Obsessed Internet gamers in South Korea now have a league of their own

By Chico Harlan
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; A08

BUSAN, SOUTH KOREA -- One Saturday this month, roughly 10,000 South Koreans interrupted their usual weekend activity of playing Internet games for something else: to watch professionals play Internet games.

They gathered in plastic chairs on a beach just before sunset, paying the equivalent of $3 per ticket. Advertisements hung from the stage, the speakers and the overhead lights. The players for the two teams wore uniforms, distinguished by sponsorship logos of competing telecommunications companies.

While South Korea's Internet game industry has grown into an entertainment force on par with television and film, Internet addiction has become a national social problem. Elite Korean professional gamers have loyal fans, lucrative salaries and signature celebration moves. A typical high school student, meanwhile, spends 23 hours a week playing Internet games.

In the world's most wired country, the government faces a collision of interests concerning Internet game-playing. Some lawmakers say South Korea must fight Internet addiction by targeting the gaming industry, limiting the hours at which their games are available. Others see the industry as a still-growing moneymaker -- even a hallmark of Korean culture -- and they want it left alone.

For at least five years, the government has tried to combat Internet addiction through education for parents, counseling, discussions about alternative activities.

"But these policies haven't been effective so far," said Kim Sung Byuk, an official at the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. "So now the government is putting more force into the issue."

The National Assembly is debating a bill that would block underage gamers from playing online between midnight and 6 a.m. The potential for such regulation has set off a chaotic go-round of proposals and counterproposals involving at least four government ministries, one of which refuses to use the term "Internet addiction." Officials at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, who oppose regulating the gaming industry, prefer "Internet overindulgence."

South Korea's professional gaming league has charged into mainstream culture. Matches -- competitions in a game called Starcraft, the most popular in Korea -- are televised. Corporations such as Samsung sponsor teams. The league was hit this year by a gambling scandal that involved some of its highest-profile players.

In the hours before the Starcraft championship, a generation of gamers -- most ages 15 to 30, officials said -- descended on Busan's Gwangalli beach. One player waited backstage, stretching his wrists. Television broadcaster Kim Tae Hyung, famous for his overcaffeinated Starcraft commentary, emerged from his makeup room and headed on stage, emceeing a pregame show that included smoke and fireworks. Coaches, dressed in suits, gathered their teams, issuing strategy and calming words.

Then two players, one from each side, ducked into penalty-box-like booths positioned on stage, and the match was on.

Three jumbo scoreboards showed the action: an emerald land with icy orbs, vaguely insectlike predators and plenty of gunfire. When one player clinched his first-round victory, he bounced from the booth, performing a dance step and was soon surrounded by three beautiful women carrying sponsor posters.

"Before, it was recognized as a game for kids," said Kim Tae Hyung, the broadcaster. "It has become a legitimate e-sport. We've had this now for 10 years, and people now are growing up with it. Korea being the originating country for e-sports, it's very important for the government to support that."

Opponents of the late-night ban argue that nobody has proved that Internet game-playing is dangerous. Neither the American Psychiatric Association nor DSM-IV (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classifies Internet addiction as a disorder.

"When people are addicted to a substance, you call it addiction," said Jaehyun Kim, director of the game content industry division at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism. "But this is a behavior, so we call it overindulgence."

Other government officials disagree. "Yes, games are different from drugs; they don't immediately affect people," said Kim Sung Byuk, from the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. "But it does make people unhealthy. We consider it as serious as a mental illness."

Various governments are trying to determine how to regulate the newest worldwide leisure activity. The Supreme Court plans to review a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors. China instituted a law this month that requires game companies to build anti- addiction mechanisms: For instance, after three hours of consecutive playing, a user could no longer earn points or tokens.

Even so, South Koreans feel like trailblazers, in good ways and bad. About 95 percent of households have broadband access, the highest penetration rate in the world. Last month, the popular game Maple Story reported a record 416,000 concurrent users. That meant that, at least for a moment, about one in every 115 South Koreans was playing the same game.

At a recent session of an Internet "rest camp," 30 kids spent 2 1/2 days learning the fun of alternative activities, such as canoeing and tomato-picking. At night, they filed into a classroom for group counseling sessions. The boys, between 13 and 15, slept six to a dorm. Many want to become professional gamers. Several admitted they were very much looking forward to the end of camp, so they could return home by Saturday and watch the Starcraft championship game.

"We're at a test period, and we are trying to prevent big problems that no other generation has experienced," said Nam Kung Jea Jeung, who helped instruct the camp. "So the government shouldn't just stand by idly."

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