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Grahamr's picture
Joined: 2006-10-02


"AT first glance, the sprawling COEX mall here seems like any other urban shopping destination. On a late-summer Thursday, there were the bustling stores and lively restaurants, couples on dates and colleagues mingling after work.

But then there were the screams.

Frantic, piercing, the shrieks echoed down the corridors from one corner of the vast underground complex. There hundreds of young people, mostly women and girls, waved signs and sang slogans as they swirled in the glare of klieg lights. It was the kind of fan frenzy that anywhere else would be reserved for rockers or movie legends.

Or sports stars. In fact the objects of the throng’s adoration were a dozen of the nation’s most famous athletes, South Korea’s Derek Jeters and Peyton Mannings. But their sport is something almost unimaginable in the United States. These were professional video gamers, idolized for their mastery of the science-fiction strategy game StarCraft.

With a panel of commentators at their side, protected from the throbbing crowd by a glass wall, players like Lim Yo-Hwan, Lee Yoon Yeol and Suh Ji Hoon lounged in logo-spangled track suits and oozed the laconic bravado of athletes the world over.

And they were not even competing. They were gathered for the bracket selection for a coming tournament season on MBC Game, one of the country’s two full-time video game television networks. And while audiences watched eagerly at home, fans lucky enough to be there in person waved hand-lettered signs like “Go for it, Kang Min” and “The winner will be Yo-Hwan {oheart}.”

All in all it was a typical night in South Korea, a country of almost 50 million people and home to the world’s most advanced video game culture: Where more than 20,000 public PC gaming rooms, or “bangs,” attract more than a million people a day. Where competitive gaming is one of the top televised sports. Where some parents actually encourage their children to play as a release from unrelenting academic pressure. Where the federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism has established a game development institute, and where not having heard of StarCraft is like not having heard of the Dallas Cowboys. The finals of top StarCraft tournaments are held in stadiums, with tens of thousands of fans in attendance.

Noh Yun Ji, a cheerful 25-year-old student in a denim skirt, had come to the COEX with 10 other members of one of the many Park Yong Wook fan clubs. “I like his style,” she said of Mr. Park, who plays the advanced alien species called Protoss in StarCraft. “I watch basketball sometimes, but StarCraft is more fun. It’s more thrilling, more exciting.”

South Korea’s roughly $5 billion annual game market comes to about $100 per resident, more than three times what Americans spend. As video games become more popular and sophisticated, Korea may provide a glimpse of where the rest of the world’s popular culture is headed.

“Too often I hear people say ‘South Korea’ and ‘emerging market’ in the same sentence,” said Rich Wickham, the global head of Microsoft’s Windows games business. “When it comes to gaming, Korea is the developed market, and it’s the rest of the world that’s playing catch-up. When you look at gaming around the world, Korea is the leader in many ways. It just occupies a different place in the culture there than anywhere else.”

JUST after 1 one Friday night, Nam Hwa-Jung, 22, and Kim Myung-Ki, 25, were on a date in Seoul’s hip Sinchon neighborhood. At a fourth-floor gaming room above a bar and beneath a restaurant specializing in beef, the couple sat side by side on a love seat by the soda machines, each tapping away at a personal computer. Ms. Nam was trying to master the rhythm of a dance game called Audition, while Mr. Kim was locked in a fierce battle in StarCraft.

“Of course we come to PC bangs, like everyone else,” Mr. Kim said, barely looking up. “Here we can play together and with friends. Why would I want to play alone at home?”

A few yards away, amid a faint haze of cigarette smoke, five buddies raced in a driving game called Kart Rider while two young men nearby killed winged demons in the fantasy game Lineage. Another couple lounged in a love seat across the room, the young man playing World of Warcraft while his date tried her skills at online basketball.

Ms. Nam glanced up from her screen. “In Korea, going and playing games at the PC bang together is like going to a bar or going to the movies,” she said.

South Korea is one of the most wired societies in the world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Korea had 25.4 broadband subscriptions per 100 residents at the end of last year. Only Iceland, with 26.7, ranked higher; the United States had only 16.8.(CONT)


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