|It is unquestionable that StarCraft is extremely popular in Korea more so than any other country. Even though the game was released in 1998, the popularity of the game is still going strong for a game that is 12 years old – a virtually unprecedented event in a field like video games where a life cycle of even the most popular games (like the Madden NFL series) does not usually exceed more than a year. As of early 2008, 9.5 million copies of StarCraft were sold worldwide, and Korea accounted for 4.5 million copies of those sales. |
Terran is victorious.
But the popularity of StarCraft in Korea far exceeds just the number of copies sold. StarCraft enabled the world’s first pro gaming league to happen in Korea – Korea Pro Gaming League (KPGL), established in 1998. (However, this league no longer exists.) There is not one
cable television channels dedicated to broadcasting matches between pro gamers, often playing StarCraft. There are live matches in a specially built studio/stadium, which sometimes draw as many as 100,000 people
. To answer Lance’s question, pro gaming in Korea is about as popular as pro poker leagues in America. The biggest names among pro gamers in Korea – say, Im Yo-Hwan or Yi Yoon-Yeol – have about the same name/face recognition in Korea as Phil Hellmuth or Howard Lederer has in America.
Im Yo-Hwan, one of the top pro gamers in Korea
A video game that engendered an entire industry is simply unheard of prior to StarCraft. And like all rare events, the current popularity of StarCraft in Korea took a lucky confluence of a number of factors – some unique to Korea, some not. Just for fun, the Korean will explore this phenomenon chronologically backwards. In other words, we still start from the current explosion and work our way back in time, until we can identify what earlier factors contributed to the phenomenon that we see today.
Pro Leagues and TV Stations
The most recent development would be the establishment of pro gaming leagues and cable televisions. Once these institutions came to being, the popularity of StarCraft became a self-sustaining force. People talk about it because it is on television, and television keeps on showing it because people talk about it. People practice the game because the gaming league pays well, and the gaming league pays well because people watch the games, again because the games are on TV.
For an equivalent American phenomenon, think Avatar
was a movie that had absolutely nothing special. The computer graphics of the movie, while impressive, is not significantly advanced from 2001, when Final Fantasy
came out. (The difficulty of rendering the mud bath scene in Shrek
still makes the Korean’s jaw drop.) At most, Avatar
was not a noticeable improvement over Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
, which was made entirely with CGI except for the actors. In fact, one could make a convincing argument that among the movies in the 2009-10 season, the computer graphics in District 9
was more impressive than Avatar
, because District 9
more thoroughly blended computer-generated images with regular people and scenery where human eyes are more likely to detect things that look “off”. On the other hand, in Avatar
, it was a given that everything happened in an alien planet where everything looks different. In the few scenes of Avatar
where the CGI and regular actors interacted – like when the chief was fighting soldiers on the backside of the bomber – the CGI quality deteriorated significantly.
This type of scenes, where CGI and regular actors interact,
was the vast majority in District 9, but less than 10 percent of Avatar
showed precious little originality in using its admittedly impressive CGI skills – the images of a big, life-giving tree comes from Lord of the Rings
and Princess Mononoke
, the floating mountains are from Laputa: Castle in the Sky
, riding a dragon-like thing from every single RPG game in the history of mankind, and so on. And finally, the storyline was so stupid and banal
that it surely did not warrant the multiple
New York Times article psychoanalyzing
But people will nonetheless talk about Avatar, only because people talk about it. This is how hype is made in today’s pop culture. Once something – anything! – enters the hype machine, its popularity will be self-sustaining until it falls out of the hype. (For another example, think Snuggies – one of the dumbest inventions that ever went mainstream. But it sounds kinda good, because everyone is talking about it!)
Back to the topic of StarCraft: the presence of dedicated gaming leagues and cable televisions were crucial for the hype machine to operate. And it is not difficult to imagine why these things came about – they came about because people thought there was money to be made by setting up leagues and dedicated TV stations. In America, Travel Channel and ESPN2 (particularly late night) have turned into dedicated poker channels. Better yet in Korea, there was already a model for a pro league and cable TV stations dedicated to a game. Guess what the game is?
