Playing alone in a world of menSeo Ji-su never thought she would be an icon. And she isn’t, not yet anyway. But her story has the hallmarks of legend, if you can use that term for an 18 year old.
Ms. Seo is a professional entertainer. On the stage, she performs intensely. An announcer, staring at a big screen in the auditorium, explains her movements with the speed of a sportscaster. The audience cheers intermittently, clapping wildly. When her performance ends, the audience appears to be somewhat baffled, as if it has witnessed the unexpected. Ms. Seo acknowledges the applause, bowing and removing her headset in one motion, revealing what makes her such a romantic figure. The romance lies in the fact that she is a woman, performing in an arena dominated by males.
While any quest is romantic in nature, Ms. Seo’s journey is doubly so because of her gender.
For most people, computer games are entertainment. But the burgeoning popularity of online computer games has spawned new ways for people to earn a living. This, in turn, has led to leagues and tournaments, a rise in the skills level and that most sought-after designation ― professional.
The number of game leagues and sponsors has grown. The Professional Gamers League is a biannual tournament, drawing gamers from around the world. World Cyber Games, another international game competition, includes more than 500 competitors from 50 countries. There are also smaller events, such as the Korean Professional Gamers League, Hanbit Soft Tournament and Thrunet’s competition. The sponsors of these leagues range in size from private companies to large computer cafes. The amount of prize money varies. The Professional Gamers League awards 14 million won ($12,000) to tournament winners; other tournaments offer relatively smaller prizes, usually from 2 million to 3 million won. The average monthly salary for a gamer is about 1 million won.
Professional gaming, playing electronic games at a high skills level for compensation, is attracting a larger following, both players and spectators. But for women, success in this technology-intensive, curiosity-raising, offbeat vocation is especially elusive. A hint as to why is found in the description. Technology-intensive: “Women are not good at technical things.” Curiosity-raising: “Woman do not venture into the unknown.” Offbeat: “Women should stay at home, let alone venture down some unknown path.”
The truth is women are attacking this bastion of male dominance as furiously as they have other professions once known strictly as a man’s domain. But they are not having as much success. Women are prospering in Korea’s medical, legal and scientific and engineering professions. They are truckers and taxi drivers and members of the National Assembly and cabinet. But few are found among the ranks of professional gamers, and, in fact, in this area their numbers are decreasing.
Ghem TV’s professional gamers league for women, the last league of its kind to be broadcast, was shut down in face of financial difficulties. Having no league of their own, women, already considered of lesser talent, are left with still fewer choices in the professional gaming world. Song Ji-Young, seeing a diminishing future, chose to become an announcer on TV channels dedicated to game broadcasts. Yun Ji-Hyun, another former professional gamer, set her headphones aside altogether, opening an Internet cafe.
Why is it that women do not simply join their male counterparts’ leagues? In short, most women professional gamers have not accomplished the skills needed to compete successfully against the men. Viewing the game TV channels, one is struck by the paucity of women players who advance beyond the preliminary contest.
“I usually don’t see many girls playing on the Internet, where players hone their skills, says Ms. Seo, a member of the “Soul” team, the only woman on the six-person club. “As you know, gamers have a very uncertain future, and people seem to have less interest in women’s leagues.” Because of the shortage of female gamers and the lack of public exposure, women’s leagues are not able to attract enough sponsors, and, thus, struggle in the shadow of their eventual demise.
The rough road women travel in this world leads to questions about their ability. The main reason women have not achieved on the same level as men is the discrepancy in the quality of training, says Ms. Seo. “Because I’m the only woman on my team, I can’t join the training camp with my male teammates,” she complains.” For similar reasons, most female gamers don’t get to sharpen their skills by going up against male gamers, who are the leaders in every league. They are not placed in a position that challenges them to rise above their limitations, and as a result most never gain the experience or develop the skills of the male gamers.
The training camps pose a nearly intractable problem for the women. The gamers practice, eat and sleep in a small apartment. Considering the traditional Korean view of separating the sexes, a woman would be out of place in this environment. Therefore, the women are forced to practice at home, missing the opportunity to gain experience against the best players. But training as a group is how most teams gain sponsors and players become stars. Game clubs function in a way quite similar to that of sports teams. By participating in tournaments and advertising their sponsors, gamers are guaranteed a stable income and are provided with private offices or game rooms to practice. With the emergence of sponsors who provide gamers with relatively stable financial support, the prospects for people in this sport are steadily increasing.
