The long and winding road to Yong San

In the pre-PC game era in Korea, buying a game as a kid was a challenge. Why? Because 1. There weren’t many local game shops where you live in the first place and even if there was, it was a bit costly than the official price as the shop owner may put a premium on it and 2. You didn’t have a solid income as a kid to afford $50~80 game softwares.

Now there was an alternative solution to this. Go to Yong San electronics district. As I mentioned in the previous post, Yong San is an area in the heart of Seoul and it was famous for it’s huge electronics market place where there were countless shops to begin with and due to market competition, the price was cheaper than buying at a local shop. Game was a big portion of the business, mostly imported Japanese games. On a release date of some famous game (in my case it was Square’s Final Fantasy series), people will naturally gather up in Yong San and line up to get a copy of the game. For an average kid who likes to play games, the usual way to afford the recent game title is to save up all the pocket moneys from relatives they get during the holiday season and then go to Yong San to buy his favorite title as cheap as possible. For a gamer, Yong San was the utopia, the Mecca, the garden of eden, or whatever heavenly description you’d like to put.

The road to heaven is never short and straight — and so did the road to Yong San electronics store. Apparently, all the gamer kids in Seoul did the same thing, i.e., save up money then go shop to Yong San. Playing game was never supported by any Korean parents back then, so the shopping itself would have to be done by the kids themselves so they usually went with their friends. To some kids, going all the way to Yong San meant they had to take the public transportation and leave their comfort zone town for the first time. Yes, like Frodo leaving the Shire to seek the absolute ring in the Lord of the Rings.

But the winding road actually begins once you arrive in Yong San. A primary schooler holding a large sum of money (~$100) for the first time in their life to shop the game they want was an extremely good target for someone who’d like to forcefully take the money away from, like trashy teenagers have the physique and strength to do so. It was such an easy task to them: secretly approach any young kid (who’s probably came to Yong San to shop), take him to somewhere less visible, then threaten him to tear off all he had. If not comply, then give him a gentle blow of two.

This was a terrifying experience for the young innocent Frodo, who came just to shop. Many young victims had lost their annual holiday savings like that, right in front of their eyes, not being able to resist as they had no chance to fight back and win. Where were the police? God knows where, but definitely not near Frodo. Soon, Yong San was filled with these gansta teenagers hunting down young gamers, like the Hyenas in Africa, and the place gradually earned a double reputation — a gamers heaven “guarded” by those demonic teenage motherfuckers.

Us, gamers, had to do something because we just couldn’t give up on playing our favorite games. We had to be creative. My friend whom I always went to Yong San together with, a gamer and Japanese culture fanatic, stopped using his usual wallet. Instead, he covered his cash in a napkin and gently placed it underneath his shoe insole, learning that those demons would check what’s in the pocket, some thorough ones even in the shoes, but would never look further below the shoe insole. This worked beautifully.

Somebody started to use some spy gadgets. We are talking about an ordinary looking wallet that has a hidden room where you can keep the cash that was only accessible through this unusual path. Some got even cleverer — keep most of the cash in the hidden side, but still keep some cash in the normal side just to give away when got caught. The best I’ve seen so far was a belt with a invisible pocket (zippered) in it.

That’s how the young gamers strive to play video games before the PC game era in Korea. The long and winding road.

The time before Starcraft – part 1: Consoles

The release of Starcraft by Blizzard in 1998 may have been the milestone that started off what later became the Korean esports scene. However, it is worthy to mention what it was like the era before Starcraft.

Before then, basically the entire nation was dominated by the Japanese console games. Many kids had one of the following consoles in their household: the good old gray-boxy Nintendo (that you had to slide the software package sideways in to the console); Fami-con with two built-in controllers (that you push in the package from the top); and there was Zemmix, a rhombus-shaped console that was produced by a Korean electronic company (but I’m pretty confident that many of the software must have been a pirate version of what the Japanese game publishers had created). We naturally followed the generation change of these consoles: Super Nintendo (or Super Famicon was the official name in Korea), Mega-drive, Sega Saturn, Play Station, Nintendo 64 and etc. as you know it.

