In 2019, e-sports are the backbone of several American digital media streaming services, is even featured in traditional print media, and has become the arena in which leading modern artificial intelligence projects measures themselves. Depending on exactly when you mark its origin, e-sports might be approaching half a century of existence, but there’s no denying that the concept cemented itself into what we know it as today with Blizzard’s StarCraft -- and it all started in the Republic of Korea.
For those that don’t know, StarCraft is a real-time strategy (RTS) game. An evolutionary descendant of the strategy genre that started with Go and Chess, you can identify strategy video games by their common feature sets: large numbers of in-game units, economies, maps, and a strong emphasis on strategic and tactical decision-making. StarCraft was the much anticipated follow-up to Blizzard’s own WarCraft series. WarCraft II in particular was massively successful, debuting at #2 in sales behind Myst in 1995, and pioneered many of the conventions of the modern RTS genre.
Part of what made StarCraft successful was how strongly it delivered on expectations. The primary selling point of an RTS back in the day was its single player experience, and StarCraft’s was an expansive space opera with memorable characters, strong voice acting, and featured a varied and challenging campaign. Also, the artwork was polished, unit animations were snappy, the AI was top notch, and all of it exuded Blizzard’s iconic polish, humor, and style.
However, what made it great was the innovations it pioneered. StarCraft was the first to nail the balance of 3 unique factions at a time when most others, including their major competitor, Command and Conquer, favored a largely mirrored design between just two factions. It also had the support of a secure and stable online matchmaking service with Battle.net; something that was exceedingly rare at a time when 3rd party matchmaking services like Kali and GameSpy were still the commercial standard. It also had one of the best level editors which gave players control over terrain editing, complete unit tuning, and even trigger-based scripting -- one of the critical features that helped establish a thriving community of “Use Map Settings” custom level designers. This community can claim credit for popularizing tower defense and defend-the-temple game-types, as well as birthing Aeon of Strife, the StarCraft mod that directly spawned Defense of the Ancients, or as it is better known today, DOTA.
However, StarCraft wouldn’t be what it is today were it not for its role in the birth of e-sports. There were many other popular games at the time, none of which started the global e-sports phenomenon. The 90s saw the beginning of several tournament series that became leagues in their own right, such as ones for various Street Fighter titles, Quake, and Warcraft, but by 1998, broadband internet was still not particularly common so the geographic limitations of competition and spectatorship limited these series’ abilities to grow. Additionally, the relative nascency of the internet’s infrastructure and cultural participation made advertisement and cultural germination stagnant. Also, the cultural juxtaposition to “real sports” burdened e-sports with a diminutive connotation in the western hemisphere, negating the advantage of the technological lead of the United States and Europe as a potential host to the concept. To understand how StarCraft got to be as big as it is today, it helps to look at 1998, Korea, and the socio-historical factors that made it fertile ground from which e-sports could grow.
The first factor was the population, which was eagerly looking for a new pastime. The year before StarCraft released saw the ROK embroiled in the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis. When the Thai baht collapsed, many Asian countries including Korea were caught up in the domino effect, leading to widespread layoffs. With massive unemployment and the dynamics of the Korean chaebol economic system, this meant that young adults were hit hard in terms of opportunity and money. So without a job or even a good chance of getting one, many young adults found themselves with a lot of free time, and were looking for something cheap to fill it. As for the younger student population, StarCraft landed at a time when other popular pastimes were on the decline. Younger Koreans, after long hours in schools and hagwon (after school tutoring programs), would typically retreat to a dangoojang (pool hall), manhwabang (comic book cafe), and oraksil (arcade). Leading up to StarCraft’s release, the popularity of those activities were already in decline. The combination of these two factors meant that StarCraft had timed itself perfectly in alignment with a window of opportunity to win over a broad generational cross-section of an entire country.
Widespread availability is critical to virality, and it’s availability in Korea was the product of several overlapping factors. The game itself was designed to be able to be run on lower spec machines, and that was part of what made StarCraft so popular over other PC titles. Only four years prior, the 3dfx Voodoo Graphics Card was released, and as a consequence, by 1998 pc games were well into a graphical arms race which meant that many titles simply could not be run on the dated pcs that most Koreans owned at the time. Many Koreans’ access to computers were through proto-PC bangs, then known as “modem cafes”, “network cafes”, or more simply as “net cafes”. At the time most of these cafes operated as business centers, but the low required specs of StarCraft meant that owners could transition to the entertainment centric PC bang model with no additional financial investment.
But it wasn’t just the available hardware; the game itself was readily available thanks to the rampant digital piracy of the 90’s. The game pirating and authentication arms race that began in the 80’s was well underway, and digital pirates had made it easy to illegally install a copy of the game, provided you had the disc. StarCraft predates Napster and other popular pirating and digital content sharing platforms, but cafe owners and patrons alike could easily populate every machine in a cafe with either a single purchased copy of the game, or from game disc images that could be acquired via IRC channels and private FTP servers if they had access to a reliable internet connection and a CD-burner.