The best board game in the world
The game is go
, known as baduk
among Koreans. While go is recently giving ground to other online games, more than 20 percent of Korean adults know how to play go
, a relatively complex game. And truly, the popularity of go
in Korea has no American equivalent, as far as board games are concerned. There are professional chess leagues in America, but there is no cable TV station showing their match. In Korea, professional go
players are superstars (much, MUCH bigger than pro gamers) playing international league games against top players from China and Japan, earning a ton of money and enjoying a lot of media exposure. Even people who don’t know how to play go
in Korea have generally heard of the names Yi Chang-Ho and Yi Se-Dol, like the way a non-sports fan in America still has heard of Tom Brady and Kobe Bryant. By the Korean’s estimation, go
might be the second most popular “sport” in Korea behind baseball, ahead of soccer. (Except during World Cup.)
So the gaming league and TV stations came because StarCraft was popular, and there was a ready model to emulate. Then what caused StarCraft’s popularity to a level such that the popularity caused people with money to invest in such ventures?
Further explanation, after the jump.
The PC Bang Phenomenon
The StarCraft syndrome cannot be explained without bringing up the PC Bang explosion. “PC Bang” is a Korean term for cyber café (“bang” meaning room,) but this is not the dingy kind with four computers you see at tourist traps in Europe. These are glorious arcades with anywhere between 50 to 200 high-speed computers, comfortable chairs, futuristic interior design and a snack bar in the corner.
Typical PC Bang in Korea
The proliferation of PC Bang has much to do with Korea’s small business environment. One very important factor is that Korea is a country where not too many people get to “retire” as Americans or Europeans get to do. Korea does not have guaranteed social pension like Europe, nor has it encouraged everyone to save for retirement like America (until very recently). The group that is most impacted by this is Koreans in their late 40s and 50s, who began their career in a system that guaranteed continued employment but the proverbial rug was pulled underneath them as Korean economy underwent a major overhaul in the late 1990s.
So put yourselves in their shoes. You are 50 years old. You have saved up a sizable nest egg but not quite sizable enough to live off of it for the rest of your life. Stock market is too volatile, and does not generate enough short-term cash to live off of at any rate. More stable and cash-generating derivative financial products are unheard of in Korea until early 2000s. And you are too young to sit around anyway. So you have to run a small business to spend time and make ends meet, but you don’t want to work too hard. What business would you choose?
PC Bang is the perfect choice in this scenario. Once all the computers are set up and popular games are installed, there is very little expertise required. Unlike, say, selling clothes, there is almost no effort required to figure out what the customers want – everyone wants the same 4 or 5 games (including StarCraft,) and most of the popular games are entirely hosted online at any rate. Also, practically no manual labor is required other than keeping the store clean. There is also very few regulations governing PC Bang, unlike for example restaurants which must follow certain hygienic requirements. It is better business than even a traditional arcade, since traditional arcade machine is more expensive and each machine is unique. It also helped that Korea made a massive investment in Internet infrastructure in the late 1990s such that it still enjoys the fastest Internet in the world. (Indeed, many Korean websites run very slowly in America because Korean websites are made with the expectation that Internet is four times faster than the broadband speed in America.
So once people got a wind of the trend that online games, including StarCraft, is getting popular, they started looking into opening of PC Bangs. Soon, PC Bangs began to mushroom everywhere in Korea. Once the boom began, the larger PC Bangs began to turn into a franchise and began to share the cost of computer maintenance and repair as well as create a unified interior design, which made opening a PC Bang even easier. The cost of opening a PC Bang became even lower as computer-leasing business began to take hold.
Hilarious billboard for a PC Bang
Once PC Bangs came to be everywhere, it began to infiltrate Korean people’s habits. People go because they are there, and because they are an easy way to kill some time. It became another version of the self-expanding cycle: people go to PC Bang because PC Bangs are there. More entrepreneurs open PC Bangs because people go there. More people go to PC Bangs because more of them exist, and other people are going too. It was only a matter of time when TV executives caught on and turn this into an even bigger phenomenon.
