07-01-2011 16:51
Competitive computer gaming endures growing pains

Game enthusiasts pack an arena in Seoul during last month¡¯s Global StarCraft League (GSL) finals. / Korea Times file

By Kim Tong-hyung

Korea, a nation fascinated with e-this and e-that, touts itself as the homeland the global phenomenon that is competitive computer gaming.

But after a decade of worshiping ``e-athletes¡¯¡¯ like pop stars and packing real-life stadiums to see them battle it out, the public¡¯s love affair with electronic sports appears to be souring.

Part of the problem is that gaming has become too much like real sports. E-sports took perhaps an irrevocable hit to its public image last year when it lapsed into a crisis amid a match-fixing scandal that involved 11 players and several brokers, exposing a level of corruption that could even make football officials blush.

And the biggest knock on Korea¡¯s professional gaming league is that it¡¯s a one-trick pony that lives and dies on the popularity of ``StarCraft,¡¯¡¯ a decade-old military science-fiction game developed by U.S. games giant Blizzard. Well, the average spectator may not be as excited about the imaginary battles between intergalactic humans, robots and inspects as he was in 1998.

Blizzard did release the much-anticipated ``StarCraft II¡¯¡¯ last year. However, its lengthy feud with the Korean e-Sports Players Association (KeSPA) and local cable television networks over the broadcasting rights for the original StarCraft leagues cast a shadow on the public relations (PR) efforts.

Blizzard did reach a settlement with the Korean league operators and broadcasters in May, but is still struggling to convince game lovers that the new StarCraft is up to par with the old one.

As the league continues to see its popularity erode, corporate sponsors are bailing as well. The StarCraft league had 12 teams, which became 10 after IEG and OnGameNet dismantled their squads ahead of the 2010-11 season.

The number could soon be nine; officials at Wemade Entertainment, a troubled online game developer, are debating whether the company can continue to afford hiring professional gamers.

This is why some observers wonder whether the recent retirement of Hong Jin-ho, an 11-year StarCraft veteran and one of the league¡¯s most popular figures, bears more than just sentimental meaning. Hong was one of the country¡¯s first e-sports superstars and it bears further watching whether he will be one of the last.

Alarmed over a league losing its freshness, other big-name stars like Lee Yoon-yeol, Lim Yo-hwan and Park Sung-joon defected to play StarCraft II, and now find themselves relegated to television suburbia.

KeSPA is putting in Herculean efforts to breathe new life into the league, deciding to hold this year¡¯s finals tournament in Shanghai, China, in August to declare its ``global aspirations.¡¯¡¯ But die-hard Korean fans aren¡¯t too happy about the faraway venue, as they ridicule the league¡¯s talk about going global as a confession that it¡¯s quickly losing local footing.

The league, and Blizzard for that matter, has certainly seen better days. In its debut about a decade ago, StarCraft established a presence that transcended gaming enthusiasts and became deeply ingrained in society, culture and business.

It practically became a national sport, expanding the Korean gaming population beyond pimpled teenagers and playing a role in pushing the country¡¯s broadband penetration above the 90 percent mark.

This spawned a whole new industry of ``PC bang¡¯¡¯ or Internet cafes, which are found virtually on every street of the country. It¡¯s easy to forget that the country had just around 100 such shops prior to StarCraft¡¯s release in 1998.

Aside of sowing the seeds for e-sports, the game¡¯s success provided a critical consumption foundation for online games, pushed by pioneering local companies such as NCsoft, which have now become as distinctively a Korean export item as cheap cars, semiconductors and kimchi.

A StarCraft league match in 2005, held at an outdoor arena near Busan¡¯s Gwanganri Beach, drew more than 100,000 spectators, which could be compared to the crowd at a World Cup final.

According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute (SERI), the Korean e-sports market was worth around 120 billion won (about $112 million) last year. Major conglomerates like Samsung Electronics, SK Telecom, KT and CJ are among the companies that are operating e-sports teams.