Author Geoffrey Cain Illustration Graham Roumieu
After a month of grueling training, Koh Seok-hyun is stern-faced as he steps out of the wardrobe room backstage at OGN, an “e-sports” stadium, with freshly applied makeup. He paces nervously. “I have trained for eight hours a day for this,” Koh says. “I’ve studied every aspect of attack.” Then an announcer calls his name, and 5,000 spectators applaud wildly. Koh strides onto the stage, smiling and waving to the crowd. Online, more than three million viewers have logged on to watch him compete in his chosen sport: a science-fiction videogame called StarCraft.
Once a basement pastime, the game has become a way of life in videogame-crazed South Korea, where such contests are a spectator sport, more popular in terms of viewership and dollars spent than baseball, soccer or any other sport in the country. Koh is among the nation’s most beloved celebrities, and when the 22-year-old takes his seat and offers a thumbs-up, the female fans in the audience shriek as though John, Paul, George and Ringo have just taken the stage at Shea Stadium.
Like a chess player, Koh has dissected his opponent’s playing style and crafted his own attack down to the second. To win, he’ll need to build a small army of Zerglings, or alien bugs, and deploy them at exactly the right moment: a mere two minutes, 13 seconds after the game begins. Shortly after that, if all goes well, he’ll swiftly attack his opponent’s human colony.
It’s a risky strategy.
The announcer declares the start of the game. Koh whips his fingers across the keyboard like a virtuoso pianist. Three minutes, 16 seconds later, he’s victorious. That’s actually longer than he had hoped but nearly a record- breaking time nonetheless. As the crowd cheers, Koh high-fives his teammates and coach. “I was confident,” he says. “But if I failed, I could always just say ‘good game’ and leave it there.” Outside, after the match, a cluster of young women crowd him for autographs. “You’re my hero, Koh!” one says.