As Korea’s top female pro-gamer, Ms. Seo enjoys immense popularity. “The best part of it,” she says, “is that I am able to meet countless fans. Had it not been for their support, I would not have made it this far.” Indeed, Ms. Seo’s official fan clubs have about 20,000 members.
But Ms. Seo says that even with her fame she still has to deal with the subtle prejudices against female gamers. “I’ve also seen some people who are surprised to see me as a gamer,” she says. “They say they didn’t expect to see a woman competing at the same level as men.” The surprise is especially noticeable when she wins. “When I beat a male player in matches, I sometimes hear others poking fun at him, making subtly offensive remarks, like, ‘You lost to a GIRL?’” She says people even suspect a man is actually playing under her name. But, at least for now, there’s only one Seo Ji-su.
‘Crossing cultures, languages’
What does it take to be a pro-gamer?
It’s two in the morning, and most people are soundly asleep in their home. But the lights are still on in the computer cafe where Park June works. Works? Wait a moment. Mr. Park plays computer games. How does he “work?” Mr. Park walks over to a shabby couch, onto which he flings his body. He begins to eat a cup of instant noodles. “This is my midnight meal,” he says. “I stayed up all night because that’s how I can play high-level gamers from Europe and America.” Mr. Park’s “work” is playing -- he goes up against people from around the world in online game matches. After finishing his meal in less than 10 minutes, he returns to his seat at the corner of the cafe and resumes his work. Five hours later, at around seven o’clock, he finally leaves the cafe for home.
Computer cafes are used by many gamers to train for tournaments. Gamers can gain Internet access at the relatively cheap cost of about 1,500 won (about $1.25) an hour. The level of skill it takes to stand out among the growing pool of talented gamers entails endless nights with little or no sleep, sitting at the computer, playing rival after rival. Hoping to climb the ladder in experience, competence and earnings, Mr. Park practices daily into the night. He is especially dedicated as tournaments draw near. This seemingly mindless stare into the computer screen could be reason for alarm for someone not familiar with his goal.
“When it comes to the issues regarding game addicts,” Mr. Park says, “many people simply shake their heads and say, people like me are on the wrong track.” But I disagree. I’m simply following my aspirations, just like any college student who is studying his major with passion and interest.”
Of course, there are many young people in Korea whose lives have been seriously damaged by their addiction to online games. But there are more than just a few people who have gained fame and even decent earnings playing games, Mr. Park points out.
“There are many ways a gamer can secure a descent income, he says. “Shin Joo-Young, the first professional gamer in Korea, earned approximately 3 million won (about $2,500) monthly before he entered military service. He received 1 million won from the sponsor of his game club, and the rest he got by participating in various events and writing for game magazines.”
Mr. Park’s main objective is to join a professional club. Companies, such as KTF, Samsung and Orion, have professional game teams competing in various leagues. “By joining one of the teams,” he says, “I’ll be able to get a sponsor, which means a stable source of income.”
So how do most gamers train? Pro-gamers usually practice as a team in “training camps,” but there are those who practice individually on game servers on the Internet. When asked about his daily schedule, Mr. Park responded, “Very intense.” To survive as a pro-gamer, he said he needs to compete against some of the best players in the world and prove himself to be competent, just like in any other sport. In order to compete against high-level players, many of whom are from Europe and America, Mr. Park lives on a schedule of work at night, sleep during the day. “Sometimes it feels like I am living an owl’s schedule,” he says. “I skip breakfast all the time, and sometimes I don’t eat at all for an entire day. It’s a job that doesn’t guarantee regular rest.”
Besides the tough schedule, financial instability is also a problem. Mr. Park does not yet have a reliable sponsor. “There are many possible sources of income, but they are still not enough to satisfy the needs of the numerous progamer aspirants,” he says. “Most still need to rely on their parents to make it.”
Besides such practical matters, there is another discouraging barrier to young gamers: Many Koreans harbor biases against computer games. “Some adults consider computer games a waste of time,” Mr. Park says. “But I think they are seeing only the negative sides of online games. They don’t know how exciting it is to meet complete strangers from all over the world. Games are ways we can cross cultures and languages.”
by Joseph Hyun