Online gaming: An integral part of the South-Korean culture

Article  by  Jennifer ROUSSE-MARQUET  •  Published 20.06.2013  •  Updated 20.06.2013
One-third of the South Korean population regularly plays online games, with PC bangs on every street corner in a country where gaming is both a high level (e-)sport and a public health issue.


Gamers celebrated for their performances, video games promoted by the government, leagues of professional players sponsored by big companies, TV channels dedicated to computer games 24 hours a day, hundreds of thousands of people gathering to see their favorite players compete... Seems surreal?

This is very real, and happening in South Korea – often referred to as an online gaming Mecca.

According to the Samsung Economic Research Institute, there are around 17 million gamers in South Korea, which means that one third of the population play video games actively.

When looking at the South-Korean game market by component, the most striking element is the impressive portion of online games in terms of sales: no less than 70,8 %. With an overall game market estimated to be around 8,80 trillion won in 2011 (around 6,2 billion euros), the sales of online games are estimated to be around 6,23 trillion won (around 4,4 billion euros).Then comes the PC rooms market with 19,5 % of market share. Video games are far behind with a 3% market share accounting for around 268 million won (around 183 000 euros).

According to the Korean Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA), South Korean online games have a 25.9% share of the international online-game market, proving that South Korea is the no. 2 online-game-power country in the world,after China (30.4%).

How did the South-Korean online game market become one of the most dynamic in the world? What are the “PC rooms” and how can the development of these structures be linked to the development of the South-Korean game market? How did gaming become a mainstream activity, regarded as a potential career?

History of the Korean Game Industry

When looking at the global game market, console games usually account for the largest market share -  but not in South Korea, where no platforms can compete against online games.

To understand the popularity of online games in South Korea, it is worthwhile looking into some of the key aspects of the country’s history and culture.

Three historical events in particular have played a significant role in the development of the online game market in the country: the Japanese occupation, the rapid development of IT infrastructures supported by the South-Korean government, and the Asian economic crisis of 1997.
After the Second World War and following more than 30 years of Japanese domination, Japanese cultural products – including the popular Japanese console games by Sony, Nintendo or Sega - were banned from the country until 1998. At the time, on top of this protectionism, negative feelings towards Japan and thus Japanese products were still strong.
This is one of the explanation usually given when trying to understand the reason why console games didn’t gain the popularity they have in other countries.

Moreover, as early as 1994, the government decided to invest considerably in the development of telecommunications infrastructure, providing the country with highly developed submarine cable and satellite resources, as well as robust internet facilities. Following the 1997 crisis, these efforts were intensified as the government identified new technologies as a way to rebuild the economy. As a consequence, South Korea now has the fastest average Internet connection speed in the world, which prompted the development of online games.

Before 1996, the game market in South Korea was mainly concentrated on arcade games, and because of illegal copying, PC games were not seen as a profitable market.

As a consequence, when in 1996 the South-Korean game developer Nexon released NEXUS: The Kingdom of the Winds, the world's first graphic online game, it completely revolutionized the local game market. Based on an historical comic, it was one of the first pay-to-play massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG): gamers had to connect to a server to play the game – thus circumventing the problem of copyright protection. Moreover, The Kingdom of the Winds was a subscription based title, which means that users had to pay a monthly fee to play. Nexon had found a way to address both problems of infringement rights and finding a profitable business model.
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Starcraft: the game that started it all

It is impossible to talk about the South-Korean market without mentioning Starcraft, a real-time strategy game developed by US company Blizzard Entertainment, that is often credited for having revolutionized the genre.
Picture from a Starcraft game
Released in 1998, this game was the best-selling PC-game on that year, and is still one of the best-selling PC games of all time: 10 years after its release, around 9.5 million copies had been sold worldwide. Among these, 4.5 million copies were sold in South Korea only. Moreover, although the average life cycle of a game is usually no longer than a year, after 15 years the game is still immensely popular in the country.
Starcraft is a military science fiction video game which revolves around three races, vying for the supremacy of a distant planet. The players can control one of these three species, called Terrans, Zergs and Protoss. One of the most praised elements of the game is the fact that although Terrans, Zergs and Protoss have their own characteristics and styles of gameplay, they are still balanced in terms of performances.
Starcraft 2

The graphics, voice acting and unusual camera angles were also greatly appreciated by gamers. Another reason usually credited for the success of the game is, the Blizzard service allowing multiple players to play matches online. Contrary to other online games, didn’t require any external interface, and it included features such as ladder ranking and level-matching. According to Blizzard Entertainment, its online platform grew by 800 percent since 1998.
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PC bangs