In the heart of Seoul, there was a place called Yong-San (where the US troops are based near by) and this was the mecca for buying video games as there were many game shops accumulated in a whole area. It wasn’t easily affordable for us to buy all those hardware consoles and software packages as a primary schooler — we had to rely on the rare income, the pocket money that we occasionally get during New Years or Thanks Giving season when visiting our grand parents, most of which were often taken away by our mothers under the justification of “for your future sake, son”.

Given this circumstance, piracy was quite common. For instance, many of the local game stores provide a service called “modification 개조” which means that, with a little fee, they will modify your Play Station such that specially produced, extremely cheap pirated softwares would be able to be played on your console. The business was a huge success and soon it was hard to find people playing games by paying the proper fee to the Japanese publishers.

For the record, I never did the modification — only played the official titles. Really.

All star match

Like the Manchester United legends in the UK Premier League all gathered up in Old Trafford time to time for a friendly all star match — David Beckham, Gary Neville, Eric Cantona, and etc. — something similar happened in the esports scene in Korea a couple of years ago.

Blizzard released a remastered version of the old Starcraft, with cool improved graphics in 2017, almost 20 years after it’s first release which is an unprecedented record for an online game, and to promote the new release they had organized an interesting event that was held in Busan. Just like in 2003 when the first Starcraft league final was held in Busan by the Gwang-An-Ri beach that had a whooping 100,000 audience beating the all star baseball league match happened the same date, they threw the same thing in the same place. But now less about competition, but more about enjoying the nostalgia.

Several exhibition matches were set up. The first match was between Kook Ki Bong, who’s the 1st generation pro gamer (who strangely resembles the look of a Zerg) now working at Blizzard Korea, and Guillaume Patry, the handsome Canadian Protoss prince. Now both weren’t in shape to still be called as pro athlete. They were actually pretty bad. Now that there are many online streamers who are really good at it, their movements were semi-professional, at best. But that was fine and that was actually more entertaining. The caster and commentators were making fun of what was happening, in a light hearted yet pleasant way, and the crowd full of laughters. Most of the audience were in their 30s and above, some bringing their own family members to watch and say like “son, papa used to play this game back in the day pretty seriously”.

The second match was between the two legends — the Im Yo Hwan, Roger Federer of Starcraft, vs. Hong Jin Ho, The permanent No. 2. And there were more following matches.

Just imagine, on a summer night in Busan just by the beach, thousands of people in family unit gathered up in front of a large screen watching their once favorite game played by former professional gamers now in all different occupations. Perfect nostalgia.

Funny incidents during the Star league

The pro star league in a nutshell was an event organized and run by human beings. And as with any other events, there were funny incidents, some intentional but mostly unintentional, that made the fans more entertaining to watch.

  • The headphone incident

Casters and commentators are human beings too and we’ve all seen somewhere before a national television news main anchor burst into laughters on live due to some unexpected cue that stabbed the right giggling point of the anchor’s mind. I’d say the caster-commentator battery in the esports league had such incidents more often, being an entertainment industry you know — let’s cut them some slack, yeah? But these had more positive effects than one might think because, I mean, we were watching the match for entertainment anyways, why be so serious about some giggly episode by the them? We enjoyed.

Many of the funny episodes had to do with the language itself, i.e., sudden tongue twisters, unintentional statement that sounded like a slang, and etc. But this one episode was caused by the pro athlete, who got so nervous that day I’m sure, that he mistakenly placed the headphones completely inside-out. The speaker part of the headphone was facing outwards. And the poor guy didn’t even notice that!

This caused the caster and the commentator be in a silent mode on audio, but soon you can see that they are holding their breath not to burst into tears with laughters. As the awkward silence continues, the one relatively “sober” commentator who realizes that this could turn south soon says to the breath-holders “bros, you gotta chill out”. This incident became a legend in Korean esports broadcasting. Please watch it youself.

  • Winning ceremony

Just like a footballer scoring a goal would perform a victory ceremony in front of their fans in the field, some Starcraft athlete did the same. Now it’s worth to mention that the common ceremony practice after winning a match would either be a post-home run baseball ceremony style, i.e., gently high-fiving his team mates as he goes back to his seat, or no ceremony at all.

But some players, such as Lee Sung Eun, with a true entertainment mind would intentionally perform a ceremony right in front of his just defeated opponent. Probably not the best day for the defeated, but for the fans, it was certainly more entertaining to watch.

