By Kim Hyun-cheol
Since 1999, Park Won-ki has been a die-hard fan of StarCraft. It was one of his biggest joys in life to watch professionals compete in local leagues of the worldly popular military science fiction real-time strategy computer game. A section of his blog is dedicated to postings on computer games.
But now, the 33-year-old office worker says he is not sure if he can genuinely enjoy them as he used to.
``I feel so miserable and disappointed. It's so shocking to realize fake matches and fraud were part of the history of StarCraft leagues,'' Park said.
What has exasperated him is the biggest ever scandal in what is called electronic sports (e-sports) in South Korea. Some of the professional gamers, as well as former players and officials, have reportedly had charges filed against them for having manipulated the results of their matches for years in favor of illegal gamblers.
The Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA), a governing body of the nation's e-sports, confirmed it had filed the charges last month with the prosecution along with some professional gaming teams so that they could be investigated.
``If the probe is launched, operators of illegal private gambling Web sites and some former players and staff involved in the scandal will be questioned,'' a KeSPA official said on condition of anonymity.
It still remains to be seen if the investigation will be expanded to current players who are suspected of having engaged in match rigging as well. Most of those involved are former pro gamers and officials in local e-sports leagues, according to KeSPA.
According to allegations, gamblers approached gamers active on several local teams, including trainees, and coaxed them into rigging the results or leaking crucial information for cash.
Some of the pro-gamers were even bribed to work as brokers between the gambling manipulators and other e-sports players, the organization added.
The prosecution is more likely to be focused on cracking down on online gambling sites, but current players and staff also could be included depending on the progress of the case, a source familiar with the issue said on condition of anonymity.
Computer games now have a long history worldwide, but South Korea has a different online culture from other countries as some are professionally played as a spectator sport.
For more than a decade, Koreans were arguably the most enthusiastic supporters of e-sports. Professional gamers participating in TV-aired online matches of StarCraft, clad in uniforms featuring astronauts or characters from science fiction movies, have become iconic in showing what the broadband boom in the country has led to.
It has cable television channels wholly dedicated to footage from online matches with stadium-style backdrops. Some of the best pro-gamers are treated as celebrities among the younger generation.
Currently, several teams and individual leagues for StarCraft, including Ongamenet Starleague and MBC Starleague, meet regularly. The finals of the competitions have attracted tens of thousands of fans to watch them on television or as live spectators.
South Korea has 12 teams of StarCraft gamers, including an Air Force team, as part of the 21 computer games categorized in e-sports. The number of pro- and semi-pro gamers here reached 180 in 2001, but soared to 763 in early 2007.
The culture has now spread worldwide and several international and continental pro-gaming leagues are in operation in North America, Europe and Asia. South Korea, no doubt, has long been a pivotal leading power in the industry.
Now, the whole frenzy is in danger of a disastrous collapse. Fear is on the rise that the whole pro-gaming industry might implode amidst public outcry.
Before the scandal emerged, e-sports here were trying to lift their status to the level of other more conventional sports, but now it appears that they will be struggling for survival with their future hanging by a thread.
Some local e-sports teams say they might have to disband if they find themselves without sponsorship, if the case worsens.
``There seems to be no other choice but to breakup if the illegal betting and game-tampering becomes a bigger public issue,'' a representative of a local team said, who requested not to be named.
Illegal betting is nothing new in e-sports, the industry says. The emergence of illegal private betting Web sites can be traced back to 2006, when they lured fans into wagering money on various StarCraft leagues.
Faced with countermeasures from KeSPA and other e-sports officials, their business seemed to decline for a while to sporadic hit-and-run operations, before regaining strength in late 2008.
StarCraft leagues used to be centered on individual players before that time, but they developed into a competition among professional teams, with their members taking on each other in one-on-one matches.
Gambling sites started to spring up online from then on as it made it easier to bet on each match. Their number was tallied at several dozen last year, according to KeSPA.
Manipulation of game results started to increase as former e-sports players and officials started to become engaged in the operation.
Servers of illegal private betting sites are mostly located overseas. They shut down immediately when discovered before opening again sometime later, which makes it harder to crack down on them.
To fans like Park, the issue means much more than just a scandal as it is closely linked to the survival of the entire Korean e-sports.
``If it turns out true that some current pro-gamers are involved in the match-rigging, its aftershock will be simply unfathomable. The whole foundation of e-sports might collapse because StarCraft is the main force in the e-sports arena," Park said.
``It's even likely that the current 12-team league system could crumble as sponsorship will be withdrawn by companies."
Those familiar with the industry also worry that KeSPA will be weighed down by Blizzard Entertainment, a U.S.-based maker of StarCraft, in a power struggle over the issue of making a new e-sport discipline out of the company's latest product, StarCraft II. The game is expected to be released this year.
The two parties have different ideas. KeSPA claims Blizzard is solely focused on its own profit and downplaying its contribution to the popularity of StarCraft, while Blizzard seems to believe the association is negligent in securing its intellectual property rights in the leagues.
In the lead up to the corruption scandal, Blizzard is likely to take the initiative in upcoming battles against its counterpart with waning credibility from local fans.
As StarCraft accounts for more than 70 percent of Korean e-sports, the significance of StarCraft II will be bigger as its replacement. And with KeSPA's credibility declining due to the game manipulation case, it will be easy for Blizzard to take control of the e-sports scene in the future.
The degree of punishment against current players involved is likely to lead to another huge controversy. KeSPA said any member of the local league will be subject to disciplinary action, but declined to comment in detail.
However, some fans want the organization to take more aggressive steps. More specifically, they think any solution to this daunting situation should start with the strict handling of the scandal to eradicate illegality from this special kind of sport.
``Once the issue goes public, any emotional approach resorting to camaraderie won't help. Every person concerned in the scandal should be kicked out of the field of Korean e-sports for good,'' said Park.