During the next few weeks I will be writing special posts on my two week trip to South Korea. It was not only an amazing experience, but also invaluable for my research in e-sports, East Asian culture and education.
I have been following several professional Starcraft circuits ever since the height of the Brood War expansion craze as a player and an organizer. I have also started a local University club, managed my own team and volunteered for two prominent e-sports organizations: The Collegiate Star League and E-sports Canada. Professional gaming in South Korea is huge, so much so, they have their own television channel dedicated to broadcasting games and other gaming related shows.
The matches I attended were part of the Global Starcraft League in the GOMTV studio in Gangnam. Entrance was free, but based on a first come, first serve basis and included an energy drink (any progamer’s life blood) and a small radio to tune into the English casters if I so desired (the Korean casters are always much more dynamic and exciting). I could also make a sign, which are often used to cheer on a specific player, make jokes or represent the sign holder in some fashion. Signs are often filmed during the initial, often uneventful start up of the game and a fun way to let the audience get involved.
I was privy to much of the set up, being one of the first people in the studio. Players were warming up in their booths, casters and hosts were getting their makeup done in the backroom and cameras where being set up. In Korea, progamers are treated like celebrities: they have fan clubs, signings, photoshoots and appear in commercials. A group of about five young girls were fans of player, Jung “Rain” Yoon Jong, were cheering him on, holding their breath during decisive fights and promptly left the studio after his games were finished.
The filming and capturing the players via photograph are highly important during pre-game, during gameplay and post game. Before filming, each player underwent a short photo shoot in front of the banners on the sides of the studio. The camera-person encouraged them to pose in ways which exuded toughness, strength and seriousness, which, appeared to be somewhat ironic being that it is hand/finger speed and response time which make a skilled progamer. Visually, these skills are, to my knowledge, near impossible to depict.
Camera placement was interesting in that there were always two main cameras pointed into the booths to capture the players in-game. These shots are superimposed onto the side of the gameplay footage, meant to capture player reactions to good plays and mistakes.The young players in the booths do well to ignore these kind of external distractions and focus on the game. Even after matches, player do not interact with anyone, unless their coach is there and will leave their booth for the back room. I stayed around to talk to some of the organizers after the game and never saw the players emerge. This was unlike my experience hosting tournaments in North America where players will relish in the attention and fame that comes with the job. The Korean players appeared to be shy, deeply focused and present for only the task they had to accomplish.
Many wonder if the Starcraft 2 scene is dead, a question asked by the English casters during the game I attended due to the small audience turnout due to a big League of Legends taking place that same night. I wonder if it is necessary to get the players back on the ground floor, interacting with their fans, even with the televised fame these players have. Maybe these players lack the social coaching, a sentiment backed by the awkwardness of the photo shoots, their young age and the intense shame they feel after a loss (one player covered his face for a good minute after losing a set). However SC2‘s popularity is waning across the globe both on small scale streaming (as of typing this post, SC2 has 18,998 viewers on Twitch vs. League‘s 93,405 viewers) and world class tournament levels based on venue size, online viewers and prize pools. Although the solution remains unclear, I hope the game continues to evolve rather than die out.