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Forget reality TV. In Korea, online gaming is

Online gaming is to Korea what reality TV is to the U.S: Huge. Really huge.  Consoles, so popular in the U.S. and Japan, have barely made the radar in Korea. In Korea, online gaming is it.
At the 2006 World Cyber Games, South Korea recaptured its "Grand Champion" crown, which it lost back in 2003. Pro gamers are accorded rock star status in the game-crazy nation.
At the 2006 World Cyber Games, South Korea recaptured its "Grand Champion" crown, which it lost back in 2003. Pro gamers are accorded rock star status in the game-crazy nation. World Cyber Games

Keun Bae’s wife, Heejung, was worried. At midnight, her husband got a call that roused him from sleep. Keun Bae had stepped into the hallway and closed the bedroom door behind him, but she still heard him speaking angrily into his cell phone: "Sell. Do as I say. Sell."

Heejung fretted for the next couple of days, and finally broke down. "What was that call all about?" she asked tearfully. "Are you in trouble?"

Keun Bae assured his wife that he wasn’t about to lose his shirt on the stock market. Although Keun Bae is an average guy — 32, father of two, Internet café worker — he’s also a high-ranking feudal lord in “Lineage,”  a massively multiplayer online game. And when you’re a high-ranking feudal lord, you’ve got to expect the occasional late-night phone call.

Online gaming is to South Korea what reality TV is to the United States: Huge. Really huge. An estimated 17 million people in the country of 48 million play games regularly. Consoles, so popular in the United States and Japan, have barely made the radar in South Korea. There, online gaming is it.

Hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, the South Korean government invested much of its IMF bailout package on building a national broadband network. These are no ordinary pipes: Korean’s wires can transfer data at speeds of up to 50 megabits per second (Mbps). The “elite” package from AT&T Yahoo! promises download speeds up to 6.0 Mbps.

The investment paid off. Close to 70 percent of South Korean households have broadband. And the “fat pipes” mean that it’s easier for these households to access media-rich content like games and video-on-demand, says Allison Luong, principal and managing director of San Francisco’s Pearl Research.

As such, young people in the technology-obsessed culture have grown up online — but not in the same way that the MySpacers have here in the United States. In South Korea, the home PC is as ubiquitous as a refrigerator.

South Korea also has a consumer culture that rivals the United States and Japan. And keeping up with new trends and technology is considered important to social status.

If you want to move up, you have to have access to the Internet and a PC,” says Luong. “And that means to access online games.”

And there’s no place more popular to access online games than the Internet cafés. Called PC bangs, some of these joints are swanky hotspots with fancy drinks. Some are just smoke-filled urban dives. But there are approximately 28,000 of them in South Korea. They’re everywhere. Think Starbucks. Think Wal-Mart.

The term “online gamer” may conjure up images of a lone teenager playing “EverQuest” in his parents’ basement, but that’s not how it goes in South Korea. Group interaction is as strong a cultural more in that country as studying and shopping. Young people go to the PC bangs to blow off steam and to hang out.

“Community within games is really popular, as well as the ability to form groups, or guilds,” says Luong. “These social aspects are a big reason why people keep playing games [in South Korea.]”

Fame and fortune...maybe
Another is the prospect of fame and fortune — albeit slim. Professional gaming, or e-sports, draw millions of spectators in South Korea. The country has several cable channels dedicated to tournaments and gaming news. And pro gamers can pull down six-figure salaries playing “StarCraft” and “Warhammer.”

Every year, the best of the best gather for the World Cyber Games, a sort of online-game Olympics. A field of about a million gamers is gradually winnowed down over the course of a year, with a fall finale.

In 2006, 700 players from 70 countries battled for dominance in Monza, Italy. South Korea, which lost its best overall title in 2003, recaptured their “Grand Champion” glory, winning two gold medals, one silver and one bronze. South Korean players also dominated the “StarCraft” tournament.

“StarCraft,” Blizzard Entertainment’s real-time strategy game is a favorite of professional and recreational gamers in South Korea. All of the company’s games are popular, including the click-happy “Diablo” franchise and the quest-driven “Warcraft” series. But the nearly 10 year-old “StarCraft” is a phenomenon.

“’StarCraft’ is one of the main things that helped to spawn the PC bang business,” says Blizzard chief operating officer Paul Sams. “It was also a big part of what spawned professional gaming and game broadcasting.”

But even though bellwether titles like “StarCraft” and “Lineage” remain popular in Korea, game content has grown more diverse as the gamer population has grown. Casual games are the fastest growing genre in the country, says Luong. Nexon Entertainment says that one quarter of South Korea’s population has played its “Kart Rider” game.

While that claim is as disputed in the blogosphere as the results of the 2000 presidential election, there’s no doubt the cute little racing game has earned millions of fans — many of them young women and girls.

The gamer population is indeed getting much younger in South Korea. A survey by the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication shows that nearly 64 percent of five-year-olds use the Internet. And 93 percent of preschoolers selected online games as the reason for going online.

“The popularity of gaming at such a young age helps to drive South Korea’s gaming-oriented culture.” says Luong.

But as important as gaming is to South Korea’s economy and way of life, the dizzying growth is bound to slow. Luong predicts that intense competition and increasing market saturation will slow growth by 2008.

And as in other industrialized countries, the birth rate is falling in South Korea, and the core-gamer market is aging. As gamers age, other responsibilities like jobs and family intrude on game-playing.

“My wife especially does not understand [my game-playing,]” says Keun Bae. “This causes friction on many occasions.”

But even so, he admits to sneaking an hour or two while at work or in the evenings. It is a necessary stress-reliever, he says. And it makes him feel good.

“It takes me to a different world,” he says. “One that allows me to have powers and do things I cannot do in my normal life.”