As demand rose, these net cafes quickly became home to a fleet of machines capable of running the game, and a local area network that enabled cafe patrons to play against their friends for a low hourly fee. Young Koreans could now give the game a try for a few dollars, whether their family owned a PC or not. It also provided the function of a new third space, which socially supported a player community. Piracy may have been how Koreans first got a taste for the game, but it also lead to the staggering in-country sales, with Korea accounting for over half of the global sales of the game. This also played a critical role in a new domestic economic opportunity. In the wake of StarCraft, PC bang numbers jumped from roughly 3,000 to over 21,000 in just two years; all this in the midst of a crushing recession, and an IMF loan that had imposed strict government austerity measures and restrictions in private loans.
The appeal of StarCraft was a much a consequence of its strengths as it was about its advantage over other huge titles of the time. Certainly it was a great game, and it’s suitability to Korean tastes account for some of its success, but this may hide the fact that StarCraft simply didn’t have the same competition in Korea that it did in other parts of the world. So, to answer the question why StarCraft succeed where other games did not, we have to look at how StarCraft benefited from cultural and social factors, where other games did not.
Korea is a small peninsula that has been surrounded by larger powers throughout its history. In fact, the history of Korea is that of a people repelling and expelling foreign invaders for thousands of years — the Khitan, the Jurchen, the Mongols, the Tang, the Japanese, and the Soviets. Of consequence here, the mid-1800’s Meiji Restoration of Japan saw the Samurai class’ decline of financial, political, and social power. Inspired by western imperialism, Japan looked to conquest as a way to utilize the thousands of unemployed and potentially discontent samurai. The resultant annexation of Korea in 1910 was the beginning of a 35 year period of Japanese rule remembered for “comfort women”, the illegalization of the Korean language, violent suppression of dissidence, and material and cultural pillaging of the peninsula. To this day, the overwhelming majority of Korean historical artifacts in the Nation Museum of Korea are on “loan” from private Japanese collections. After Korea attained its freedom from Japanese rule, it immediately found itself host to a proxy war fought on its soil between Western and Soviet powers separated families and divided the country into the two state arrangement of today. The result was a country effectively blasted into the stone-age, fighting for its survival, with little time to process the experience of subjugation, terror, and sorrow.
Post-war Korea saw rapid economic growth and a surge of prosperity for the newly crafted middle class, but the memory of the country’s recent bloody past still lingers in the psyche of present day Koreans, as can be evidenced by the subject’s prominence in the country’s artistic mediums. As a consequence, the arcade and console phenomenon lead by Japanese manufacturers and developers was largely absent in Korea. This meant many of the popular console and arcade titles that marked this period of gaming in Japan and the United States, including fighting game series like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and Tekken; and JRPGs like Final Fantasy VII were missing, unplayable, or all but sacreligious in Korea.
Combined with the previously mentioned hardware limitations of the time, StarCraft was on a very short list of games that were playable in Korea. As the game’s availability grew through the expansion of PC bangs, Stacraft’s critical competitive advantage, Battle.net, cinched the game’s place of prominence. In the wake of StarCraft and a fortuitous demonopolization of Korean telecommunications, Korea’s computing and internet landscape rapidly grew, PC bangs flourished, and a public demand signal jump started the commercial sector’s pursuit of providing hardware and internet connectivity. By 1999, roughly 70% households had high speed internet coverage and the average Korean player (with a legitimately purchased key) could now take to Battle.net’s stable network to play with and compete against players all across the country and the globe.
SOCIAL PERMEATION AND ADOPTION
Another critical factor in StarCraft’s success in Korea was how the government, private sector, and even established institutions found ways to benefit from the phenomenon, and consequently worked to aid in its success.
Post Korean War Korea was an agricultural economy in the transitioning hands of despots, interim leadership, and military coups. In 1962, Bak Jeonghui took power through a coup, and started a period of rapid industrialization in the country under the chaebol system. Chaebols are large dynastic industrial conglomerates. Under Bak Jeonghui, the chaebols of Korea (like the internationally recognizable Samsung, LG, Hyundai), were the beneficiaries of close governmental partnerships, financial support in the form of government loans, influence over preferential legislation, and selective protectionism against international competition in its domestic market. Under this system, Korea went from one of the most impoverished countries in the world to the 11th largest economy in a few short decades. The monopolistic privilege enjoyed by the chaebols to this day effectively encompasses every major aspect of the country’s economy, including manufacturing, construction, services, media, and even entertainment.
The Asian Financial Crisis resulted in significant losses in manufacturing for many businesses, and consequently, they turned their eyes towards entertainment as a potential growth industry. Contemporaneously, South Korea and Japan was involved in a series of political exchanges concerning revisionist history in Japanese school textbooks that obfuscated or denied facts of empirical invasions, war crimes, and details concerning the extent and nature of atrocities Japanese occupying and conquering forces committed. In response to a Japanese commitment to take a tougher stance on these textbooks (which was and continues to be half hearted and vacillating), Korea had agreed to lift the ban on Japanese cultural imports such as games, anime, films, and music. The chaebols, intent on capitalizing on the broader governmental desire to brace the public against the “onslaught” of these cultural imports, made use of the government investment into Korean cultural forms, thus starting the Korean Wave, or Hallyu.
