Taking on Korea’s top gamersWho is AMD_Grrrr? Why is he so feared? People avoid him, certain they will only take a beating.
AMD_Grrrr’s domain is the dimly lighted computer cafes found throughout Seoul. Teenagers visit these PC bangs to chat with friends or play online games with people they have never seen and probably never will see. In fact, these dark rooms fit perfectly the anonymity suggested by the various cryptic screen IDs, such as “silent_control” and “bezerk.”
But who is AMD_Grrrr? Kim Ji-won knows he is someone she does not want to deal with. Looking for a quick game at an Apgujeong-dong PC bang recently, she cringed at the ID that welcomes her to join the action. “No way. I can’t play with this guy . . . .” She looks around as if the person might be sitting in the same room. Yes, the ID is AMD_Grrrr. The person it belongs to: Guillaume Patry, 22, a French Canadian, born in Quebec, who has become a legend among Korean gamers. Patry is not just another fanatic gamer. He belongs to a small cadre of people known as pro-gamers, people who play games for a living.
To understand how someone who plays online games as a career can achieve the celebrity of a rock star, a look at the context is essential. Korea stands on the leading edge of advances in information technology. More than 50 percent of Koreans have access to high-speed Internet, compared with about 30 percent in the United States. The Internet is pervasive in Korea. Most stock trading takes place online; Roh Moo-hyun’s victory in the last presidential election has been attributed to organizing by online support groups.
This wired atmosphere has produced an Internet culture that exploits every facet of the digital world. And games -- a source of both entertainment and money -- have become a thriving subculture for Korean youngsters and also for a large segment of the population in their 20s, even early 30s.
Outside Korea, gaming as an occupation is virtually unknown, in contrast with the fame the top pro-gamers enjoy here. Korea is a perfect match for Patry, who had been playing games since age 11, when he first came to Korea to participate in an international game tournament. Two years later he came back again and stayed. “When I first came to Korea I thought that I would only stay for about six months,” says Patry, who speaks fluent Korean. But victories in several tournaments changed his mind.
The nation’s 20,000 PC bangs have proven a fertile breeding ground for game enthusiasts and a boon for one game in particular: Starcraft. This computer game is popular all over the world, but only in Korea have its sales remained on an upward course.
Jeong Soo-young, at HanbitSoft, the Korean distributor of Starcraft, which was created by the U.S. firm Blizzard Entertainment, says that although five years have passed since the game’s initial launch, it is still selling strong in Korea, whereas sales in other parts of the world have waned. “It’s hard to explain, but we think that the nation’s infrastructure and the tournaments and leagues have kept this game alive.”
This year alone the company has sold 600,000 copies of Starcraft in Korea; a total of 3 million copies have been sold in Korea, a little bit more than half of the total worldwide sales. The numbers are even larger if illegal copies are tallied, making the number of copies in circulation as much as five times larger, Hanbit officials estimate.
Patry lives and practices in a small apartment in southern Seoul. He shares these quarters with five other pro-gamers who are also members of the AMD professional game club, which is sponsored by Advanced Micro Devices, a California-based company that manufactures integrated circuits. The intense competitiveness of gamers has forced Patry to spend most of his days preparing for tournaments. He turns his computer on around 5 p.m. and plays games until 5 a.m.
He says most progamers like to be up late. So work for them starts late. “You can only improve when you play against the best and that’s how my schedule works, too.”
In 1999, the number of PC bangs jumped from 3,000 to 15,150. This formed the critical mass for tournaments sponsored by booming high-tech startups. In June of 2000, big conglomerates, such as Samsung, finally recognized the trend. Samsung started its own progame club called Khan. Today, there are 14 progame clubs registered with the Korea Pro Game Association. Three television channels show game tournaments 24 hours a day.
With pro-gamers appearing in movies, on television and in commercials, many youngsters see gaming as a legitimate path to success. Park Jun-gyu, a high school sophomore , spends countless hours in front of the computer screen, working on his game skills. “If you ask me, this is the best job on earth. That’s what I am going to do once I get into college.”
But the hopefuls are faced with the reality that the ranks of pro-gamers are exceedingly thin. Only 173 pro-gamers are registered with the KPGA. Each has won at least twice at the biggest official game tournaments, which include more than 500 participants and prize money above 20 million won ($16,666). They also took part in the association’s mandatory training program, which takes place twice a year.
“It’s much harder than you can imagine. Let’s just say that the waiting line to become a pro-gamer is from here to Busan. There are only so many opportunities for these people to show they are really good,” says Jang Hyeon-seong, an official with the association.
In the association’s official November ranking the top 30 players included two foreigners. Ranked 10th is Bertrand Grospellier; Guillaume is ranked 24th. At age 22, Guillaume says he still has a couple more years left. But, he says, it will be hard for other foreigners to be successful. “One would have to win in major tournaments within the first six months of coming to Korea. I have friends asking me all the time, but I always tell them not to come. The competition is just too tough.”
Grospellier, a Frenchman, who also plays for AMD, came to Korea in August of 2000 to take part in a tournament, but he returned in December of 2001 to play in the World Cyber Games, in which he placed second and decided to stay. “Korea has a PC bang around every corner. It’s not the same in other countries, and the Internet connection speed is slower overseas. Naturally, the following isn’t as huge as here and that’s why the talent level drops significantly.”
Danielle Lee, the manager of the AMD team, says he gets e-mails all the time from foreigners who want to play in Korea, he agrees that succeeding in Korea is not easy. “We have many foreign players who come and go. For them the urge to win right away is even bigger since they don’t have a home here and need to spend much more money. It’s a big pressure.”
Prize money ranges from as low as a couple of million won for tournaments arranged by small companies to $30,000 for the World Cyber Games, which is sponsored by Samsung.
But even in this relatively young sport it seems rules have not changed. “If you are outside the top 30 you won’t make much,” Mr. Jang says. Lim Yo-hwan, currently ranked third world wide, earned about 170 million won in tournaments and promotions in 2001. The public does not pay much attention to the “rest.”
Even if a gamer has proved he or she is good enough to be on a professional club, Danielle Lee says, their earnings usually fall way short of what the stars make.
“I know players that get about 6 million won in annual salary. It’s a trade-off for both sides. A somewhat talented player has easier access to tournaments since professional teams allocate them seats. And the club gets a good player at a discount,” Ms. Lee says.
As a profession, playing games and winning them is just the same as any other job. “Pressure. Handling the pressure is the toughest thing,” say both Guillaume and Bertrand whose star status appears to reflect not only their talent, but also the fact that they are non-Korean.
Guillaume and Grospellier are pioneers in a new sport. As the Internet improves worldwide and gaming becomes more easily accessible, their novelty as foreigners who succeeded in Korea’s gaming world may give way to an influx of talent from overseas.
by Brian Lee