Over 10,000 rapturous fans roared with approval as Kim Jung Woo shrugged his way up the podium for the crowning moment of his young career. Kim -- a pale, delicately spoken 19-year old -- had just overcome a 2-0 deficit to beat the world's consensus top-ranked player (former child prodigy Lee Young-Ho) in an upset for the ages. The prize? A check cosigned by event-sponsor Korean Airlines for a hefty 40-million Korean won, along with the hard-earned respect of nearly an entire nation. The contest? StarCraft, the alien warfare strategy game played by millions across the world, and the national pastime of South Korea.
For EffOrt (as Kim is better known), this was as good as it gets: he had just become the 2010 winner of South Korea's OGN StarLeague, one of the biggest and most prestigious StarCraft tournaments in the entire world.
When Blizzard Entertainment releases StarCraft II later this month, it will be fulfilling a promise to its fans nine years in the making. Back in 1998, when the original title was released, no one in their right mind could have predicted that a science fiction based, real-time strategy game with a ridiculously steep learning curve would go on to become one of the most widely played PC games of all time. With 11 million copies shipped worldwide, it ranks 4th all time behind only The Sims franchise (with a staggering 29 million copies shipped of the original and its sequel), and Blizzard's other golden child, World of Warcraft (with 11.5 million copies shipped worldwide). Korea alone accounts for 4.5 million of those StarCraft copies, or roughly 40% of the world's shipments.
But let's forget for a second about how handsome Blizzard's coming payday is going to be (Activision-Blizzard reeled in just over $2.5 billion in net revenue in 2008), for StarCraft's lasting impact can best be found in the way it single-handedly revolutionized the culture of professional gaming.
Aside from tae kwon do, many consider StarCraft to be "the national sport of Korea," now with less tongue-in-cheek than ever before. Players control one of three distinct races with their own styles of play: the Zerg, a fast, ravenous hive of insect-like creatures; the Protoss, a deliberate, highly-advanced race of psyonic humanoids; and the Terran, a resourceful band of human exiles. The game is hailed by gaming journalists as one of the most innovative of all time thanks to its well-distributed balance of power, which -- unlike most online games -- shifts the spotlight away from a game's inherent incongruities, allowing the player's skill to shine through.
Professional gamers in Korea can train for up to 12 hours a day in hopes of reaching an elite standing held by a hardworking few. A handful of fortunate players earn upwards of $100,000 annually from their sponsors, composed of titans across several different industries, including mobile provider Samsung, Shinhan bank, and even the Air Force.
Superstar players -- much like American athletes -- are positioned to earn significantly more than their contemporaries. In 2007, Terran player Lee Yun-Yeol (better known by his handle, NaDa) signed a three-year contract with sponsor WeMade FOX for a groundbreaking $690,000, and doesn't even factor in potential tournament winnings.
Events themselves spare little in terms of production. OSL, for instance, took place inside of a specially fitted airline hanger, and saw a capacity crowd of more than 10,000 fans. They were expecting an absolute maximum of 8,000.
StarCraft II is set to build upon the ground set by its predecessor and raise the play -- as well as the demand -- to another level. A beta version was opened for testing on February 27, 2010, with product keys selling on eBay for up to $400. StarCraft II is 3x faster than its former, cutting 45 minutes of match time down to 15. Coupled with new units and new terrain, infinite new strategies are now at a player's disposal. The game is certain to be one of the biggest of all time.
But think carefully if you're considering giving up your day job to become a professional StarCraft player. World #1 Lee Young-Ho (better known as Flash), provided a glimpse into the life of a professional gamer when he had this to say in Shin-dong-a magazine earlier this year:
We need to give up a lot. We need to give up everything that belongs to ourselves... I gave up everything before coming here. I haven't even thought about getting a girlfriend. I don't even see my friends often, only occasionally during holidays. Every day is practice.
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