What South Korea was going through when esports was about to take off

September 2nd, 1997 was a day that must have changed many Korean households’ economic landscapes as millions of people were being laid off and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had decided to take part in to the Korean economy. Many laid off fathers were desperately looking for jobs or business opportunities so that their household could stabilize financially. They may have had a chunk cash as a severance pay from their former employer, for those who were lucky, and this must have been the last bullet in their gun for that opportunity.

Some spent that severance fund to start off a restaurant business. Fried chicken restaurants were one of the most popular ones — a survey says that there are more fried chicken restaurants in South Korea than the number of McDonald’s in the world. Some started a cab business — the sheer number cabs in the present day indicates how many took part in that era.

But some fathers who didn’t want to play safe, who had the entrepreneur mindset as well as had the guts to try something new, started off a net PC cafe. Now not the sort that you do a quick search or business or some administrative work, but the sort for serious gamers. Some quickly notice that online PC gaming is booming among the young generation in South Korea, but not every one had a networked PC at home back then, thus the need naturally arose in the market. It was a new form of business, and we called them PC bangs.

And lo-and-behold, it was half a year later the IMF, the last day of March 1998, when Blizzard released another real-time strategy game with a military science fiction theme happening in space, titled Starcraft. This was a sensational success in South Korea.

Many of us may not have had the financial security that we wanted during that era, but all we had was lots of spare time to kill. With PC bangs and Starcraft, suddenly there were places (that also came with reasonable pricing) to kill this spare time. And who knew that these became the foundation for the Korean esports Renaissance era that came in the 2000s?

(Note: I’d love to put some かっこいい old western proverb here, but can’t think of anything right now. Like crisis brings new opportunity or that sort.. In Latin would be fantastic.)

#Adding a side note: approaching from an economist-like point of view, the cost for playing games with gaming consoles were relatively high as one needs to buy both a console hardware and a software separately, whereas that for playing computer games was cheap as 1. Many people already had a networked PC at home as an home appliance so virtually no hardware cost, 2. (at least in Korea) many game softwares for PC were pirated making them virtually free. It may be reasonable to hypothesize that during the financial crisis when most of the household income were reduced significantly, there was a market need for a cheaper entertainment as well as a business opportunity for entertainment seekers who don’t own a PC at home.

Brunch talk

Reflecting on the great conversation I had with Roy Tomizawa yesterday over brunch, here are some guidelines that I shall follow from now on.

  • Write one article per day, no matter how short (as short as 3 sentences, punchline only)
    • Don’t get discouraged by the “completeness” of the article — at this stage, it’s only an exercise
    • The long list of draft posts I have in the back would never shorten unless I keep on writing
  • Start approach people and interview them
    • Who’s the top 5 people that I’d like to interview?
  • Keep reading

    • Whatever is related to esports, just devour it

    More rabbit holes, no worries about the structure yet

    What’s the main course of this book? Personal anecdotes or facts & opinions?

Oh boy, what have I gotten into…

[P3c] The star commentators – part 1

If there were star esports casters, there were also star esports commentators.

The star commentators start with a duo. Um Ki Young and Kim “Carry” Tae Hyung were the first official commentators in the Korean professional esports scene.

Um Ki Young is the eldest commentator as well as the eldest person in the Korean esports scene. Before becoming a commentator he used to be a cartoonist (a cartoon story writer, to be precise). Becoming a esports commentator was completely by chance through his alumni connection — the producer who single-handedly created the one and only esports cable channel “OnGameNet” was the same alumni and when Mr. Um visited the broadcasting channel (previously “tooniverse”) for completely different cartoon-related matter, they had a chat about this new game channel and as Mr. Um was very good at commenting, he got the offer at the spot. And indeed, he was good at it. In my memory Mr. Um had a calm tone of speaking, more suitable for a pleasant bedtime lullaby, but like other commentators he gets pretty agitated soon as the match progresses, and using his story-telling talent as a cartoonist he was very good at telling a narrative during the match that no other commentators would be able to. Many of the star players have nicknames that were given by Mr. Um and the fans now call them by their nicknames rather than their real name or digital name. With his words, what would have been a regular match between two speechless game fanatic boys turned into a hand-gripping gaming story build ups by unforgettable characters that have so much background stories to share and the reason why they need to win. With his words, Mr. Um truly opened up the esports era — The era for the “viewers” who found watching PC games entertaining, sharing shoulders with watching spectacular sports match.

Recent years, he had some health issue so I believe he is no longer active, but many of us still remembers (and still watches via Youtube) his commentator days.

