By Cho Jin-seo
A shadow of depression is looming over Korea's uniquely prospering professional computer gaming league after a decade of non-stop growth.
Several professional gaming clubs are facing disbandment this year, while TV viewership ratings are stagnant on cable TV. No new games have appeared to succeed the role played by ``StarCraft,'' which alone has fed the so-called e-sports industry over the past 10 years.
Hanbit Soft, a major game publisher who owns one of 12 pro game clubs in South Korea, said last week that it wants to sell the Hanbit Stars team because of financial difficulties. The announcement shocked to the people in the gaming circle because of its contribution to the e-sports sector.
Hanbit is one of the founding members of the Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA) and its chief executive Kim Young-man has served as the inaugural chairman of the organization since 2001 and 2006. Hanbit was also the local distributor of ``StarCraft'' in Korea and helped two TV broadcasters ― Ongamenet and MBC Games ― settle down as the only 24-hour TV channels in the world dedicated to computer and video games.
Hanbit said Kim will resign from the CEO's post as the firm is being acquired by T3 Entertainment, an online game developer. T3 said it is considering continuing the operation of the gaming club.
``We have not yet decided whether to continue the game club's operation,'' said a T3 spokeswoman.
Adding fuel to the fire on the crisis, the Air Force said last week it will stop recruiting gamers to its Ace gaming corps. The Ace has been the only place where young professional gamers can continue their career while completing the mandatory military service ― an inevitable choice for most players because their peak time as a gamer overlaps their military conscription age.
Computer games have long been a spectator sport in South Korea where there are two game-dedicated TV channels. There are 12 professional ``StarCraft'' clubs owned or sponsored by major companies and some 400 registered pro gamers. But the growth of the so-called e-sports business has slowed from last year in line with the waning popularity of ``StarCraft.''
In 2005, Ongamenet boasted a 3.1 percent viewership rating, ranking 9th among all cable channels. However this year, its ranking dropped to 16th place, and the viewership also fell to 1.9 percent, according to research firm Nielson.
Pundits expects the e-sports industry will go through a major shakeup when Blizzard, the game company that developed ``StarCraft,'' releases its sequel this year. The U.S. firm is allegedly preparing to sell the game in Korea via its own sales network, not through a local distributor such as Hanbit.
Many in the Korean e-sports field worry that Blizzard will demand license fees from the KeSPA and cable TV networks for use of its game in professional leagues, which will add more financial burdens on the league organizers, the clubs and the industry as a whole.