StarCraft - It's Not Just a Game

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StarCraft is more than just a game

When I was in elementary school, every single guy in my class was in love with this computer game called StarCraft. I remember rushing to a PC bang every day after school to spend hours and hours playing the game. The parents weren’t so happy, but StarCraft was bigger than any other sport. It felt like a requirement to make friends in school.

Professional gamers like Lim Yo-hwan and Kang Min were my idols. I wanted to play like them, so I even “studied” their strategies to be a better player than my friends. Unfortunately, I don’t think I was considered “a good StarCraft player” in school (I was just about the average). Too many kids were putting serious effort into the game.

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At the 2005 StarCraft League Final in Busan.

If you’ve played games like League of Legends and Overwatch, you’ve probably seen Koreans winning Esports championships. So, instead of talking about the great players like Faker, I’d like to unravel the unprecedented success of StarCraft in Korea.

Korean financial crisis

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During the first half of the 1990s, the South Korean economy was growing at about 5~8% every year. Lots of “experts” were optimistic about the country’s economy in the future.

However, in 1997, the country faced a load of economic problems during the Asian financial crisis — Major companies and banks had to file for bankruptcy and millions of people lost their jobs due to the economic instability.

Wait, why talk about the financial crisis? Because it allowed PC bang to spread all over the country. Those who got kicked out of their companies still had to do something to make ends meet. And lots of them chose to open up a PC bang because it only required an empty space full of computers and chairs. It definitely seemed like a safer investment than owning a restaurant.

In addition, because PC bang charged about 1,000 won (~$1) per hour, playing games at PC bang was one of the cheapest options for entertainment. Despite the devastating consequences, the financial crisis enabled the PC bangs to reach all corners. In just 4 years after the crisis, there were more than 20,000 PC bangs around the country.

StarCraft meets PC bang

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PC bang in the early 1990s.

StarCraft’s rising popularity was the core engine behind the PC bangs’ success. Back then, 9 out of 10 people in PC bangs were playing StarCraft. PC bangs existed for a single game, and StarCraft benefited from this relationship. For StarCraft, there was no need for advertisements or promotions, PC bangs were serving as the game’s unofficial PR agency.

Other reasons

There were several other elements that contributed to StarCraft’s mega-success:

  1. StarCraft’s Battle.net capability could really flourish under the Korean government’s aggressive investment into a high-speed internet network. If you’ve never heard of Battle.net, it basically enabled gamers to play against each other through the Internet. The feature sounds like common sense today, but it revolutionized the gaming culture in Korea. It’s a lot more interesting when you can play with an actual person instead of a bot.

  2. In 1999 after the financial crisis, TV producer Hwang Hyeong-jun chose to host a StarCraft competition on TV for the first time in the world. Hwang says that almost all shows had to stop producing because of the budget cut, but he realized “game broadcasts didn’t require much production fees.” After Hwang’s decision, the StarCraft league in Korea continued for 13 years on channels like On Game Net. For 13 years, game channels were the backbone of StarCraft’s popularity.

  3. A number of players proved that playing for an Esports team is just like playing for a professional soccer team. Especially some players like Lim Yo-hwan became so famous that people said “Even if you’ve never played StarCraft, you know who Lim is.” Because of these star players, there were rivalries, dramas, and stories in the leagues. People still talk about the great rivalry between Lim and Hong Jin-ho.

If you’re curious to know more about Esports in Korea, I highly recommend watching this documentary on YouTube.