The TV lights come on, illuminating the faces of two warriors about to do battle. The excited chatter between fans dies away, and the hundreds in the audience hush spontaneously. At home, tens of thousands more are watching eagerly as their TV screens cut to a very familiar sight: a pixellated map of alien terrain, two small bases and a few worker units standing idle next to a stash of minerals. Yes, it’s StarCraft, Blizzard’s genre-defining realtime strategy game from 1998, but it’s no longer the game we knew. This is StarCraft performed by players of near-godlike abilities. The great StarCraft player, Lee Yun-Yeol, better known by his nickname NaDa, appears on camera. A roar erupts from the crowd as gamers from 20 countries unite with NaDa’s hardcore local fans to welcome one of StarCraft’s standout players.
Known as the ‘Genius Terran’ for his mastery of the once-unpopular race, NaDa looks remarkably relaxed for a man about to do battle. His designer-scruffed black hair gleams, and his starched white WeMade FOX team jumpsuit reflects the TV lights. He dons headphones and checks his personalised mouse and keyboard on the gaming computer. Though his fans are screaming for him, he doesn’t glance up from his practice map – no sound can enter the gaming booth to distract his concentration. On the other side of the stage, separated by a giant TV screen showing their battle arena, sits his long-time opponent, YellOw, whose expertise using the Zerg race has earned him the name ‘Storm Zerg’.
The crowds that gather for Korean StarCraft tournaments are huge
We’re three hours from the 20-million-strong Korean megacity of Seoul, the world’s StarCraft Mecca, at the first International e-Sports Federation Challenge. There are other games being played – Blizzard’s Warcraft III among them – but the fans make the trip to the small ski resort town of Taebaek for StarCraft alone. While gamers in the rest of the world have all but abandoned the game, and with it the RTS genre, in favour of FPS or MMO games, Koreans are still utterly besotted with a game more than a decade old. Of the 9.5 million copies sold worldwide, 4.5 million were sold in Korea. Children, teenagers and adults flocked to PC baangs (net cafes) to play the RTS game against each other in a mad nationwide frenzy.
From the millions of amateurs emerged the world’s first true professional gaming leagues, consisting of 12 professional teams vying for the prestigious Proleague title and 300 gamers sponsored by Korea’s largest companies to play StarCraft six days a week in a bid to be the best of all time. This, right here, is the future of gaming – professionals playing televised matches, commentators judging their every move, fans screaming out the gaming nicknames of their idols, grudge matches between top teams and, for those lucky few at the top, celebrity like that of a rock star. At his peak, the most famous StarCraft pro-gamer, BoxeR, known as The Emperor for his supreme skills, commanded a fan club of over half a million people. StarCraft is no longer a game in Korea, it’s an entertainment industry.
Professional StarCraft players YellOw (above left) and NaDa
The small pockets of serious, black-suited Korean businessmen hidden amidst the gum-chewing gamers and their cheering fans prove it. These are monied men who believe that PC gaming has a bright future as a televised international sport, just like football. One day, they whisper, PC gaming – already an official sport in Korea and China – will make it into the Olympics – and StarCraft may well be one of the games played. But even as these anonymous men plan for the future, a challenge is on the horizon. After seven years of development, StarCraft II is nearly here, and Korea’s top players and coaches fear the sequel will nullify 12 years of ever-changing tactics and send everyone back to zero once again. But, for now, the original game is at its apogee – the highest point before the fall.