A live South Korean television broadcast of a tournament game for the StarCraft Global Star League, a professional video game league for the PC video game franchise, StarCraft. Photo by Nick Pettit.
In baseball, a player isn’t considered old until the number of wrinkles on his face is equal to the number of years he’s spent on the diamond. In basketball, it’s how long the knees last or whenever A.C. Greene says he’s done. Football players (aside from QBs) make it to about 30 and then they’re sent to a gas (or cheese) chamber in Green Bay for “rehabilitation”.
The start and finish ages for a professional video gamer, however, resemble more the career of a gymnast than that of a traditional athlete. They’re all trained in Siberian gulags (their parents’ basement) at 10 years old, fed “gruel and irradiated water” (cold cereal and Mountain Dew) until they’re 14, and then sponsored by a computer hardware/software company and sent on a world tour from 15 until college. Recently, the 16-year-old Korean Lee “Leenock” Dong Nyung took home the 2011 Major League Gaming World Championship in the real-time strategy masterpiece (if I do say so myself), Starcraft 2. He won $50,000 for it, and then immediately blew it all on Twilight memorabilia. (I googled “what do 16-year-old boys like” for this, so I’m probably on a pedophile watch list now.)
In South Korea, professional gamers are celebrated and adored as much, if not more than, the non-evil (and therefore, fictional) vissage of Steve Jobs’s memory here in America. Significant sponsors compete to represent the best Korean StarCraft players of the moment, and fans gather in droves to watch their favorite e-athletes sit at computers and command imaginary alien armies in heated battle against each other while play-by-play commentators pontificate in front of both live and TV audiences. There are TWO cable channels dedicated to pro gaming in Korea. Stadiums draw up to 100,000 people per event. If you’re raising one of your eyebrows about now, you’re not the only one. It’s a lot like people who thought they were actually enjoying the World Series of Poker scam from several years back. People will watch literally anything the hype machine tells them to.
But before I compare poker to StarCraft (not going to, don’t worry), this is a video of BoxeR, who is considered the king of the original StarCraft in Korea. He hit his prime when he was about 20, and by that time he was already making six figures. Annually. Just by playing a video game professionally. Now 30, he’s already achieved legend status in Korea and now America and Europe in certain crowds. It’s still a very un-American experience, and for better or worse, the spectatorship of pro gaming is still somewhat of a niche in the entertainment sector here.
Kim Taek-yong, or Bisu[Sheild] as he is known in the world of professional StarCraft. Photo by MSL.
Compare this to America’s iteration of the gaming tournament: Call of Duty. Notice how gamers don’t have the typically drab athlete-talk down yet (i.e. every boring post-game interview you’ve ever seen with anyone but Dennis Rodman), and how the program is very clearly targeted at a much younger, pre-teen and teenage audience.
There isn’t a significant difference between the two nations’ views on gaming or how each country’s entertainment industry has attempted to profit from their popularity. Korea just latched onto the real-time strategy, thinking-man game of StarCraft at hyperspeed while America took the cautious route with their beloved kill ‘em all games like Counterstrike and Call of Duty.
Professional gaming in the First Person Shooter genre is a young boy’s game, and it plays out exactly how most kids used to play before the advent of the video game: frantically and with little regard for consequences. That is, of course, the basis for the war game – when you die it doesn’t much matter beyond the ego built from your kill-death ratio, and thus any attempt at preventing death becomes more rational than emotional. We’re creating an army of nerrrrrrrrdssssss. It’s perrrrrrfect.
And that’s pro gaming’s only chance to reach a non-gamer audience. Sure, there’s a great deal of practicing required to master a game like Counterstrike or Call of Duty, but the business is in the ability of the entertainment companies to highlight “risk-taking” moments where players deviate from routine strategies and resort to goofy stuff like the popular throwing knife escapades in CoD. I hear the kids love the throwing knife tricks these days!
But that’s gimmicky and stupid! Why can’t people be satisfied with all the rich complexities of real, total-war gaming where everyone serves a purpose on a team and it’s all about teamwork, teamwork, teamwork! And winning! For mother Russia!
Well, critics of Call of Duty are like those stick shift drivers who snicker at the automatic transmission, chess players who look down on checkers, or indie music snobs who can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to actively pursue listening to Neutral Milk Hotel. In other words, they’re geeks. And worst of all, they’re communists.
Not to discredit geeks or communists at all, (don’t want them not on my side!) however, there is something to that critique because a game is only as dynamic as the amount of control it gives to its players. Since intense gamers these days get upset at things that don’t matter, there’s a lot of anger toward the Call of Duty franchise’s ridiculous ability to convince their gamers to keep buying newer versions of the same game at $60 because the gaming community is oppressively peer-pressure based. What I mean by that is that kids will do anything if their cool friends or slightly older peers are doing it, especially kids who don’t get picked in gym class.
The game is fast-paced, it’s got chemical products for sponsors, and it’s all about the late game heroics and Kobe flash. It’s new wave Americana.
Pro gaming in America will not be like pro gaming in Korea, just like soccer will always play 9th fiddle to football, basketball, baseball, tennis, golf, hockey, gambling, and curling in America. So stop complaining (yes, non-gamers, people actually grieve about this stuff) about the lack of integrity in pro gaming in this country. No one’s actually getting shot in these games.
Besides, which is worse: advertising cavity drinks and time-wasting video games that actually offer the chance at money and glory, or pushing nicotine and cancer on the desperately idle youth? Teenagers, the only reliable demographic (besides Republicans) for introducing harmful substances and addictive, life-ruining activities to, are probably better off with bad posture and poor eyesight than with bad lungs and yellow teeth.
Written By: Jakob Schnaidt