While not everyone in South Korea plays StarCraft (or plays computer games, for that matter), the game is big there. No, it’s huge — twelve years after it launched. There are professional StarCraft leagues, pro StarCraft players and televised matches on cable. (To put things in perspective, South Korea also has an Xbox 360 cable show!) The popularity of professional go, or baduk in Korean, supercedes pro gaming, writes Ask a Korean! Professional go players take on pros from Japan and China and twenty percent of the South Koreans know how to play the world’s oldest, and one of its most complex, board games.
“Many Koreans easily become obsessed with activities or games that test their ability to think and react rapidly, and excelling in such activities for competition during youth is highly encouraged,” says Nick Rumas, a South Korea-based filmmaker and journalist. “This can range from math to science to Rubick’s Cube, and while StarCraft generally is not a ‘recommended’ pursuit, it falls under a similar obsessive mindset.”
Pro-gamers need to be able to complete a dizzying number of actions per minute. According to website Ask a Korean!, it is best to equate pro StarCraft with professional poker. (And if you are good at StarCraft, you might be good at poker!) So, for example, the biggest pro-StarCraft players have about face and name recognition as the most successful pro poker players in the U.S. The recent pro-gaming scandal in South Korea, however, has no doubt increased the visibility. All this being said, pretty sure poker finals can’t draw crowds like this.
The game’s popularity in South Korea is due to, in part, good timing. When Blizzard launched StarCraft in the late 1990s South Korea was building up it’s online infrastructure and creating the fastest internet in the world. Online cafes began sprouting up, and the cafes needed games. It’s a matter of which came first — the chick or StarCraft — but the game ended up in more and more net cafes. The release of the game also coincided with the creation of South Korea’s first pro gaming league in 1998. A couple of years after the game launched, pro-gamers began organizing into teams and big time sponsors like Samsung moved in.
“The question of why StarCraft is so popular in Korea is not an easy one to answer,” Blizzard told Kotaku. “I think it should suffice to say that we feel very fortunate that the Korean gaming community has embraced our games, and that we’re very appreciative of their passion and support.”