Starcraft, the national pastime of Korea
I am often asked by non-Koreans why Starcraft is so popular in Korea. Starcraft, for those who don’t know, is a real time strategy game made by Blizzard in 1998. It’s so popular in Korea to the point that there are professional Starcraft leagues, and 2 cable channels dedicated to the game.
In fact, even when Starcraft’s popularity in the U.S. waned in the early 2000’s and long after Blizzard’s next huge game, World of Warcraft was released, Starcraft was just as huge as it always had been in Korea.
Starcraft is so much a part of Korean contemporary culture, that even stand up comedians can tell jokes about it on a popular comedy variety show on national television. If anyone attempted this in the U.S., the only place that any comedian could get away with it is at a gamers’ convention, but the jokes are relatable to the majority of young Koreans, because the majority of young Koreans have played Starcraft.
So why is Starcraft so popular in Korea? It’s an incredibly easy question to answer. The reason is because Starcraft is a good game.
Surprisingly, yes. It’s a great game.
There has to be more to it than that!
Okay, your’re right, actually there is more to it than that. I think that Starcraft was simply released at a crucial time in the development of Korea’s internet infrastructure. Korea, as we know is the beacon of IT technology in the world. It is the most wired society on the planet. At least 3 out of every 4 households have an internet connection.
While it’s true that the numbers probably weren’t so high in 1998, and also that many people who did have internet access used dialup, but these problems only contribute to the factors that made Starcraft more than a game in Korea.
Well, before having high speed (non dialup) internet in your house became affordable or available, in the late 1990’s there was an explosion in PC bangs.
What’s a PC bang?
Literally PC-bang means PC room. It’s a room with PCs, usually between 20 and 50 of them. You pay for use of the PC by the hour. They also sell snacks and drinks and other stuff like that.
Generally the PC bang is about 1000 won per hour (around US $1). Now, for all the gamers out there, are you going to go to the video arcade to play a game for 50 cents that will maybe last 2-3 minutes, or are you going to play computer games for 60 minutes for a dollar. Not a difficult question!
What does the PC bang have to do with why Starcraft became popular in Korea?
Starcraft is best played as a multiplayer game against other human controlled armies. I’m not quite sure if I remember the state of online gaming from the late 1990’s, but I do remember a time where if you wanted to play a multiplayer game, like Quake or warcraft in the U.S., you either had to have everyone bring their computers into one room and connect over a LAN, or you had to have someone host the game, and give you the IP address. At the time there was no way to just connect and play with anonymous people.
The specific knowledge of how to connect and play multi-player games over the internet was something that only computer nerds or computer proficient (proficient = more than literate) people would be able to do in the first place, in addition, it required that someone have both the tools and the knowledge to connect. The state of the U.S.’ infrastructure was not enough at the time for games like these to take off into the mainstream, and were largely relegated to fringe cult followings.
Korea on the other hand, armed with PC bangs (rooms with many computers in them) and years ahead of the U.S. in internet infrastructure, made a perfect ground for Starcraft to take root and grow. It quickly became the most popular game on the market, and the fact that each game is different made it really popular.
Even when Blizzard released Warcraft III, a similar type of game which was supposed to be more advanced than Starcraft, Starcraft continued to be popular, and Warcraft III failed.
Starcraft in the U.S. was pretty much largely forgotten after a few years, but in Korea, leagues and TV shows, and then entire cable channels dedicated to Starcraft began to show up. Other games came and went, but Starcraft lingers on as the game that will probably forever be popular in Korea.
Didn’t Blizzard make Starcraft II recently?
Yes, they did. However, it’s not quite as popular as Starcraft is. Sure, people are playing it, but last time I flipped through the channels, I saw the same old Starcraft 1 leagues.
I suppose that people don’t want to upgrade, afterall Starcraft II is no mere update, it’s a totally different game. Since there are leagues built up around Starcraft 1, it’s probably in the interest of the players to continue playing Starcraft 1. I mean, it would be like making a major rule change in Baseball, such as adding a fifth base, or allowing the runners to catch the baseball and tag out the infielders. It just wouldn’t be the same game, and the game that these people have dedicated their lives to. (Or for you non-Americans out there, think soccer with no goalkeepers.)
Anyway the reason why Starcraft is so popular in Korea, again, is because Korea’s IT technology was advanced enough for it when it was released. Korea’s IT infrastructure was widespread enough that this fun game became a generational phenomenon rather than an fringe amusement that only computer nerds knew about. Finally, the fact that it was poplular only made it more popular.
I used to laugh at Korea for having cable channels dedicated to Starcraft. I later found out that the league’s players actually make enough money to support themselves and take care of their parents. That’s simply amazing to me. This last video shows the insane skills of those at the highest level of Starcraft.