Zergling Rush: A Look at the Assailing South Korean Gaming Industry

On the fringes of the Milky Way, a war is raging in the Korpulu Sector between three embattled races: the Terrans, the Protoss, and the Zerg. Most people remain oblivious of its existence, but for those who are aware, they often become drawn into this struggle for galactic hegemony fought between dominant powers and competing factions. In Blizzard Entertainment’s upcoming expansion to their hit videogame Starcraft II (SC2): Wings of Liberty, Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm continues to pit players against each other in a real-time strategy (RTS) format. Through taking on the persona of one of the three playable alien races, gamers amass race-specific structures and units in an effort to destroy opposing players’ armies and bases.The RTS genre of videogames usually focuses on two elements of game-play: macro and micro-management. Macro-management involves collecting resources and building infrastructure to gain access to higher tiers of units and technology upgrades. Conversely, micro-management refers to the control of individual units and their respective abilities each of whom has the potential affect the outcome of the match – if micro-managed effectively. With millions of players around the world honing their ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ skills, SC2 is now a global phenomenon. This is no more true than in South Korea, where internet penetration is high and Koreans have come to dominate ‘professional’ gaming tournaments that are held around the world.

The names Taeja, MarineKing, DongRaeGu, Mvp, and MC may not be recognizable for the uninitiated, but for those who live-and-breathe SC2, these are some of the most well-known player IDs of Korean all-stars in the electronic-sports or ‘e-sports’ community. It may seem like an oxymoron to label something ‘professional gaming’ but the reality is that video games are no longer purely recreational. Many Korean players are scouted early on to join professional teams, where they learn to perfect their micro and macro talents against world-class gamers. Korean players in particular, are known for their high actions-per-minute (APMs), which generally translates into better micro-management abilities. The payoff for these training regiments comes during competitions in professional tournaments, where purses can range between the thousands to the tens of thousands for first place finishes. Winning these tournaments not only expands a player’s wallet size, but brings them and their team recognition and prestige within the SC2 community.

Although this spectacle seems like it would be regulated to a discrete sub-culture of individuals, SC2 in South Korea is so popular that it actually has its own dedicated television provider - GomTV. With millions of viewers, Starcraft is serious business in South Korea. So serious in fact, that its players often make the news for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, due to rigorous training regiments, players sometimes subject themselves to harsh conditions in order to maintain their edge. In the past, this has led to the deaths of a few players as a result of over-exhaustion, malnutrition, or a combination of both. Instances of such tragic incidents, however, have more recently been mitigated by the provision of better support structures by teams for their players. This has allowed the profession to continue to thrive.

Starcraft 2 is serious business in South Korea. Photocredit: ©iStockphoto.com/Borealisgallery

Game tournaments are not the only thing booming in South Korea – videogame production is also becoming an increasingly lucrative industry. Games like The Exiled Realm of Arborea (TERA), Sudden Attack, Maple Story, and Blade & Soul have expanded beyond the domestic Korean market and now attract a global player base. What many of these games have in common is their use of the free-to-play model, which essentially allows users to play game content at no cost. Even though the model was pioneered early on, it has since been perfected by game companies in South Korea. Most free-to-play games make their money through in-game micro-transactions, often capitalizing on players desires to improve the appearance of their online avatars. According to a 2012 report by the Korea Creative Contents Agency, the Korean gaming industry raked in sales of around US$7.94 billion in 2011, compared to the music and motion picture industry, which brought in approximately US$3.34 and US$2.99 billion, respectively. This figure provides a real indication of how Korean games have emerged as legitimate alternatives for international consumers compared to games produced by Western and Japanese companies that have traditionally dominated the market (for a look at the Canadian gaming industry, see this previous NCA blog post).

Recognizing this success, the South Korean government has become increasingly supportive of its gaming industry. This is illustrated by the recently government-funded “Digital Media City” centre in Seoul, which once finished, will act as a state-of-the-art digital media entertainment complex (complete with an e-sports stadium). On the other hand, the government is also wary of the negative implications of prolonged gaming behavior. As a result, it has also implemented policies to discourage gaming addiction, by preventing minors from playing online games at late/early hours (from 10pm – 8am).

While it may be difficult to convince skeptics about the relevance that the gaming industry has to society beyond recreational use, its cultural and economic significance has already made its mark in places like South Korea. For those of you who still doubt the depths of its influence, simply type “zergling rush” in your google search bar and then enjoy a rudimentary experience of what Starcraft professionals deal with on a daily basis. Good hunting.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.

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