Almost every match (at least in the early days) where Mr. Um is, on the other side of the seat there always was Mr. Kim “Carry” Tae Hyung, another legendary commentator. Before joining the esports scene, Mr. Kim was a licensed golf instructor. Due to the IMF financial crisis that shook the South Korean economy in 1997, he had to find a new job and ended up working at a PC bang where he picked up on Starcraft. Soon he became an avid player, winning many online battles, quickly reaching the top in the online world. Of course, he also joined as a commentator completely by chance and since then he continued, paving new roads to an unprecedented career path called esports commentator.

Overall, his style of speech is on the calm and quite side. He would comment only when it is necessary and say harsh, but realistic, words when he needs to. He would be the cold guy among the three caster-commentator group on air, maintaining Poker face most of the time while Mr. Um and the caster would not mind openly laughing their arse off about some matter at hand. There is this one moment, however, that even the Mr. Poker face cannot maintain his straight face and it is when his beloved Protoss athlete (I’m sure he has a Protoss fever) decided to produce the most expensive battle unit “Carrier”, an airborne battleship that deploys a swarm of little ships to attack — it looks very cool. Now just to give you a little bit of context, this did not happen very often as Carriers being a costly unit it involves quite of a risk to the athlete. But when it happens, he couldn’t help himself breaking his usual Poker face, then yelling out loud “Carrier has arrived!!”, thus there goes his nickname Kim Carry.

Mr. Kim had an interesting career, to put it mildly, after his involvement with Star league for many years. I will write more about the 2010 fixed game scandal and Mr. Kim’s career later as they are worth mentioning.

These two were the first legends, but of course there were more. Lee Seung Won, probably the most accurate commentator of all time; Former pro athletes turned commentators : Kim Jung Min, Lim Sung Chun, Kim Dong Jun, were the notable ones in my memory and hopefully I can get back to them later.

[P3b] The star casters

I can still think of three casters and four commentators that still remain in a secure place deep in my memory and let me start with the casters.

Jung Il Hoon is probably the first esports caster in the Korean esports scene. His appearance is closer to a breaking news main anchor-kind. He has this scholarly look with a pair glasses on and that church fatherly air with a bit of a smiley face. When he first appeared as a caster, it felt like ‘why is my dad commenting on a game that he probably doesn’t understand much?’ — you know what I mean? He had that adulthood look that didn’t seem to quite fit in the gaming culture but at the same time had that stability, not only on his tone and delivery of his own comments but for the viewers to feel that it’s ok to watch competitive gaming for hours because of his presence.

Jeon Yong Jun has the longest career in the Korean esports scene as he was one of the main casters during the Starcraft league era, and now that is gone, he has continued as the League of Legend main anchorman. Easily over a decade in the scene I would say. And why he could do that? Cause he was popular. He was certainly a different type of caster compared to Mr. Jung — More emotional and relatable to the general public. While he was an official caster, but his laid-back joke-cracking character and the signature agitated yell at climax scenes were certainly entertaining and relatable to us like a big brother kind of figure that everyone has in their household. Skills and craftsmanship aside, his down-to-Earth, unpretencious personality must be the key to his everlasting career.

There were female casters too, most notably Jung Sorim. I am not quite sure if she is still very active in the caster scene at the moment, but she has recently started a online streaming channel of her own I heard. She is a so-called Bi-majo (Pretty witch in Japanese), meaning that her beautiful looks precedes her actual age (late 40s~early 50ish?).

Tokyo Game Show 2019 — Business day

  • The largest gaming event that I ever been so far. Very entertaining.
  • Mostly domestic game publishers, oversea major publishers weren’t there.
  • Other than game publishers, hardware makers like Samsung SSD, HP, NTT Docomo and more.
  • Countless esports events like exhibition matches by some esports star player or pro team.
  • Country booth by Germany and Korea.
  • JeSU booth, Many many costume play.

Why should a senior reader care about esports?

This was a question pointed out by a very good old friend of my parents (and myself) recently.

“I’m curious about why you are targeting 40+ folks, middle aged people who, like me, are probably consumed by their careers and may not have a high interest in esports. Do you hope to attract them to esports or just to explain it to them?”

Indeed.

