There are 12 professional teams in South Korea

The Listening Post's Sam Sapin travelled to Seoul for an insight into the strange world of professional computer gaming in South Korea.

South Korea has often served as a media laboratory for the rest of the planet.

It is a place where new ideas, such as citizen journalism, are embraced by a technology-savvy population and then passed to other countries. Broadband penetration is higher than anywhere else in the world and it is a similar story with mobile video.

This has meant that South Korea has long been a media market worth watching.

Seoul, the country's capital, is now not only the most "wired" city on earth, it is also home to the world’s first ever professional computer games league.

The world of e-sports is big business in South Korea. Pro-teams compete in purpose built arenas, and all matches are broadcast live on television with millions of fans tuning in to watch their favourite teams in action, all playing one game – Starcraft.

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"Spectators understand exactly what is involved, they have big expectations, they love the fast pace. Once the match starts it's constantly quick," Um Jae-kyung, one of the league's Starcraft television commentators, says.

"It's a social thing, if you don't play Starcraft, you have nothing to talk about with your friends because of that. Everybody must have a basic understanding of Starcraft."

Nothing new

In computer game terms Starcraft is hardly a new kid on the block. It is more than 10 years old and the graphics are dated, but it remains South Korea's game of choice.

The object is to collect resources, build armies and set out to destroy your opponent.

There are currently 12 teams in the Pro League, 11 of which are sponsored by corporations, the other is supported by the Korean air force.

Most of the teams live and train together in special houses.

Despite dated graphics, Starcraft is
South Korea's game of choice
Kim Eun-dung, the director of the STX Soul team says there are about 22 people currently living in the squad's house.

"Living in the house at the moment we have the pro-players who take part in match games, apprentices trying to become pro-players, and a few coaching staff … all eating, sleeping and training here," he says.

"Some apprentices are as young as 12 and players generally continue their career into their 20s. It seems the players aiming to become pro are getting younger and younger."

A lot of gamers spend many years living in their team house.

"I started my gaming career when I was 17, so I've now been leading the life of a pro-gamer for almost 3 years,” Jin Young-soo, one of STX Soul’s star gamers, says.

"In my third year of high school I went before my parents and told them: 'Mum, Dad, this is better suited to me than studying. I'm going to live as a gamer, I’m going to Seoul to try out at the team house.'"

Although they live away from home the gamers are fully cared for. The team director's sister, Ajumah Kim, lives in the house and does the players' laundry, cleaning and other housework.

Serious business

A ban on Japanese goods which lasted for over 50 years means that South Korea's gaming industry is built almost entirely on PCs and has developed its own culture and following.

Computer games are popular but they are also taken very seriously and often treated as far more than just a hobby.

Such pressures and expectations take their toll on players. Jin Young-soo admits that he rarely gets a holiday and that a typical training evening will see him playing games until dawn.

"Some of us are in pretty bad shape," he says. "But we feel that putting in these extra hours of practice will pay off. Everything is tied to the team. We are all in this together and its that feeling that drives me to train harder."

Ajumah Kim says that aside from sleeping and eating, the players often spend the entire day sitting down in the house, playing.

"If you do it as a hobby, its fun but that can make it even more burdensome as a job," she says.

"Living the lifestyle of a pro-gamer, even a mouse click can become strenuous. Sometimes I can see that it hurts them to move their neck. I do feel sorry for them at those times."

Um Jae-kyung was a player before he turned to commentary and says that there are huge pressures on the boys given the public exposure of the league.

"Even at home where they live, they are in constant competition as in order to be picked for the next match they have to show their absolute best to the coaching staff," he says.

"The life of a gamer is very strenuous. All day is spent training. There is almost no rest time. It was even more difficult in the past, but recently the situation has improved."

Koreans consider computer games
as more than just a hobby
The popularity of Starcraft and the league means that many of the players, such as Jin Young-soo attract their own fan base.

"There are times when I feel my popularity is a problem," he says.

"If I'm out walking on the streets, fans will come and check me out. On my days off, or occasionally when I meet friends, its difficult to go out. Meeting a girl – not a girlfriend, just a girl - I have to be careful if I do that."

Kim Eun-dung says that for a time after the Proleague’s inception in 2003 it was difficult to say whether the so-called pro-gamers were really professional or not and that it was certainly a tough way to make a living.

"The scene continued to grow and now we have reached the point where being a pro-gamer is a secure job and league players can live comfortably by playing games," he says.

Indeed South Korean gaming culture is now a billion dollar industry, blurring the line between work and play.

Yet it is still too soon to estimate whether this is a glimpse into the future for the rest of the world or whether it will remain a purely Korean phenomenon.

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Source: Al Jazeera