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Fear And Loathing In The World Of Korean E-Sports

Being the best at computer games in the whole world looks depressing.

I’ve always been moderately aware and mildly curious of the South Korean e-sports scene. I even ended up at BlizzCon one year, watched a few StarCraft matches firsthand and soaked up the hyperbolic, hyperventilating commentary that normally happens over crap American sports. It was pretty neat, but mostly because someone was paying for my beer.

Then I watched The Hax Life, a documentary about one of the twelve teams that compete in the So’Ko’ Ongamenet and MBCgame Starleagues. It’s all kinds of sad. I’ll start at part two because the first part is boring (man, Koreans talk slow):


The documentary introduces us to 26-year-old [Red]NaDa (aka Lee Yun-Yeol). He plays StarCraft, which is like the Premiere League of e-sports, accounting for 70% of all matches. Considered the best StarCraft player in the world, he signed a three year contact with the WeMade FOX team for $690,000. That’s on top of whatever prize money he takes home. This is what his matches look like:

Apart from NaDa and his K-pop good looks, the players are universally shy boy-men who are expected to burn out in their early to mid twenties, where they are promptly dumped by their team, left with zero social skills and early onset arthritis. And these are just the ones who’re good enough to complete. South Korea’s StarCraft mums and dads shove their young ones into these awful gaming sweatshops/training camps where they train for years, basically paying for the right to live in a dorm and play games.

The problem is that e-sports has grown up so quickly that the Korean government has been slow to apply regulation. But 2010 looks like the year it finally gets into loads of shit, with pro-gamer advocacy groups drawing attention to the “chicken coop” system of training players.

Risking his career, pro gamer and sometimes StarCraft commentator Kim Dong-su has spoken out against the industry, saying that “everyone knows about these problems, but if you start talking about players’ rights, everyone wants to keep quiet about it, scared they might be branded as an impediment to the growth of e-Sports. They need to introduce things like a minimum age system for players and limitations on the number of games.” Right on Kim!

Oh, and did you hear about that match-fixing scandal currently rocking the competitive StarCraft world? Eleven players (whose names can’t be revealed) have been arrested for taking bribes of up to $5,730 from seedy e-sport gambling cartels to throw matches. But that’s cool, because some South Korean prisons allow well-behaved inmates to play StarCraft. I wish that was a joke.