Monday, 18 March 2013

Attending a Starcraft Tournament in Seoul

There are few countries as obsessed with video gaming as South Korea. Everyone, from infant to elderly ajusshi, seems to play games here. Just spend an hour on the Seoul metro and you'll find hundreds of commuters buried in their cellphones as they tap away at a game of Angry Birds or Anipang. There are PC-bangs (internet cafes where people play online multiplayer games) on practically every block in Seoul, and the country is the most wired in the world, with an estimated four million Koreans playing online games at any given moment.

The Korean cellphone game, Anipang.
This obsession runs so deep that there have been numerous stories of deaths caused by gaming addiction. In one high profile case from 2005, a 28-year-old man collapsed and died from organ failure after playing online games for over 50 hours. He had already lost his job as a result of his addiction. In another famous case from 2009, a couple from Suwon were so preoccupied with caring for a virtual infant that their real baby died from neglect, for which they were found guilty of negligent homicide.

Though these tragic stories have inspired an outcry from various groups and politicians (the Korean government recently banned anyone aged under 18 from playing online games between midnight and 8am), society at large continues to hold gaming in high esteem. Professional gamers are revered like sportsmen or athletes, with the most successful becoming affluent media celebrities.

Probably the most popular game of all time in Korea is the PC real-time-strategy game, Starcraft. Not long after its release it grew to become the country's "national e-sport," and today there are several television channels dedicated to the game. Starcraft tournaments are often performed in front of live audiences and aired on TV, with its top players garnering dedicated fan bases, professional contracts and large tournament winnings.

A couple of weekends ago, some friends who happen to be Starcraft fans invited me to a tournament final in Seoul. Although I'd never played the game myself, and have never enjoyed real-time-strategy games all that much, I was eager to see a Starcraft tournament because of the game's popularity here. I wanted to see first-hand how a multiplayer gaming tournament would play out in front of a live audience, and how it compared to watching a "normal" spectator sport. Plus, it just sounded so damn irresistibly Korean.

The final was held near Gwangnaru, in eastern Seoul. The two finalists, known only by their internet pseudonyms, were AZUBU_Symbol (on the left) and SAMSUNG_KHAN_RorO (on the right), henceforth referred to as Symbol and RorO.
There was a pretty large audience made up predominately of young males (surprise, surprise). 
Here I am with my entrance ticket and free can of Hot 6 (Koreas's equivalent to Red Bull, and the official sponsor of the tournament) 
After an hour's wait, the show finally commences with some flashy pyrotechnics and Korean techno music. 
As the smoke rises, the players reveal themselves, and with their hardened, godlike postures, they attempt to project some semblance of cool.
The players then enter cubicles, while commentators chat in rapid-fire Korean about the upcoming game.
Both players prepare to sweat at least half their bodyweight out through the palms of their hands.
The game was broadcast live on Korean TV, and lots of fans prepared banners to show to the cameras.

Finally, Round 1 begins!
Like most RTS games, the basic aim in Starcraft is to build up a solid base and destroy the enemy before they destroy you. There are lots of controllable units, each with different functions and abilities, and defeating the other player requires not only a superior tactical approach but also super-fast fingers: the players typed commands and hotkeys into their keyboards seemingly with the same speed and dexterity required to play a Rachmaninoff concerto.
As you can probably tell from the pictures, Starcraft is set in a science-fiction environment, and involves insectoid aliens obliterating each other with acid and laser beams. The game also has other races, but in this particular final both opponents were diehard bug-players.
The battles often became extremely dense and convoluted. To tell you the truth, I didn't have the foggiest idea what was going on half the time. If you've ever watched the Olympics and felt bemused as you tried to figure out how the scoring system works in Judo or Archery or some other sport you've never watched before, trying watching a game of Starcraft.

RorO wins the first round.
Round 2 was on an ice planet. 
Symbol pulls back a win, much to his relief.

Some headache-inducing lights whirl around during an intermission.
The game goes on for several hours, across six separate rounds. The players stare into the abyss of the computer screens, their dead-eyed, vacant expressions betraying years of social exclusion and an unending diet of Pringles and energy drinks. Things start to get really intense during the final round....
...aaaand...finally, after four hours of gameplay, it's over! RorO's first grin since childhood tells us he's won the final, along with 50'000'000 won (around $45'000, or £30'000).

Symbol buries his head in his sweat-encrusted hands. He blew it. Now it's back to the darkness of mum and dad's basement for another year of Jedi training.
RorO comes onto the stage to bow to the cheering audience.
His support group fling him into the air and drench him in champagne.
Before you feel too sorry for Symbol, just remember that the runner-up prize was 20'000'000 Won, or roughly $18'000. 
RorO kisses the winner's trophy.
Watching a live Starcraft tournament is, I think, a quintessential Korean experience. Like seeing a Muay Thai boxing match in Bangkok, or a Gaelic football match in Dublin, it reveals a fervent sporting subculture unique to that country. While some (e.g. my girlfriend, Angela) might snort at the sight of exploding CG aliens, and while others may reject Starcraft's status as a national "sport", you can't ignore the passion and dedication that players and fans invest into the game. Both opponents had tears in their eyes at the culmination of the final. Both had proud parents watching them from the audience. And both had their share of fans cheering them on. While I'll never be a Starcraft fan myself, I loved the passion and energy surrounding us, enhanced by the howling and screaming of the overexcited commentators. Confused though I was, I could never claim that I wasn't entertained.

If you're interested in attending a tournament yourself, well...since I acquired my ticket through a friend, I can't help you much. However, I'd recommend checking out a major Starcraft fan messageboard, such as this one, and searching for tournament schedules.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    1. Apologies, I deleted your reply by mistake. Fortunately, I had it saved in my inbox. You said:

      "While I enjoyed most of the blog here, implying that the athletes were basement dwelling nerds sustaining themselves on pringles and energy drinks seemed unnecessary. Most professional Korean Starcraft players live in team houses with coaches, training schedules and cooks."

      My response:

      It was just a bit of humour. I don't really think they're reclusive geeks. Besides, I've done more than my share of videogame procrastination so I wouldn't call anyone out for devoting lots of time to it if that's their passion and all. Apologies if I offended you or any other dedicated Starcraft fans.