The result is that StarCraft became a standard rather than a choice. There have been other worthy real-time simulation (RTS) games that were just as entertaining as StarCraft. (EA Game’s Command & Conquer series comes to mind.) But once StarCraft was chosen to be the standard for PC Bangs, there was no turning back. The fun of an online game multiply with more players even though the original merits of that game may have fallen below those of a later game. So StarCraft lives on in Korea, even though it has been 12 years since the game came out.
Does this mean that any game could have taken the place of StarCraft? Could Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, for example, have been as popular in Korea had it been released just at the right time when the PC Bang boom was beginning? The Korean doubts that. It would be a mistake to discount StarCraft’s own merits allowed all the subsequent events – the proliferation of PC Bangs, professional game leagues, dedicated cable TV stations – to happen in the way they did.
StarCraft – the Game Itself
[WARNING: Mega Nerd Alert! Don’t say the Korean didn’t warn you.]
To recap, StarCraft became popular in Korea because it had some initial popularity, which was amplified by becoming a part of a popular small business trend, which then was further amplified by entering into the hype machine created by TV stations and media. Then the last remaining question is – what was the cause for StarCraft’s initial popularity? The Korean believes StarCraft’s initial popularity – the force that enabled all the chain of events that followed – has to do entirely with the strength of the game itself.
Ooh, nice Siege drop
To properly understand StarCraft’s place in computer game history, it is important to understand the state of the affairs in Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games at the time it was released. Around 1998, there were three major franchises for RTS games – WarCraft by Blizzard Entertainment, Command & Conquer by Westwood Studios and Total Annihilation by Cavedog Entertainment.
Purely in terms of game play, Total Annihilation may have been the best game. Its user interface is beautifully streamlined, and the elements from Total Annihilation’s user interface can still be seen in more recent RTS games. It also had the most advanced graphics, with the only true 3-D units among the three. But the advanced graphics may have been a hindrance, as it required a Pentium 133 Mhz and 24 MB RAM in order to run smoothly – a laughable requirement now, but very, VERY high end in 1997. In the end, Total Annihilation became the RTS game equivalent of Magnolia
– critically acclaimed, loved by a small number of fans whose voices were disproportionately loud, but in the end not too many people ended up watching it.
Westwood Studios, with Command & Conquer, beat Blizzard to the online multiplayer game play. But while Command & Conquer series was wildly entertaining, the lead horse of the series – C&C: Red Alert – was simply not up to snuff compared to StarCraft. Even with an entertaining storyline and some creative naval and air units, there simply was not enough room for innovative game play. Particularly egregious was the enormous imbalance caused by Mammoth Tanks on the Soviet side. The imbalance was exposed again and again during online play, rendering the game’s online play nearly worthless for everyone but the most experienced players.
Oh Red Alert
2, why oh why couldn't you balance your units...
In contrast, the wonderfully balanced three races of StarCraft was a revelation at that time. So were its imaginative, multi-stage units and unusual camera angle, which were presaged in Blizzard’s WarCraft series. StarCraft’s storyline was about as good as its competitors, but the voice acting was far superior and convincing.
But the advantage that truly vaulted StarCraft over its competitors was Battle.net
, Blizzard’s ambition online multiplayer platform that came pre-packaged with its games. This is an important distinction, because other online games at the time required an external interface. Battle.net for StarCraft also had other attractive features such as ladder ranking, level-matching, and lack of any fees to join.
These advantages played perfectly into Korea’s gaming trend at the time. 1998 was the time when Korea began to enjoy the fruits of massive investment in the Internet infrastructure – the structure that still gives Korea the fastest Internet in the world. Right on time for online game play, StarCraft proved to be the best game to play online. And truly, that’s what it came down to. StarCraft gained its initial popularity by being the game that responded the best to the new reality of online gaming. The rest is history.