Commuter for esports players?

A Korean book by Mr. Cho Hyeong Geun on esports brought up some interesting point. What if professional esports players, who basically spend most of their time (24/7) in the so-called training houses operated by the team that they belong too (just like a Sumo wrestler would do) without much private life aside from the daily training routine, would be able to train in a rather “normal” workplace environment, i.e., just like a regular employee at a company would work 9-5, 5 days a week, with the freedom of time after work and weekends all given to the hands of the employee. Why not applying the same social system for esports athletes so that they will have the notion of work-life balance and a little privacy outside of the training?

I found this idea interesting and reminded me of an interview that I saw sometime ago by a Korean professional basketball player who used to play for the Korean Basketball League (KBL), then moved on to the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the US. The punchline of his interview was that he was shocked when he first joined the team training in NBA because the environment and the perception were so different from the one he had experienced in the KBL. If KBL was close to a Sumo wrestler environment, NBA was like a commute: Nobody lives in the training camp; the players gather up at an arranged training time all from, god know where, their private lives; after the training they disappear, back to their private world. I guess the point is, as an NBA athlete you have some time committed to the team in order to maintain or improve the performance that the team expects you from, but outside of that committed time, the rest is your own, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your own performance and the team policy.

Now that some countries have more than a decade of esports team operation experience, and some team has the big fat cash support by a solid sponsor, why can’t we do something similar? If this is too unrealistic for some reason, at least try something comparable to what the pro sports athlete world is doing.

[E5] Throwing an esports tournament event at work

So I work as a business management consultant based in Tokyo, and since we launched our esports advisory, where we basically tell our clients “be more serious about the emerging esports market for new business opportunities”, I got curious about how serious is my organization about esports. I mean, beside the fact that we have launched a service despite being one of the Big 4 auditing firms that have nothing to do with competitive gaming, how much does my organization actually be able to embrace the notion of gaming at a formal work environment at the heart of the financial district in Tokyo? I had to figure this out.

So first we made an esports club. Over 30 people signed up with ease. Then among the club members, we had sent a group of best gamers to participate in an external “professional” esports tournament events that held in Tokyo. Now all of them got brutally defeated, not even a slight chance, but learned how the wall of gaming professional stands high enough from a layperson standpoint.

Then we moved on to organize our own esports tournament event at work. The first one was held on April, the good old Street Fighter 2 tournament. The title itself was released by Capcom at the end of the 80s, I believe, and we intentionally chose this title because we were pretty sure even some of our senior executives must have had the experience when they were young back in the days.

It took about a month to organize, not that we worked on it full-time but needed some thoughts and decision making to throw it properly. I mean, being the very first esports event in my organization history, we had to give our best shot. We were lucky with the venue as there is a cafe space in the office that came with a projector and speakers (Bose!) already installed. We ordered PlayStation 4 and the title over Amazon and had them delivered to our office — It felt pretty good having those games shipped over at an environment packed with hundreds of serious working consultants. We made tournament rules and prepared prizes. Handing out cash would probably cause some ripple, so we decided to give out goods and luckily Uniqlo was selling Street Fighter themed T-shirts at the moment (what a timing..).

We decided to hold the event over two separate days, one qualifier and one final for the top 16. We even made posters, a tribute to the original Street Fighter 2 graphics but with employees’ faces cropped in instead. An all employee email was sent out notifying the first esports tournament match and asking for contenders to join. We had enough applicants to hold the event on two separate days. My favorite episode was the mail from one of our firm’s partners (the highest rank position in consulting industry), saying that he used to play a lot of Street Fighter when he was in highschool and if schedule permits he would like to contend. Then he showed up at the qualifier, choosing Zangief, a character that you don’t see very often being played, then beating the crap out of his opponent of the day (some poor consultant..). Yes, we were vindicated with our hypothesis.

We prepared some catering and some booze (at work!) for the proper festivity. I think around 50 people showed up at the actual qualifier day, more than half of them just to watch the match. At the very beginning of the event, we had an exhibition match between the head of marketing, who never played this game before, versus a college graduate newby, who just joined the firm a few weeks ago and also never played the game. The newby had beaten the crap out of the marketing head, and this is exactly how we wanted to be (sorry Takahashi-san). The champion of the event was a senior consultant that I never had spoken with before, but brought his own Street Figher controller (core fans actually have their own controller that resembles the one in the arcade, obviously). The next day we announced the top 3 players of the tournament with their profile photos and belonged team information.

