StarCraft might not be South Korea's national pastime, but that doesn't mean sometimes it seems like it is.
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. (But, to put things in prospective, South Korea also has an Xbox 360 cable show!)
However, the popularity of professional go, or baduk in Korean, supersedes pro gaming, points out website 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 writer. "This can range from math to science to Rubik's Cube, and while StarCraft generally is not a 'recommended' pursuit, it falls under a similar obsessive mindset."
A report from website Rock, Paper, Shotgun notes thousands of fans will fill stadiums to see competitive gaming matches. Some diehard fans even start lining up the night before to ensure they get good seats.
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.
StarCraft, the game, is still huge. "StarCraft-related scenes and characters are popping up everywhere throughout Korea," an agent of a South Korea character goods company said in 2001. "The way in which this game has become a part of the Korean culture can only be compared to the way in which the Star Wars Phantom Menace movie became a cultural icon in America." No wonder first revealed StarCraft II in South Korea. While Japan might have Gundam and Pokemon airplanes, South Korea has a StarCraft II jet. Shows where their priorities are!
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 chicken or the 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.
Yet, StarCraft's success in South Korea was not simply good timing. Blizzard did get lucky, but luckily for Korea gamers, the studio offered a compelling title. StarCraft was (and is) fun. A series of events might have set the stage for the game, but the compelling experience the game offers is why generation after generation of Korean gamers continues to enjoy the title. At this point, StarCraft has become something like the Monopoly or Chess of online gaming. It's a classic title that continues to pull in new players.
"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."