation is contrary to what the government says it wants for the industry.”

With slews of problems arising, lawmakers might be bracing themselves for a second round of embattlement later this year: the release of StarCraft II, though no official date has been set.

In April, the Korean game rating board gave the sequel an “adults only” rating, a stamp of violence that the United States-based creator of StarCraft, Blizzard, immediately appealed. “By revising some parts pointed out by the board, we … finally received a 12+ rating,” said Yoon Ji-yoon, a Seoul-based spokesperson for Blizzard.

StarCraft II is mostly safe from government hands — for now. The Korean e-Sports Players Association (KeSPA), a governing body for video game sports, was fervent about not discussing their plans for StarCraft II with GlobalPost. And with lots of money and matches on the line, industry insiders appear to be taking the sequel as seriously as its predecessor.