The player base’s embrace of the game would likely have been sufficient to cement StarCraft as a seminal game in Korean game culture, but its permeation into the broader cultural space rocketed it to its legendary status. The country’s extensive player base and strong emerging competitive space was something that the entertainment industry was aware of, and capitalized on by turning their cultural machine (the same one responsible for KPop idols) to replicating that formula in top StarCraft competitors. Also, by 2000, the government of Korea had formed KeSPA, the Korea e-Sports Association, under the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism. Korea, which already had a history of broadcasting Baduk on Saturday afternoons quickly retooled the formula and began televising matches that were staged in studios and arenas, with attractive prize pools, and all of the production value of high stakes sporting events. With a surge of government funds, top competitors were spotlighted, featured, sponsored, commoditized, and built into larger-than life super stars, further fueling the game and televised tournaments’ social permeation.
With the sudden internet boom in Korea, even newspapers couldn’t ignore the presence of StarCraft, and so forward looking publication, wanting to cover digital and internet based content to looked to games and found StarCraft. This lent an air of legitimacy to the game in the eyes of the public that recontextualized the game for people that weren’t immediately caught up in the craze. After all, if the country’s leading newspapers and sports editorialists are weighing in on the game, there must be something to it.
With the government’s, private sector’s, and public institutions’ investment in the game for political, commercial, and social reasons, the country created the internally multiplicative environment that took StarCraft from a young-adult pastime to a household name.
Finally, the design of the game lent itself to spectatability. As Dustin Browder, Senior Designer on StarCraft 2 says, a good e-sport must be clear, simple, skill-based, and have sufficient uncertainty.
Compared to many RTSs of the day, StarCraft was exceptionally legible, meaning that players and audience alike could comprehend what was going on. StarCraft’s units have very distinct sizes, silhouettes, and racial differentiation, unlike other games with redundant units with muddy visual designs and problems with visual occlusion by the environment and other units. Also, an emphasis on playability over drama meant that with each frame, at a glance, players and audience could manage a quick and accurate qualitative assessment of the state of the competition, and even how the course of a complex fight was going for any given player in real time. Lastly, the minimap made it so that experts and novices alike could passively intuit who was winning based on a visual abstraction of economy and situational awareness through territory. All of these factors meant that the state of the game was represented on the screen as much as it was in the heads of the competitors.
StarCraft also had a sort of elegant simplicity in its core concepts that people could easily grasp without a comprehensive understanding of the game. Having a bigger economy means you can make more stuff. Having more presence on the map means you have more information. Unit designs, for the most part, clearly communicated that unit’s strengths, weaknesses, and intended functions. Additionally, the layers of influence over a battle’s outcome, whether from positioning, terrain, upgrades, control, or composition; how and why whatever was happening on the screen was perceptible.
StarCraft was also watchable because the expression of skill is obvious. In StarCraft, the clearest expressible metric of skill is the now ubiquitous concept codified by StarCraft -- APM, or actions per minute. Where StarCraft and Brood War excelled as a game was in the ways that it found intuitive ways to reward player speed and precision, and punish lapses in attention -- making each map a feat of will, endurance, and mastery. An iconic example of this is the pro-player, Boxer, and his “invincible marines”. A master of precision in the control of a single unit type, the lowly Terran Marine, allowed the champion to effectively dodge area of effect attacks, extend the life of every unit under his control, minimize losses, and use input volume to win even significantly disadvantaged match-ups.
Lastly, was uncertainty. The fog of war and lack of early game vision shows that imperfect information was always core to the design, it was the type and breadth of play-styles enabled by the game that give it a tangible sense of uncertainty, making for an exciting viewing experience. For example, Koreans pioneered a rushing strategy using the Zerg race known as the “6-pool” build. This early all-in strategy fielded a serviceable army in the earliest moments of the game before most players could respond. Over time, players developed reactionary strategies to mitigate the benefits of rushing, as well as ways to punish the economic delay required to execute the “6-pool”, but the threat presented by the unknown from the earliest moments of the game were critical for a viewing experience that was never dull.
StarCraft, unlike its sequel, was never built to be an e-sport, and as its sequels showed, there was plenty of room for improvement on all of these fronts. Still, StarCraft managed to back its way into this magic formula, if somewhat by accident, which an invested competitive player population was able to manufacture a form that could support high level play, as well as an view experience that could fill stadiums.
StarCraft’s success in Korea could not have been foretold, and many of the factors responsible for the game’s legendary status are a consequence of long leading historical factors, proximate geo-political circumstances, and cultural factors inherent to Korean, specifically, the Korean people of the Republic of Korea. Other accounts of StarCraft’s success attribute internet connectivity, PC Bangs, and a social penchant for strategic games for StarCraft’s success in Korea, but those are a bit of the cart leading the horse. The miracle of the game’s success, and more specifically the beginning of the e-sports phenomenon were as uncertain and fortuitous as the country that birthed it.