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Meet One of the World’s First Celebrity Gamers


Lee Yun-yeol Korean Celebrity Gamer

The Lee Yoon-yeol as a gamer and today’s Lee Yoon-yeol. Collage: VICE / Image: (L) Courtesy of CJ ENM. (R) David Lee

The two booths faced each other on a large concert stage on the famous Gwangalli Beach in the South Korean port city of Busan. Inside one is a man with bleached blond hair, and the other is a man with long black hair. They dress like racers, but the big screens hanging above their heads show that their races are actually virtual – the StarCraft League to be exact. About 100,000 live viewers watched humans, insectoid species and aliens fight to the death, and commentators analyzed all the players’ efforts to control their characters. Even more from the TV at home.This was in 2004, when real-time strategy computer games Starcraft Invaded Korean pop culture and turned its gamers into household names – gamers like Lee Yoon Yeol, aka “Genius” and “Machine.”

Led by player NaDa, he cemented his legendary status with the most victories (708) and league titles (six), and victories over some of the most adrenaline-pumping games that still play today Got thousands of views on YouTube.

Lee Yun-yeol Korean Celebrity Gamer

Thousands of fans would watch live StarCraft matches in the 2000s.Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

Lee first visited PC bang in 1998 when he was 13 years old. These internet cafes are popular with gamers in South Korea, including students like him.He’s tagging with his friends and he won’t stop talking Starcraft, The new game everyone is playing.

Li, 37, said he never imagined he would be one of the greatest esports players of all time. At the peak of his career, he was elevated to rock star status with tens of thousands of fans around the world. At one point, he even went on a blind date with a member of the K-pop girl group Girls’ Generation for a reality show.

“After two hours of playing that day [at the PC bang], I wouldn’t stop asking my friends about it,” Lee recalled talking to VICE at his Daegu office. “Everyone in the school knew students who were good at games back then. So, I begged my mom to buy a home computer, even though I knew very well our family couldn’t afford it. ”

US-based video game developer Blizzard Entertainment just released Starcraft Earlier that year.The premise is similar to alien Movie series in which humans (called Terrans in games) battle an evolving insect species (Zerg) and a god-like alien race (Protoss). Choosing between these three species, players collect minerals and gas to build infrastructure and a team of soldiers to attack rival groups.

With the advent of high-speed internet and home computers, Starcraft It quickly became popular on Korean university campuses and PC bangs. It’s a national pastime that attracts men, women and children who don’t have access to adequate graphics, multiplayer capabilities and sophisticated strategy. PC bangs began hosting tournaments offering cash prizes, while amateur leagues were formed online and offline to determine the best players in each region.

Lee bought a PC and practiced at home to beat his friend, the best player in their school. He then started winning cash prizes worth about 200,000 won, just enough to buy the latest phone. After participating in national championships in major cities such as Seoul and Busan, it suddenly dawned on him that gaming could actually become a full-time job.

“As a first-generation professional player, Lee Ki-suk walked with his agent, and I just remember a group of fans following him,” Lee said.

It wouldn’t take long for Lee to become a professional gamer himself. While climbing through amateur online servers, he was dubbed “the kid from nowhere”. At 17, he joined fellow gamers Lim Yoo-hwan and Hong Jin-ho to form a radio-backed team in hopes of making StarCraft League more mainstream.

“That was the first time I wore a space-themed uniform and put on makeup before a live game,” Lee said. “It was a big surprise to me that I had a lot of male fans, and as our games became more popular, women started to like me too.”

Lee Yun-yeol Korean Celebrity Gamer

A fan cried after Lee Yoon Yeol won.Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

They are like K-pop stars. Major corporations and radio stations started investing in players, forming more teams. Ten teams compete in tournaments hosted by two leagues, and their games are broadcast on one of two 24-hour gaming channels. These channels are so popular that K-pop icons like IU act as announcers on their shows.

Since then, eSports has only grown. Nearly 100 million people tuned in to watch the 2018 League of Legends World Championship finals. Held in cities around the world including Paris, New York, Singapore and Seoul, professional gamers compete for multi-million dollar prizes in front of tens of thousands of screaming fans in major stadiums.

Korean Starcraft The community pioneered an Olympic-like eSports event in 2001 with World Cyber​​​ Games and set a precedent for how much professional gamers could earn. Lee eventually climbed to the top of the league and made headlines in 2004 with 250 million won. With a high salary, bonuses for winning league titles (a record six times) and appearing in TV commercials and shows, Lee has made more money than some of South Korea’s biggest baseball and soccer stars.

But all the limelight comes with sweat, tears and playing the same game over and over for long periods of time.

“My team was in a one-bedroom apartment where all 10 of our players lived. Our manager reserved space on the computer where we practiced for hours,” recalls Lee.

They would wake up at 10 am, practice for four hours during the day, and then practice for three hours at night. Trainees practice longer, about 10 hours a day. They measured their APM, or movements per minute, which shows how many hand movements or movements the player made using the mouse and keyboard.

“I’m called a ‘machine’ because I have 400 APM…sometimes, when I go out after looking at a computer screen all day, I get blinded by the lights,” Lee said, but also pointed out that they ended up living in a more Apartment in a larger house and follow a more organized schedule.

Lee Yun-yeol Korean Celebrity Gamer

Lee Yun-yeol has amassed the most championships and victories in the professional StarCraft league.Photo: Courtesy of CJ ENM

Like most video games, Starcraft It eventually disappeared from people’s bookshelves and computer screens to make way for newer games.

Fans are still there today, but exhibition games have moved online. Longtime broadcast commentator Lee Seung-won regrets that no greater effort has been made to protect the league’s longevity.

“I think it’s a marketing failure,” he said. “Friday used to be called game day for fans because games were played once a week, but the league started broadcasting games almost every other day.”

One of the reasons for this change in schedule is a shift in focus, from individual players to teams and their sponsors — more games mean more revenue for the company, gamer Lee said.

His star status also declined.he doesn’t even play Starcraft .

“Imagine playing 8 hours a day for 17 years. Still not fun to play [now],” he said, recalling the daily training he had to endure.

Lee Yun-yeol Korean Celebrity Gamer

Li Yunyeol was in front of the computer screen, like the good old days.Photo: David D. Lee

Now he wants to make game. His ultimate goal is to create a game that will one day be an Olympic sport.As CEO of NADA Digital, a game development company that earned 5 billion won ($3.9 million) last year, Lee continues to experiment with cross-platform game genres, most recently with the launch of a game called NADA Digital. Slime World And create a metaverse for the social media platform Cyworld.

“But I’m not sure if there will be another game much like Starcraft,” he said. “The balance of everything in the game is unmatched by anything else. “

Follow David D. Lee Twitter.

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