My single goal for this activity is to popularize esports to the unexpeirenced generation or the unexperienced region. And why? Because I think many older generations in various countries regardless of the continent still hold that negative connotation towards their children or grandchildren playing games somewhere deep in their mind. In many countries, it’s still a “guilty pleasure” in that more than half of the entire population may actually play games during their commute to work or during their most private time in a toilet, but won’t accept the fact that competitive gaming can be a full-time occupation (sometimes earning way better than an ordinary salaryman). Would the senior generation ever get to play any games at some point in their lives? Probably not. I think they deserve to experience what it is, but perhaps through a different channel. A medium that they are very familiar with: a book.

By reading a well-crafted book, I want them to experience what we had experienced through playing games, but indirectly and only the interesting stories. Yes, I guess I want them to be attracted to esports, but not necessarily need to play the game themselves, but rather “know” what it is and understand what the fuss is all about. I don’t want to explain it just for the sake of explaining.

Now depending on the target reader, the corresponding narrative of the manuscript should be reflected accordingly.

  1. If my target reader is wrong, I would need to change the voice and the contents that would fit the best.
  2. If the target reader is solid, I would need to justify why those people need to read this story.
  3. And if they read, what good does it bring to the society (perhaps) or to the esports community.

Regarding 3, very roughly speaking, I think popularizing esports means that there will be more capital flowing in to the esports ecosystem, macroscopically. It has been very clear that, regardless of the types of companies, there are always folks who have a great interest or even a strong passion in esports either as a new business opportunity for the employer that they belong to or a new marketing channel for the product they sell. But unfortunately, too many times when the idea escalates up through the corporate ladder, the decision maker (who’s usually a senior person) almost always turns the proposal down, either because he is seriously blinded by the negative connotation of gaming from the get-go or because simply just not being able to grasp what esports is out of indifference. (E.g., ‘Gaming business in a power plant company? Are you nuts??’). I’d like to change this.

Another comment from my friend was the following.

“…I can get the gist of what you are saying, but the lingo/jargon takes some adjusting. I can say that you convey your enthusiasm for the subject clearly.

Very good point. I would need to work on the language a bit more.

Gotta keep writing!

[E2] The esports final championship event that changed everything

So it was back in 2004, two years after the Korea-Japan World Cup. The Starcraft pro league was called the “Sky league” as the main sponsor/organizer of the league was a mobile phone brand called SKY. For some reason the organizer has decided to make a bold move — to throw the final championship outdoor, near by a beach. What’s even bolder is that, despite the fact that all esports activities were happening mainly in Seoul, the organizer has decided to venture out to other venues outside of Seoul. It ended being held in Busan, the 2nd largest city in the south side of South Korea. You could say that Busan is the farthest city from Seoul that you can get to by land transportation, about 5 hours car ride. The beach that was held at is called Gwang-An-Ri beach, one of the famous beaches in Busan.

Let me tell you a bit more about the setup of that day. So the very same day, the all-star pro baseball match was also scheduled to be held in Busan and in Korea baseball is by far the No. 1 popular spectator sports followed by soccer — OK, since it was right after the World Cup, the order could have been the other way around, but I know that it is now. Obviously, the organizer of the Sky league has chosen a wrong date. Pure bad luck, perhaps.

The expected audience for Sky league was a humble 15,000 because the Sajik Stadium, the baseball Mecca where the all-star match was going to be held will surely be packed with max cap 30,000 people.

But it turned out that the all-star match was only filled with half of the max capacity, 15,000 seats that day. This was unprecedented.

On the other hand, the Sky league final championship was packed with a whooping 100,000 people in Gwang-An-Ri beach that nobody really expected to happen. 100,000 people for a first-time esports event for christ sake!! Many of the audience came from non-Busan area, some coming all the way from Seoul.

This “happening” sort of changed everything onwards. Big companies like Samsung and KT took this seriously and found the potential so that they open up their wallet with a fat cash to sponsor pro esports teams, whom are up to this date very active in the scene.

Knives out (荒野行動) championship event

Kudos to NetEase gaming, I had the privilege to visit Knives out championship event that was held near Waseda on August 12th. Never played Knives out before, I wasn’t sure if I would understand the rules, but fortunately it was a first person shooter with the similar feel of PUBG.

The venue was packed. The championship setup was something that a Japanese would feel natural to — Kantou vs. Kansai (perhaps Kansai-jin would feel more passionate about the setup). 9 teams each from Kantou and Kansai played on stage and the last person survive is the winner — the classic Battle Royale setup that was created by a Japanese hit film some years ago that is hitting the first person shooter gaming scene.

