A hundred lights flash, gouts of fire burst from the floor, the crowd goes wild as a young Korean man ascends into view. The flames follow him on his slow walk to his soundproof isolation chamber in the center of a mass of raving fans. This is the big leagues of Korean professional Starcraft: The Global Starcraft II League season 1 championship.
More than a year ago when Rachel and I decided to move to Korea, we knew that we would have to catch a Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty game. One of the few pieces of Korean culture that manage to surface on occasion in the US is that Koreans love computer games so much that they actually have professionals. It turns out that they are consciously trying to project this image of modern Korea. When we first arrived at the Seoul Trade Exhibition & Convention (SETEC) building, we saw two huge lines of Koreans waiting to get in. Luckily we had reservations and were directed into the building right away. No one ever asked for proof of our reservation which I found a bit strange at first. But it turns out that only an English reservation page even exists. If you show up and manage to not look Korean, it means that you have a reservation. The foreigner line was let into the exhibition first. As we walked in we were given a free can of Hot6 energy drink (the main sponsor) and a shake-to-activate hand warmer. (Side note: the same kind of hand warmer was given as a party favor at the Korean wedding Rachel and I went to) We were directed to one particular section which ended up being the focus of almost all the audience shots. This might make it seem to any viewers that a huge portion of professional Starcraft fans are anything but Korean, but in truth, Koreans were sitting everywhere else in the periphery.
Anyone who isn’t into professional computer games (most people) might not be able to imagine what the ‘arena’ even looks like. There is basically a big room with screens strategically placed so as to be visible from all locations. There is a stage in the front of the room for introductions and MCing and there is a stage in the middle of the room with two soundproof rooms for the competitors to play in. The game is projected onto all the screens and someone, presumably the commentators, change the area of the map being focused on to wherever something interesting is happening.
I played a huge amount of Starcraft I when I was younger, but neither Rachel nor I have played the sequel (Wings of Liberty). This was one of the factors that made the match a little hard to follow. The others were that all the coverage and labels on the screen were in Korean and that we had never seen a pro Starcraft match before. Now anyone who watches professional Starcraft (not most people) will know that there are excitable English language commentators to give you second to second analysis. When you are watching in person though, only the Korean commentary is broadcast to the audience.
Despite my lack of knowledge, or possibly because of it, I was really impressed with the skills of the best players in the world. What I found most surprising was how quickly the matches go. After, like, four minutes, each player had branched out into multiple bases and a they have a huge army. The match is over in something like 10 minutes.
SPOILERS! The match was best of seven. The competitors: Jung Min Soo, AKA MVP_Genius and Park Soo Ho, AKA MVP_DongRaeGu.
They both have MVP in their names because when they aren’t going head to head, they are on the same team. Genius played Protoss and DongRaeGu played Zerg. I got the impression that Genius was favored to win, but he ended up taking second place with 2 wins to 4. And so it was DongRaeGu who ended up walking away with the trophy and 50 million won giant novelty check.
If you are in Korea and interested in viewing a match yourself, you can attend the regular season matches, but from I understand, you shouldn’t expect big crowds or a large studio. Apparently it is usually filmed in a studio that you get to by walking through a basketball court, into the back door of a high school, and up some stairs. Very good directions can be found here. If possible, I would instead suggest attending the finale of a major tournament. It’s fun, free, and is uniquely Korean.