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Getting wet in Busan: computer games a lure

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July 30,2006

The SKY Pro League finals Saturday in Busan attracts tens of thousands of spectators. Provided by the Korea e-Sports Association

BUSAN ― In the pouring rain, about 40,000 spectators were at Gwangalli Beach in Busan on Saturday to watch the finals of the SKY Pro League, one of the largest tournaments for Starcraft, a computer game. Her left leg encased in a cast, Kim Ji-young, an 18-year-old Daegu native, said she arrived at 6 a.m. to stand in line for a front-row seat. “I would never miss watching Lim Yo-hwan in person,” she said. Mr. Lim is one of Korea’s leading computer gamers. Young men entered vinyl kiosks set up on a huge stage to battle each other as the crowd watched on a large screen. Three commentators shouted away as rain soaked them to the skin. Dedication indeed, although the crowd was disappointing by Korea’s cyber-crazed standards; in past years, crowds at the event have reached 100,000. What was so special about eradicating cyber creatures to draw crowds out in the terrible weather? And what was Jeon Yong-jun, the main commentator, doing 450 kilometers (280 miles) away from his bride-to-be on the night before his wedding? For the people who play and the people who watch, it may take volumes of scholarly analysis to answer those questions, but for the companies involved, the answer is simple: money. According to the Korea Game Development Institute under the Culture Ministry, the online game market ― purely the gaming market without teams and tournaments ― was 1.4 trillion won ($1.5 billion) last year, a notable 40-percent increase from the year before. Electronic sports, or more commonly e-sports, is a fancy term for computer games that are played in organized competitions. That means the game has to have a start and finish and a method of declaring a winner. StarCraft, developed by the American firm Blizzard Entertainment, is one of the most popular e-sports games. About 10 million Koreans play it. The popularity of e-sports has spawned many different businesses: in particular, they have created new media and new occupations such as game commentators and professional gamers. According to Samsung Economic Research Institute, the larger e-sports market, not just online gaming, was 40 billion won last year and is growing at 29 percent a year. The institute expects that the market will grow to 129 billion won by 2010. Game broadcasting revenue made up the bulk of the market, followed by e-sports competitions, pro-gaming team funding, and government funding. Korea has three 24-hour cable television channels devoted exclusively to gaming: ongamenet, HBCgame, and GameTV. The number of e-sports tournaments hosted in Korea alone has grown from 72 in 1999 to 278 last year, and prize money rose from 1.5 billion won in 1999 to 5 billion won last year. There are now 11 teams of pro gamers in Korea. At first, the teams were divided into corporate and non-corporate groups. In 2000, KTF and Samsung Electronics became the first major companies to create their own professional gaming teams. SK Telecom and the handset makers Pantech and Curitel formed teams in 2004. This year, however, lots of big companies started to zero in on e-sports. Early this year, Hwaseung Corp. became the first non-technology firm to create a pro gaming team with the launch of Lecaf OZ, followed by the CJ Group’s Entus. The exclusive game channels MBC Game, a subsidiary of the broadcaster MBC, ongamenet, part of the ON Media Group, and eNature, an Internet portal, also created their own pro gaming teams this year. For IT companies, e-sports gives them a direct link with target consumers. “Our interest in e-sports is part of our brand-building strategy, especially within Korea, because becoming closely identified with the booming e-sports scene is a way to develop our profile and build brand loyalty among young style-conscious, tech-savvy consumers,” said Nam In-soo, a Pantech spokesman. “It’s also a means of differentiating our brand from competitors.” The Pantech Group, which produces SKY brand handsets for SK Telecom, hosts the SKY Pro League and has its own e-sports team, Pantech EX. So what’s STX Group, which specializes in shipbuilding and energy, doing with a team? “When we said we were going to be the main sponsor of a pro gaming team, a lot of people told us that we weren’t ‘in focus’ with our corporate image,” said Lee Gwang-o, a spokesman for the group. “But as a business-to-business company, it’s very hard to approach the general public. We thought this was a good way to boost our group recognition.” Companies investing in pro gaming also said that compared with other sports marketing, e-sports is very inexpensive. According to the Korea Game Development Institute, the average budget for a pro gaming team in Korea is about 1.5 billion won, which includes practice sites, living quarters and transportation. The income of pro gamers depends on the individual. The highest earners can receive about 200 million won a year in salary and prize money plus endorsements and other additional fees from television appearances. “When it comes to sports marketing, the domestic market doesn’t provide much promotional effect because the sports culture itself is very weak,” a KTF spokesman said. “But e-sports has a vibrant culture and fits right in with our corporate image. We spend 7 billion won on our basketball team, but when it comes down to the impact, the investment we make in e-sports is far more effective.” KTF said it spends about 1.1 billion won on its pro gaming team. Lee Ji-mi, 16, said that as a devout fan of Park Tae-min, a player for SK Telecom’s T1, one of the ways she can show her support is to continue using SK Telecom cell phone service. Her father says he doesn’t understand the connection. “I’m a fan of the [baseball] LG Twins, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to use LG Telecom,” he said. Speaking of Ms. Park, Do Hun of SK said, “Those are the customers we’re going after.” by Wohn Dong-hee


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