A few days later, the event was posted at our company’s official Instagram.

A few month later, we did our 2nd tournament with PuyoPuyo. We plan to throw these tournaments every quarter but with different titles.

Now I think it’s safe to state that my firm is embracing the notion of esports internally.

Roy’s book concert

After years of research and writing, Roy Tomizawa (i.e., I shall call him my book writing mentor) recently published his own book titled “1964 the greatest year in the history of Japan”, a comprehensive story about the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and the people involved. It’s a reminiscence of Japan after the World War era and a gentle reminder of where Japan has come from, after 56 years hosting another Olympics next year.

Celebrating the book release, he threw a book concert at a cozy restaurant in Daikanyama and kindly shared the invitation. I arrived there about half an hour after it started, and boy the place was already packed with easily over fifty people I’d say. As I enter the venue, I was greeted by the staff in the entrance. Shortly after they check my name in the list, I was given with two 1964 books that I ordered along with the book concert ticket over at Peatix, an event app that was fairly easy to use. Three free drinks included.

Now at the event there were many nuggets that I can surely reflect upon and try to learn for my own book concert in the future (you never know..). Here are some highlights.

  • The program: It wasn’t just a party. There was a well-crafted program prepared that went along well with the book theme. The interior of the restaurant was decorated with 1964 Tokyo Olympic posters. Roy had a brief presentation, or more close to a story telling, about what the era really was like back then.
  • Live music: The icing of the cake. Music is always an important part of the era. As Roy’s story progresses, the old numbers that were popular during that era, such as the well-known “Sukiyaki”, were played by this vocalist-guitarist duo band. Everybody sang along with them.
  • Key figures: The venue wasn’t only about the readers. The place was also delighted by the presence of the former Olympic athletes, such as the actual Japanese gymnasts in 1964, a legendary figure who won many medals and who was also a part of the book’s story. I had a chance to casually talk to him about esports, and man he already knew a lot about it.
  • Surprise birthday ceremony: so it turns out that day was also Roy’s birthday and some of his friends prepared a birthday cake, an exact replica of his own book design — just that it was perhaps 10 times bigger!
  • Networking: and of course, it was a great place to network with new people. Not yet being part of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ), I didn’t know anybody in the room other than Roy, but not long after I made some new connections, exchanging business cards and such.

Too bad I only took a few photos that night, but enough to get the feel.

Always thanks for the inspiration, Roy!

[P4] Star players — Life after esports

Now let’s go back to the Korean star players and see where they ended up going after their life as a professional esports athlete.

Lim Yo Hwan (need a spell check), the Roger Federer of esports, after his stardom in the esports scene, he naturally became a TV celebrity. You could find him easily on television on some entertainment show sharing his experience as the legendary player. Soon, he got married to a quite famous Korean actress Kim Ka Yeon. Yes, this son of a b*tch got a real actress wife. Can’t you imagine? No I’m not writing out of jealousy. Later on he switched his career to a professional poker player, earning a few titles and perhaps more prize money than what he got as an esports player.

Hong Jin Ho, the permanent Mr No. 2, went on TV celebrity route as well. But this time he was more successful as an entertainer than Mr. Lim. His appearance at a TV show called “The Genius”, a sort of an IQ test prison-break show where participants gradually be eliminated one by one, really impressed many people with his intelligence and quick decision making ability. I think he eventually won the program. He appeared in other TV shows on a regular basis, now more known to the public as a funny guy who used to play games very seriously. Along the way, he had scandals with beautiful singers such as Lady Jane. He’s still pretty active in the entertainment scene.

Guillaume Patry, the French-Canadian pretty boy who created many of the now standard Protoss build orders, has went on a similar route as the former two. Compared to his athlete days he picked up his Korean speaking very quickly and became very fluent. One day he became one of the main cast of a TV program called Non-Summit (비정상회담) where they gathered up diverse foreign nationals residing in Korea and discuss about some topics but in foreigner’s perspective, then he got more famous. An interview revealed that along his journey in Korea, it wasn’t always bright and nice — he got tricked by his manager, losing most of his savings and etc. The latest news that I heard was that he recently returned back to his home town in Canada, putting quits to all his entertainment activity at once.