The most remarkable feature of the day was that almost half of the audience is were female..!! This is quite different from the other popular gaming tournament scene in Japan such as Street fighters or Winning Eleven where most of people come to watch is male. Female audience is a very good sign for the Japanese esports scene. They are more committed to the game contents than male players, and have the potential to be the core fan layer of the pro athlete. Most importantly, they are the ones who actually open their wallets, making the market pie bigger…

We may be watching the beginning of some new cultural movement. God speed.

[P2a] Star players – part 2

Continuing from part 1.

Lee Yun Yeol was probably one of the youngest players in the league when he debuted as a pro — I’m pretty sure he was a junior high schooler. Despite his terrifyingly young look, his playing style was more like a veteran who knows how to maximize the unit productivity in a short period of time. We were always shocked with how many units that he produced, and watching a platoon of siege tanks moving towards the opponent base (knowing that in a few seconds something terrifying will happen to his opponent) was fun to watch, sometimes even giving the chill. To me, he is a tank boy. But when you see him being interviewed, he is such a humble being. He won a couple of championship throughout his career.

You might think that the league was completely domestic, but we had some legal aliens that had reached the same stardom as the other Korean star players as well. Like Guillaume Patry who was a French Canadian, a Protoss user whom eventually won the championship in one of the leagues. It is said that he invented many of the early tactics that became the standard for later Protoss users. He was a good looking fella too.

Bertrand Grospellier was a French terrain player and this guy had style. He always (literally always, period) showed up with a pair of shade — I don’t think anybody saw his naked eyes. If I remember correctly, sometimes he had a stick of matches in his mouth like in a wild wild west movie back in the days.. but I may be wrong. He never won a championship, but he was a solid top 4 player. What is surprising with Bertrand is that he was not only Starcraft professionally, but also played Warcraft 3 sometimes reaching the league’s grand finals. Not consecutively, but simultaneously. It’s like being a pro basketball and a pro soccer athlete at the same time. He must have some kind of dual-core processor in his brain. What’s more to it is the career afterwards, which I will save it for later.

Let me fast forward a little bit and move on to the next era where the league was dominated by these following four players: Kim Taek Yong, Song Byung Koo, Lee Young Ho, Lee Jae Dong. The Korean used to call it, the “Take Bang Lee Ssang (택뱅리쌍)” era.

Kim Taek Yong is a multi-tasking technicians.

Song Byung Koo is a maestro. Like Zidane or Pirlo.

Lee Young Ho is a well-balanced all-round player, like Christiano Ronaldo.

Lee Jae Dong is a tyrant. Defensive play is not in his dictionary. He’s like Shevchenko in his best days.

One of the epic games: https://youtu.be/LloxjP8QD_k

Why do esports players play inside the booth

I’ve been reading this esports book by Hyung-Geun Cho who used to be a professional Starcraft athlete back in the days but now working as a designer at Hyundai Motors R&D. Yes, it was a pleasant surprise that we used to work for the same employer, perhaps even at the same R&D site. Anyways, several insights that I’d like to take away from reading his book and one of them is on esports athlete playing in the so called “booth”.

Perhaps some games have different rules, but for Starcraft league it was necessary for the athletes to play a sound-proof booth, similar to the ones that some musicians have a “practice room” in their little apartment, like my buddy Dylan Park.

Now why? OK, first the reason why I liked reading this book is that because the other used to be a professional player, he has the pro player point of view and narratives that I would have never known as I’d never had the chance to reach that level of expertise nor I ever that interest. So it turns out that in the very beginning of the league, when rules and regulations were still a bit grey and up in the air, there was no such thing as booth and athletes used to share the same space as the audience, just like a normal sports scene would be like. The players may have their headset on during the game but the sound-proof is weak as you know. Live esports event can get pretty noisy, part because there are caster and commentators constantly speaking and the audience watching the game live, sometime screaming and rooting for their supporting team.

Now when the audience watches an important scene, i.e., a critical tactic that could lead to a huge advantage towards the player’s win (e.g., a group of stop lurckers waiting for the marines and medicks to pass by), happening in front of their eyes, they get agitated and so does the casters and commentators. Simply put, they start to scream and yell. Now head-set being imperfect, sometimes the athlete could hear the crowd reaction, and some clever ones sensed what could lie ahead of their path (‘why are they screaming? hmm…something is very fishy…), so ended up changing their actions or play more safe right after that incident during game. The outcome of the game could have been different if it were not for the noisy reaction that ended up being some unintentional cue that could lead to an unfair game. (They used to call this “Ear map” by the way which makes complete sense).

Since then new rule has been established, and now people play in a sound-proof booth as part of the regulation.

Trial and error, yeah?