[GAMING] Full-time Players Can Make Six-Figure Incomes
- Don't Tell the Kids: Computer Games Can Make You Rich
Players in South Korea Do It
Full Time, and Lucky Few Have Six-Figure Incomes
By MEI FONG
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
May 21, 2004; Page A1
SEOUL, South Korea -- At age 24, Lim Yo-Hwan plays computer games
all day, makes a six-figure income doing it and has thousands of
Computer games have become a spectator sport here, and Mr. Lim is a
star. In a packed Seoul television studio recently, Mr. Lim stood
combat-ready in a military-style white tunic with epaulettes, his
spiky hairdo set off by shiny silver headphones. Tapping frantically
at a keyboard, Mr. Lim built a virtual empire and launched a daring
attack on enemy forces in an imaginary electronic galaxy -- and was
defeated -- all within five minutes.
Broadcast on cable TV, his moves were also displayed on screen
before 300 fans in the studio, who cheered, cried and smacked
noisemakers to show support. "I never miss a match" of his, said
Jung Eun-young, 28, who stood in line for 14 hours for her front-row
As electronic games attract big-dollar deals with sports leagues,
Hollywood and advertisers, more gamers are starting to face off in
professional venues. The payoffs are particularly rich here in
Korea, where there's enough commercial and cultural support for a
community of pros to earn a living and maybe even get rich.
Three Korean cable TV channels broadcast matches 24 hours a day.
Live matches take place every week here in Seoul, and are draw as
many customers as movies. This gaming mecca is even drawing young
men from all over the world, who are lured by prospects of fame and
Last year, Mr. Lim made about $300,000 from player fees and
commercials. Another top earner, Hung Jin-Ho, whose fingers are
insured for $60,000, recently signed a three-year deal with telecom
provider KTF Co. that will pay him $480,000 altogether.
Computer games began taking off in Korea five years ago when the
government rolled out a nationwide high-speed Internet system.
Instead of buying expensive consoles or handheld games, which
weren't widely available here then, teens began facing off on the
Companies ranging from Samsung Electronics to Coca-Cola Co. started
sponsoring tournaments, and some even adopted teams. Now there's a
formal system to identify and groom potential champions by coaches
and talent spotters under the auspices of the Korean Pro-Gamers
Association. Sponsored pros like Mr. Lim live together as teams and
practice as strenuously as martial arts devotees do.
'Work, Not Fun'
"It's work, not fun," says Mr. Lim, who trains 10 hours a day with
his eight teammates and their coach in a two-bedroom apartment,
where they also live, in southern Seoul. His team, called T1,
recently switched sponsors from California chip maker Advanced Micro
Devices to South Korea's biggest telecom provider, SK Telecom. They
are planning to buy a van and move to a bigger apartment.
The team competes in Starcraft, a game of strategy that's like a
combination of high-speed chess and Risk. Players control one of
three alien species in a computer-generated universe, attempting to
gather resources, build weapons and annihilate the enemy. Matches
generally last about 15 minutes.
The team apartment is nearly bare, with some pizza boxes and a bank
of computers where the players spend most of their waking hours. Mr.
Lim rolls out a mattress to sleep on and keeps most of his clothes
in boxes and bags. His team uniform and other clothes for public
appearances are made of crease-free nylon.
Like most serious gamers, Mr. Lim plays through much of the night
and sleeps most of the day. He used to play basketball but stopped
about two years ago for fear of hurting his fingers, which have to
move fast to win tournaments. A measure pro-gamers use to gauge
ability is APM, or actions per minute. APM is the average number of
maneuvers a player can execute in 60 seconds. In Starcraft, most
casual players have an APM of between 50 and 70. Mr. Lim has been
known to hit 400 APM at some games, or 6.66 moves per second.
At that speed, calculation and instinct merge, resulting in moves
that fans insist are nothing less than art. Starcraft devotees study
Mr. Lim's moves as chess players study Garry Kasparov. A DVD
detailing Mr. Lim's winning plays sold 30,000 copies in South Korea
last year, outselling the movie "Matrix Revolutions."
Some female fans want to date Mr. Lim, while others want to mother
him. His refrigerator is stuffed with vats of homemade kimchi, the
fiery Korean pickled vegetables. His walls are hung with dainty
cross-stitch samplers, and his bathroom crammed with skin-care
products, all gifts. He has a fan club with 470,000 registered
members, but for the past two years he hasn't had a girlfriend. His
fame makes it hard for him to risk rejection by approaching girls,
he says: "It's too embarrassing." Also, team rules bar him from
bringing dates back to the apartment.
Five years ago, most Starcraft players were just teens playing for
fun. The rapid growth of cybercafés, called PC baangs, where players
congregate and compete, helped popularize the game. A producer at
the Korean cartoon network Tooniverse noticed that people were
tuning in to telecasts of amateur gaming tournaments that the
network occasionally screened, and persuaded his bosses to finance a
channel devoted exclusively to televising computer games.
Players in Costume
The producer, Hyung Jun Hwang, hired well-known sports commentators
and encouraged them to be outrageous. He put players in costumes
resembling Batman's, though players have since come up with their
own uniform designs, choosing looks ranging from silver, Star Trek-
inspired jumpsuits to Navy dress whites.
Viewership on the network has climbed from 3 million households in
2000 to 6.5 million last year. Companies like Coca Cola Co., Olympus
Corp. and Gillette Co., took turns sponsoring three-month-long
tournaments, paying $400,000 each. This year, SK Telecom, South
Korea's biggest telecom company, paid $1.5 million to sponsor a nine-
month tournament, called Sky League.
The young sport has quickly become hypercompetitive. The Korean Pro-
Gamer's Association has 170 members, though only about 50 make
enough to support themselves, earning on average $20,000-$30,000.
Fewer than 10 make six-figures, the KGPA estimates.
Somewhere on the lower rungs is Australian Peter Neate, 23, a
computer science major who dropped out of Griffith University in
Queensland to try making it as a pro-gamer in Seoul. He makes $300 a
month now, less than what fast-food workers earn in his native
Brisbane. Roommate Sang Hoe, 19, earns nothing but gets free room
and board in exchange for being a practice partner and the team
gofer. "He's lucky," says team manager Daniel Lee. "I have to turn
away a lot of kids."
Canadian Guillaume Patry, who was the top-rated player four years
ago, hasn't won a major game in well over a year. He made $100,000 a
year at his peak but is now living on his savings. He's casting
about for new ventures and has set up an e-commerce business. It's
difficult to keep up the wearing training routine, says the 21-year-
old. Starcraft, he says, is "a young man's game."
Write to Mei Fong at mei.fong@...