Bertrand, the pair of sunglasses wearing poker face French player, is perhaps the most successful one in terms of wealth. After the Starcraft league, he switched his career to a professional poker player. His battle ground became from Seoul to Las Vegas. With his intelligence and game-savviness, he soon reached the top of the American poker scene, which means that his total prize money went up a couple of digits compared to the computer gaming days. Apparently, he has a global stardom in the poker scene now. I bet he would reminisce the Starcraft years as some juvenile experience as we do the same when we think back of our elementary school days. Yes, he still wears his pair of shades — Lots of respect from me for continuing that.

Lee Young Ho, the Terran god, and Kim Jae Dong, the Zerg tyrant, are both running their own online streaming channel with hundreds of thousands of viewership.

Seo Ji Soo, the beautiful but skillful female professional player, had turned into a CEO of an online apparel company. She also runs her own Youtube channel where she still plays good Starcraft and talks about all the background episodes during her professional days. I believe she is also married now and still beautiful.

Kim Ga Eul, another female professional who might not have reached the stardom as Mrs. Seo back then, became the director the top esports team Samsung Khan. And her team won several championships.

We have other former athletes who became team director, such as Choi Yeon Seung and Kim Dong Soo. Some went back to a relatively normal life, Seo Ji Hoon entering as a gaming company employee for example. And we have those who became a commentator as well.

On game shutdown regulation

Let’s talk about esports legislation a little.

While Japan has its own legislation problems, the so called esports developed country South Korea has its own too. Since 2011, the game shutdown regulation, i.e., those who are below 16 years old are banned from accessing online games from 12am-6am, has been started in South Korea. This is possible because many online games in Korea require users to put their DOB information. A violation of the regulation may result in no more than 2 years of imprisonment or no more than 10 million KRW (about 10k USD) to the game publisher/provider.

This regulation caused many ripples to the esports community because

  1. Many esports professional wanna-be’s start very young, considering that the age 25 is considered old school and seriously think about their retirement plan, and by the nature of game, many heavy users are naturally nocturnals. The regulation directly interferes with the talent management perspective of the esports industry.
  2. One can easily fool the regulation by entering their parents’ DOB information at no cost.
  3. But the responsibility is on the game publisher

To simply put, the community was mad about the fact that this new law was created by politicians who don’t understand a thing about the industry and the community at all.

Apparently Thailand has done a similar rule in 2003, but they abandoned it after 2 years of trial because of similar reason like No 2. China had a similar experience.

It’s been 8 years and has it been successful? Honestly I don’t know. This may be a good topic for an interview.

I still watch esports channels, but..

20 years since the days that I avidly played Starcraft as a junior high schooler, I no longer play any games on a daily basis. But I still watch esports matches on a daily basis. Not the recent esports, but the good old Starcraft 1 Leagues. Over Youtube. Most of the matches that I watch happened like a decade ago, but they are still very entertaining to watch. Obviously, I’m not the only watching these in the universe — some matches are still viewed with millions of viewership. And you can tell that the ones that still remain on Youtube are the good, selected matches out of perhaps thousands that happened back in the days.

I found it weird that despite I might have watched most of these matches several times before, but they are still bloody entertaining! Why is that? It’s not like I watch the same episode over and over. But I may have stumbled upon the same episode sometime and still the magic works. I wonder, do many sports fan still watch the old games as a daily entertainment? Do EPL fans watch the good ole Arsenal days when Berkamp and Henry were invincible and the team was just never losing? I’m sure they must be available over some streaming channel in this digital age. Perhaps I need to interview some fans in the sports world to figure this out.

The other day I met a well-known Chinese game publisher as a client, and one of the guys who came visit us were also from the same Starcraft 1 era. In his word, he described the era as the “esports utopia” and there has been nothing like that since. I was very happy to hear that as I wasn’t the only one reminiscing back the old days and on top of the fact the guy was Chinese so the era wasn’t only about Korean nationalities, I felt somewhat vindicated too.