At age 24, Lim Yo-Hwan plays computer games all day, makes a six-figure income doing it and has thousands of adoring fans.
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 seat.
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 fortune.
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 Internet.
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 cybercafis, 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."