On a massive concert stage on the famous Gwangalli beach in the port city of Busan, South Korea, two booths face each other. Inside one is a man with bleach-blonde hair, in the other is a man with long black locks. They’re dressed like race car drivers but the huge screens hanging over them reveal that their competition is actually virtual—StarCraft League, to be exact. About 100,000 live spectators watched humans, an insectoid species, and aliens fight to the death as commentators analyzed the players’ every effort to control the characters. Even more tuned in from their TVs at home. This was in 2004, when the real-time strategy computer game StarCraft invaded South Korean pop culture and turned its gamers into household celebrities—gamers ike Lee Yun-yeol, aka “Genius” and “Machine.”
Under the player handle NaDa, he cemented his legend status by accruing the most wins (708) and league titles (six), and overcoming some of the most adrenaline-pumping matches that still rack up thousands of views on YouTube today.
Lee was 13 years old the first time he visited a PC bang in 1998. These internet cafes were popular among gamers in South Korea, including students like him. He tagged along with his friend who wouldn't stop talking about StarCraft, a new game everyone was playing.
Now 37, Lee said that he would have never guessed he would become one of the greatest esports athletes of all time. At the height of his career, he was elevated to rock star status with tens of thousands of fans worldwide. At one point, he even went on a blind date with members of K-pop girl group Girls’ Generation for a reality TV show.
“After playing for two hours that day [at the PC bang], I wouldn’t stop bugging my friend with questions about it,” recalled Lee, who spoke to VICE from his office in Daegu. “This was when everyone in school knew the students who were good at the game. So, I begged my mom to buy a home computer, even though I knew perfectly well that our family couldn’t afford one.”
The United States-based video game developer Blizzard Entertainment had just released StarCraft earlier that year. Its premise is similar to the Alien movie series where the human race (known in the game as Terran) fights with an ever-evolving insectoid species (Zerg) and a god-like alien race (Protoss). Choosing among these three species, players collect minerals and gas to build infrastructure and a team of soldiers who would attack the opposing groups.
Coinciding with the emergence of high-speed internet and home computers, StarCraft quickly gained popularity in South Korean college campuses and PC bangs. It was a national pastime that appealed to men, women, and children who could not get enough of its graphics, multiplayer capability, and complex strategies. PC bangs started hosting tournaments offering cash prizes, while amateur leagues formed online and offline to determine the best players in each region.
Lee bought a personal computer and practiced at home to beat his friend, the best player in their school. Then he started winning cash prizes worth about 200,000 South Korean won, just enough to buy the latest cellphone. After joining national tournaments in major cities like Seoul and Busan, it hit him that gaming could actually be a fulltime job.
“Lee Ki-suk, who was part of the first generation of pro-gamers, was walking past with his manager, and I just remember a crowd of fans following him,” Lee said.
It wouldn’t take too long for Lee to become a professional gamer himself. While climbing the ranks in amateur online servers, he became known as the “kid who came out of nowhere.” At 17 years old, he joined fellow gamers Lim Yo-hwan and Hong Jin-ho to form a team backed by broadcast stations looking to make StarCraft League even more mainstream.
“This was when I first wore space-themed uniforms and put on makeup before the live matches,” Lee said. “To my big surprise, I had a large following of fans who were men, and as our matches became more popular, women started to like me too.”
They were like K-pop stars. Major corporations and broadcast stations started to invest in the players and formed more teams. Ten teams competed in tournaments hosted by two leagues, and their matches were aired on one of two 24-hour gaming channels. These channels were so popular that K-pop idols like IU were announcers on their programs.
Esports has only grown since then. Nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch the 2018 League of Legends World Championship final. Hosted in cities around the world like Paris, New York, Singapore, and Seoul, professional gamers competed for multi-million dollar prizes in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans inside major stadiums.
The South Korean StarCraft community pioneered Olympics-like esports events with World Cyber Games in 2001 and set a precedent for how much a professional gamer could earn. Lee eventually reached the top of the league and made headlines for making 250 million won in 2004. With a high salary, prize money from winning league championships (a record six times), and appearances on TV commercials and shows, Lee was making more money than some of South Korea’s biggest baseball and soccer stars.
But with all the limelight came sweat, tears, and long hours playing the same game over and over again.
“My team was in a one-bedroom apartment where all 10 of us players lived. Our managers reserved space in a PC bang where we practiced for hours,” Lee recalled.
They would wake up at 10 a.m. and practice for four hours during the day, then three hours at night. Trainees practice even longer, for about 10 hours daily. They measured their APM, or actions per minute, which showed how many hand actions or motions a player made with their mouse and keyboard.
“I was called a ‘machine’ for having a 400 APM… Sometimes, when I would go outside after looking at the computer screen all day, I was blinded by the light,” Lee said, but also noted that they eventually lived in larger apartments and followed more structured schedules.
Like most video games, StarCraft eventually disappeared from people’s shelves and computer screens, making way for newer titles.
Fans still exist today but exhibition matches have moved online. Longtime broadcast commentator Lee Seung-won regrets that there wasn’t a bigger effort to protect the leagues’ longevity.
“I see it as a failure on the marketing side,” he said. “Fridays used to be known as game days for fans, because matches were played once a week, but the leagues started to air games almost every other day.”
Among the reasons for this change in scheduling was a shift in focus, away from the individual players and onto the teams and their sponsors—more games meant more revenue for the companies, Lee, the gamer, said.
His stardom waned too. He doesn’t even play StarCraft anymore.
“Imagine playing a game for eight hours every day for 17 years straight. It still can’t be fun playing it [now],” he said, recalling the daily training sessions he had to endure.
Now, he wants to make games. His ultimate goal is to create a game that will one day become an Olympic sport. As CEO of NADA Digital, a game developing company that made 5 billion South Korean won ($3.9 million) in revenue last year, Lee continues to experiment with gaming genres across platforms, most recently launching a P2E (play to earn) mobile game called Slime World and creating a metaverse for the social media platform Cyworld.
“But I’m not sure if there will be another game quite like StarCraft,” he said. “The balance of everything in the game is incomparable to any other.”
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