Competitive video gaming is now taking off in places like the United States, attracting thousands of people to major events. But in South Korea, more than anywhere else, it has already oozed into mainstream culture. Couples going to game clubs is about as common as couples going to the movies.
Time and again, South Korea has provided glimpses of technology-related transformations before they expand globally, including widespread broadband availability and smartphone adoption. The country has also led in professional video game competitions, often called e-sports, creating organized leagues, training well-financed professional teams and filling giant stadiums with frenzied fans to cheer on their favorite players.
Such excitement was on display in Seoul on Sunday, when more than 40,000 fans filled the outdoor soccer stadium used for the 2002 World Cup semifinal to watch the world championship for "League of Legends," one of the world's most popular games.
On stage, two teams of five players sat in front of computers wielding mouse and keyboard to control fantastical characters in a campaign to destroy the opposing team's base. Three huge screens displayed the action to the crowd.
The clear favorite of the raucous crowd was Samsung White, a team of Koreans that tore through the playoffs. The throng of fans erupted early on, when a Samsung White player wielded a spear to successfully kill an opposing player from the Star Horn Royal Club, a team of three Chinese and two Koreans. Samsung White would continue to find success, winning the championship and the $1 million in prize money.
"Pro gaming exists in its current form and size in large part thanks to the people who made it possible in South Korea," said Manuel Schenkhuizen, a Dutch pro gamer. "Other countries took years to catch up and are to this date trying to mimic some of their successes."
The prowess of the country's e-sports players is a point of national pride. Recently there has even been hand-wringing about Samsung White's not winning dominantly enough in an earlier round of the championship tournament, when it lost one of four games to a foreign competitor.
Last week, people at one of the many Internet cafes here, known as a PC bang, debated how the "League of Legends" tournament would conclude. One ninth-grader, Han Song-wook, said he had followed the rise of Samsung White for two years, in part because of the team's aggressive game play and creative, bold moves.
"Even back then I saw they had potential," he said. "Their moves were great."
Though gamers and industry insiders have different theories about how e-sports became so popular in South Korea, nearly all versions start in the late 1990s.
At the time, in response to the Asian financial crisis, the South Korean government focused on telecommunications and Internet infrastructure. By 2000, a vibrant community of gamers emerged, largely thanks to PC bangs that used the new connections. The clubs acted as a sort of neighborhood basketball court or soccer pitch where gamers could test their skills.
The government also became involved, creating the Korean E-Sports Association to manage e-sports. Cheap television stations took off as well, a result of the new infrastructure, and it was only natural that one, then more, would focus on e-sports.
"Fourteen years ago, you had a government that gave a thumbs-up to e-sports - it was professionally organized, and it was on television, so it became a mainstream thing," said Jonathan Beales, an e-sports commentator. "The way soccer is around the world."
"StarCraft," a game released by Blizzard Entertainment in 1998, quickly became a mainstay of South Korea's professional gaming leagues. With investment and organizational help from Blizzard itself, professional tournaments quickly outgrew the cramped PC bangs, first moving to hotel ballrooms and eventually stadiums. In 2004, the final of the "StarCraft" pro league brought out 100,000 fans to Gwangalli Beach in the southern city of Busan.
"That was the big dog - that really was when we knew, 'Oh, my goodness, this has gone to an entirely different level,'" said Paul Sams, Blizzard's chief operating officer.
The game clubs remain an important arena for gamers, though. On a recent Thursday night in residential area of Kangdong in southeastern Seoul, a PC bang was filled with high-school students. They sat in plush chairs in front of large-screen PCs, barking strategies or crying out in joy or frustration.
After gunning down a friend with an assault rifle in the game "Sudden Attack," Kang Mi-kyung, 15, said she was at the PC bang about five times a week.
"I love this game, though I think it's too violent," she said, adding that she comes mostly to see friends, including some male friends she does not see at her new high school.
Bae Ye-seong, 18, who stood at a computer bank watching his friends play out a match of "League of Legends," struggled to say why he played games.
"Playing 'League of Legends' isn't necessarily important for friendship," he said, "but it's just a big part of our world."
About a decade ago, companies began to see the promise in sponsoring e-sports stars. Before long the companies, like Samsung, the giant technology company, and CJ Games, one of Korea's most successful game developers, were sponsoring teams that lived in communal houses and trained 12 hours a day.
That professionalism has spread outside Korea, with sponsors putting together training houses for gamers in recent years in the West. Still, few players take the games as seriously as those in South Korea.
In part that may be because of the perks of stardom that surround top players here. One of the players on CJ Entus, a team sponsored by CJ Games that came in second in the "League of Legends" world championship in 2012, recalled how a female fan followed him to competitions for two years taking photos. She ultimately sent him an album of all the shots she had taken.
"That was nice," said the blushing player, who goes by the on-screen handle Shy.
Still, the life of an e-sports star is not all glamour. Players must practice relentlessly, spending their days sitting in front of a screen. While the coach of CJ Entus, Kang Hyun-jong, said he tried to encourage players to enjoy themselves, the real goal was clear.
"The best way for players to enjoy themselves is to know how to win," he said.
One of the most famous members of CJ Entus, Hong Min-gi, said he still enjoyed playing the game, despite the commitment. In part, he said, it was because he usually won.
"I still get motivated when I beat someone," he said.
The cutthroat attitude no doubt helps South Korean teams in major competitions. The country's success at "League of Legends" has led several Western teams, including the North American team Cloud9 and the European team Fnatic, to visit to see how teams practice. Many foreign teams have also tried to emulate the group living and training approach used in South Korea, often without creating the desired results.
But the monomaniacal focus of gamers here has also led to concerns about addiction and the potential harm caused by spending too much time playing games. Occasionally, news articles report on a gamer's dying of exhaustion in a PC bang after playing for days without rest. A law requires the clubs to force children under 18 to leave after 10 p.m.
Jun Byung-hun, a South Korean National Assembly member and the head of the country's e-sports governance body, KeSPA, said there was still a lot of ignorance from older generations about video gaming. He had pushed for moderation in the drive to regulate gaming.
"In Korea, games are the barometer of the generation gap," he said in an interview. Parents view games as distractions from studying, he said, while children see them as an important part of their social existence.
Jun is promoting new educational guidelines that encourage schools to warn students about addiction, while also helping parents get a better understanding of gaming.
"The best way to avoid addiction is for families to play games together," he said.
Jun has also helped push through a number of initiatives to encourage South Korean institutions to treat e-sports like real sports. Most recently he helped convince Chungnam National University, a top Korean college, to admit two students based on their successes in e-sports.
Days before the "League of Legends," in the hotel near the stadium where Samsung White trained in isolation, Cho Se-hyoung, the team's leader, said the pressure he felt from the country's rabid fan base was immense. He even hinted that at 20 years old, he was contemplating retirement.
Even after winning the championship on Sunday, Cho apologized for not showing more creativity during the day's event.
But talk of retirement seemed more distant. He said the team must get back to work to prepare for future competitions.
When asked how he viewed himself, he said, "I'm a sports player."
© 2014, The New York Times News Service