Meet one of the world’s first famous players
Lee Yun-yeol as a player and Lee Yun-yeol today. Collage: VICE / Images: (L) Courtesy of CJ ENM. (D) David D. Lee
On a huge concert stage on the famous Gwangalli Beach in the port city of Busan, South Korea, two booths face each other. Inside one is a man with bleached blond hair, inside the other is a man with long black locks. They’re dressed as racing drivers, but the giant screens hanging above them reveal that their competition is virtual reality, the StarCraft League, to be exact. Around 100,000 live viewers watched humans, an insectoid species and aliens fight to the death as commentators analyzed all of the players’ efforts to control the characters. Even more tuned to their televisions at home. It was in 2004, when the real-time strategy computer game StarCraft invaded South Korean pop culture and transformed its players into domestic celebrities – players like Lee Yun-yeol, aka “Genius” and “Machine”.
Under the handful of NaDa player, he cemented his legendary status by racking up the most wins (708) and league titles (six), and overcoming some of the most adrenaline-charged matches that still rack up thousands of seen on YouTube today.
Lee was 13 when he first visited a computer in 1998. These internet cafes were popular among gamers in South Korea, including students like him. He accompanied his friend who kept talking about Starcraft, a new game that everyone was playing.
Now 37, Lee said he never guessed he would become one of the greatest esports athletes of all time. At the height of his career, he was elevated to rock star status with tens of thousands of fans worldwide. At one point, he even went on a blind date with members of K-pop girl group Girls’ Generation for a reality TV show.
“After playing for two hours that day [at the PC bang], I kept pestering my friend with questions about it,” recalled Lee, who spoke to VICE from his office in Daegu. “It was back when everyone in school knew which students were good at gaming. So I begged my mom to buy a home computer, even though I knew full well that our family couldn’t afford it.
US-based video game developer Blizzard Entertainment had just left StarCraft earlier that year. Its principle is similar to that Extraterrestrial film series where the human race (known in-game as the Terran) do battle with an ever-evolving insectoid species (Zerg) and a divine alien race (Protoss). Choosing from these three species, players collect minerals and gas to build infrastructure and a team of soldiers that would attack opposing groups.
Coinciding with the emergence of high-speed internet and personal computers, StarCraft quickly gained popularity on South Korean college campuses and computers. It was a national pastime that appealed to men, women, and children who couldn’t get enough of its graphics, multiplayer capability, and intricate strategies. PC Bangs began holding tournaments offering cash prizes, while amateur leagues formed online and offline to determine the best players in each region.
Lee bought a personal computer and practiced at home to beat his friend, the best player in their school. Then he started winning cash prizes worth around 200,000 South Korean won, just enough to buy the latest cellphone. After playing national tournaments in big cities like Seoul and Busan, he realized that playing could actually be a full-time job.
“Lee Ki-suk, who was part of the first generation of pro-gamers, walked past with his manager, and I just remember a crowd of fans following him,” Lee said.
It wouldn’t take too long for Lee to become a professional player himself. As he rose through the ranks of amateur online servers, he became known as the “kid who came out of nowhere”. At age 17, he joined fellow players Lim Yo-hwan and Hong Jin-ho to form a team supported by broadcast stations seeking to make StarCraft League even more popular.
“That’s when I first wore space-themed uniforms and put makeup on before live games,” Lee said. “To my surprise, I had a large following of male fans, and as our matches became more popular, women started to like me too.”
They were like K-pop stars. Big companies and broadcast stations started investing in players and formed more teams. Ten teams participated in tournaments organized by two leagues and their matches were broadcast on one of the two gaming channels continuously. These channels were so popular that K-pop idols like IU were the announcers for their programs.
The esport has only grown since then. Nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch the 2018 League of Legends World Championship Finals. Hosted in cities around the world like Paris, New York, Singapore and Seoul, professional players competed for prizes of several millions of dollars in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in big stadiums.
South Korean StarCraft The community kicked off Olympic-style esports events with the World Cyber Games in 2001 and set a precedent for how much a professional gamer could earn. Lee eventually rose to the top of the league and made headlines for earning 250 million won in 2004. With a high salary, prize money by winning league championships (a record six times) and appearances in television commercials and shows, Lee was earning more money. than some of South Korea’s biggest baseball and soccer stars.
But with all the limelight came sweat, tears, and long hours of playing the same game over and over again.
“My team was in a one-bedroom apartment where all 10 of us lived. Our managers booked space in a PC bang where we practiced for hours,” Lee recalled.
They woke up at 10 a.m. and trained for four hours during the day, then three hours at night. Trainees practice even longer, about 10 hours a day. They measured their APM, or actions per minute, which indicated the number of actions or hand movements a gamer performed with their mouse and keyboard.
“I was called a ‘machine’ for having an APM of 400…Sometimes when I would go outside after staring at the computer screen all day, I would be blinded by the light,” Lee said, but has also noted that they eventually lived in larger apartments and followed more structured schedules.
Like most video games, StarCraft eventually disappeared from people’s bookshelves and computer screens, giving way to new titles.
Fans still exist today, but exhibition matches have moved online. Longtime commentator Lee Seung-won regrets that there haven’t been greater efforts to protect the longevity of the leagues.
“I see it as a failure on the marketing side,” he said. “Fridays used to be known as game days for fans, as games were played once a week, but leagues have started showing games almost every other day.”
Among the reasons for the shift in schedule was a shift in focus, away from individual players and towards teams and their sponsors – more games meant more revenue for businesses, said Lee, the player.
His fame also declined. He doesn’t even play StarCraft more.
“Imagine playing a game for eight hours every day for 17 years straight. It still can’t be fun to play it [now]he said, recalling the daily training sessions he had to endure.
Now he wants Craft Games. His ultimate goal is to create a game that will one day become an Olympic sport. As CEO of NADA Digital, a game development company that earned 5 billion South Korean won ($3.9 million) in revenue last year, Lee continues to experiment with genres. games across all platforms, recently launching a mobile P2E (play to win) game called slimy world and creating a metaverse for the Cyworld social media platform.
“But I don’t know if there will be another match quite like StarCraft,” he said. “The balance of everything in the game is incomparable to any other.”
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