A league of their own

In Seoul, StarCraft is a sport with pro athletes, and big salaries. And now the rules of play are about to change.

A league of their own
Wikipedia/ Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Heavy metal music booms and strobe lights flash on a sleek, multi-level black stage as the standing-room-only audience cheers. They’re captivated by two stone-faced players sitting apart in logo-covered black booths, their fingers filling the air with the machine-gun sounds of rapid-fire keyboard clicking. It’s the first round of the GomTV StarCraft II Open, the largest StarCraft II competition in the world. Taking place in Seoul, South Korea, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 13, it’s a holy sacrament in what has become all but a national religion.

StarCraft is a fairly successful, if outdated, sci-fi military simulator where players build bases and armies and attack one another. But it has the status of a sport in South Korea, with half of the 11 million copies sold worldwide spinning in the country’s PCs—meaning almost one in 10 Koreans owns a copy. Two cable channels are dedicated solely to streaming StarCraft matches, and career players, known by nicknames like SlayerS_`BoxeR`, Flash and [ReD]NaDa, practise up to a dozen hours a day to hone nearly superhuman reflexes.

There are 12 professional teams and 300 licensed pro gamers in the country. Many earn six-figure salaries thanks to lucrative sponsorship deals, and the biggest championships draw live audiences of well over 100,000 people. Thousands of teens dream of the day when they can go to live in a dorm with other gamers and do nothing but sleep, eat and play StarCraft at a professional training boot camp, and the air force even has a StarCraft team, started as a PR move to accommodate top gamers during their compulsory time in the military.

“E-sports are really similar to regular sports in a lot of ways,” says Chris “Huk” Loranger, a pro gamer from Ontario. “Playing video games for 10 hours a day and then waking up and doing it for another 10 hours, it’s really mentally tough.” There is a modest StarCraft subculture in North America. Sean “Day 9” Plott, an American pro gamer who narrates videos of Korean matches online for an English-speaking audience, has a dedicated group of about 200,000 followers online. But that’s nothing compared to what’s going on across the Pacific.

It doesn’t matter that the original StarCraft is a 12-year-old game whose Day-Glo explosions and characters—bug-like Zerg, alien Protoss and human Terran—look pixelated and washed out by today’s high-def standards. “Video games, they come and go,” says Nate Poling, a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida who teaches a course on learning life skills from the space-age shooter, but StarCraft, for some reason, “has stayed strong,” both in Korea and with hard-core fans in other countries.

Its popularity in Korea grew out of dimly lit, cigarette-smoke filled Internet cafés called PC baangs. They attracted youth in the late ’90s by offering cheap Internet and cheap games, a necessary distraction in the midst of a severe recession that nearly crippled South Korea’s economy. StarCraft arrived on store shelves during that time and became the game of choice. As the baangs spread—there’s an estimated 28,000 currently open across the country—the game quickly inspired a cult-like pop culture following that has only grown over the years.

But the old religion is undergoing a reformation, and the thesis being nailed to the church door is StarCraft’s sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, which was released in late July. “It’s sad to see S.C. 1 dying. But it’s bound to die,” says Loranger. In the new version, players still use flame-throwing “mech warriors” to vaporize spike-toothed bugs, but the violence is now in HD. More importantly, all the finer points of the game have changed. It’s like throwing a bunch of senior NHL players into a rink with nets in the middle and a centre circle at each end—the mechanics are the same but the old strategies are useless.

“It’s kind of a frenzy,” says Zach “DiggitySC” Smith, an American StarCraft player and commentator. Most tournaments have already switched to StarCraft II, and so many new tournaments are springing up (thanks to the sequel attracting new sponsors) that it’s become difficult to actually rank the best players.

While some players pine for the more organized olden days, Loranger, who’s 21, loves the excitement. He says the new game is allowing veterans—most in their mid-twenties and considered too old to compete with younger pros—to rethink strategies and return to form with the same intensity. And it’s opening up the field of competition to new players who can compete with the best as everyone is forced to adjust to the new game.

“I was about to join the military when I heard the StarCraft II beta came out,” he says. “When it came time to signing the papers, I got offers from teams that would make it financially viable to play [StarCraft] as a job.” He didn’t enlist. Now Loranger, who trains all week and spends most of his weekends travelling to tournaments across North America, is about to move to Incheon, just outside Seoul. He’ll be bunking with his teammates, with whom he’ll be training 10 to 12 hours a day, reviewing replays during breaks, and working out to better hone his reflexes so he can compete with top Korean pros. “I can’t wait to train,” he says. “I’m not going to Korea to go to clubs or hang out with girls. I hope that I can become a dominant force for the West.”

It won’t be easy. Most of the Korean players have been training for their entire lives. Loranger says they’re all fuelled by the same competitiveness that drives pro athletes, and adds that the legions of fans (including hordes of screaming girls who are known to slip love notes into the hotel rooms of their favourite players) help, too. Plus, everyone has their eyes on the $85,000 prizes offered at some of the larger tournaments. But, in the end, Loranger says he’s really just a guy who loves the feel of a keyboard and mouse under his fingers. “I don’t know, man,” he says, “it gets cold, and we bundle up and play. You’ve got to enjoy the game.”