At the same time, “PC bangs”[+] NotePC방 in Korean.X [1], a sort of cybercafés, became more and more popular in the country. They have massively contributed to the growth of the online game market in South Korea.
“PC” stands for personal computer, and “bangs” means “rooms” in Korean. PC bangs are some sort of Internet cafés where people mainly go to play games, and chat online. For a low usage fee, PC bangs usually offer high performance computers, high-speed connection and popular online games. Moreover, most PC bangs are opened 24 hours a day. Hourly fees range from 500 to 2400 won (between 40 cents and 2 dollars). They are also usually located in the basement or in upper floors, because of the high rent on the ground floor.
The growing popularity of online games is closely linked to the proliferation of PC bangs. Even if PC bangs existed prior to the release of Starcraft, their numbers significantly increased after 1998. Nowadays they are pretty much everywhere in Korea.
The emergence of PC bangs in the country is a direct consequence of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. Following this crisis, many middle managers were laid off. While some of them joined internet start-ups, others decided to open their own businesses. PC bangs quickly became a very profitable model for entrepreneurs: they only require an initial investment to buy the latest games and high-end equipment, and are relatively low maintenance on a daily basis.
Moreover, as the most popular games are usually installed on every computer in PC bangs, the owners have to buy and install legal copies of the games on each of their computers. As a consequence, until 2001 PC bangs provided the largest portion of game publishers’ total revenues.
Furthermore, most games (such as StarCraft) require users to pay a monthly fee or to purchase the software in order to play. Users playing in PC bangs would have had to pay the monthly fees for the game as well as the charges by the PC bang. As a consequence, a partnership was established between PC bangs and game publishers who came up with new pricing method: IP[+] NoteFor Internet Protocol.X [2] pricing. Game publishers only charge PC bangs according to the number of fixed IP, and players don’t have to pay the subscription fee for the game. When the sale of online items was later introduced in games, users playing from PC bangs could get extra bonuses or special items.
Online gaming rapidly became very popular in South-Korea, triggering the rise of PC bangs.
When Starcraft was released in 1998, most of the inhabitants didn’t have access to high internet connection or high performance computers. PC bangs became the perfect environment for players.
Even later, when high broadband Internet access became available in the majority of Korean households and more recently even though the smartphone penetration has reached 60%, the number of PC bangs hasn’t decreased.
Front of a PC bang
In the US, gaming is seen as a lonely activity. On the contrary, PC bangs are really seen by Korean as a place to socialize. Korean gamers particularly appreciate the fact that PC bangs allows them to play in the same room. Going to PC bangs is seen in Korea as a social activity, similar to hanging out in a bar with friends. They are considered to be “third-places”, which means that people spend more time only at their homes and at work.
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The rise of online gaming

Following Starcraft, other online games reached millions of users such as Lineage or MapleStory.
Released in 1998 by Korean company NCSoft, Lineage is another MMORPG set in a medieval fantasy world. One of the particularity of Lineage is the fact that players need to work together in order to progress in the game.
MapleStory is another popular 2D MMORPG released in 2005 by South-Korean company Wizet, which is especially appreciated by female players. Contrary to Lineage, MapleStory is free to play but virtual items[+] NoteSuch as character appearances and gameplay enhancements.X [3] can be bought by players. According to Nexon, in 2006 the game had 39 million subscribers worldwide[+] NoteThe game development studio Wizet created the game, while their parent company Nexon runs it.X [4].
Other popular online games include the Nexon racing game Kart Rider released in Korea in 2004, and Ragnarok Online, a MMPORG by South-Korean company Gravity released in 2002. The business model of Kart Rider is similar to MapleStory as virtual items such as different types of vehicles and spray paints can be bought online. According to the Kart Rider Facebook page, more than 30% of South Koreans have played Kart Rider at least once. The game boasts an impressive number of 230 million users worldwide. Ragnarok Online has an estimated number of 50 million subscribers worldwide.
The Korean online game market grew rapidly: from 16 million dollars in 1999, it reached 171 million dollars in 2000 and 263 million dollars in 2001.
Sales of online games in South Korea, in millions of dollars
Apart from historical specificities, the vast popularity of online games in Korea can also be explained by social and cultural aspects.
Korean gamers are considered as the best in the world, especially when playing in teams: they can take on subordinate roles for the sake of the team. For them, social solidarity is also very important, contrary to American players who have a more individualistic way of playing. Moreover, some of the most popular games are usually based on Korean comics such as Lineage or Ragnarok.
Finally, South Korea is obsessed with education : the country has the second-highest percent of GDP spent on education among OECD countries[+] Note7.6% of South Korea’s GDP is spent on education, whereas the OECD average is of 5.9%.X [5]. Scholars from an early age are expected to spend long hours studying. As a consequence, students are usually working on high-performance computers, dotted with high-speed connections.
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The e-sports industry

Starcraft really is the game that started the South-Korean infatuation with online games. Moreover, it gave birth to the first professional gaming leagues, which then lead to corporate sponsored teams. It was the beginning of the “e-sports” (electronic sports) industry. In 2000, with the approval of the Korean Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, the Korean e-Sports Players Association (KeSPA) was established.
The term “E-sports” refers to competitive gaming. E-sports encompass amateur, semi-professional and professional levels, and many different genres of video games such as real-time strategy (RTS) ( StarCraft 2 and League of Legends), fighting, first-person shooter (FPS) (Such as Call of Duty or Counter-Strike), MMORPG (such as Starcraft), racing, and console games (Such as Guitar Hero, Halo 3, and Super Street Fighter IV).
Just like a sport event, professional tournaments are held in specially built stadiums in front of live audiences, and even involve real-time commentators. For instance in 2005, an impressive number of 120 000 spectators attended the live screening of the SKY Pro League final in Busan, South Korea.
Professional gamers compete to win titles and cash prizes. The tournaments are usually sponsored by major corporations such as Microsoft, Samsung or Coca Cola.
First, small gaming competitions were organized by various websites. But as the popularity of online games increased, big companies such as Samsung, LG or local telecom operator SK Telecom, became involved in the organization and sponsoring of tournaments. TV channels dedicated to gaming - such as OnGameNet and MBC Game - were set up. Nowadays,a broad range of magazines specialized in gaming are also available. Schools[+] NoteSuch as the DigiTech High School.X [6] dedicated to e-Sports can even be found in Korea!
Gaming competitions grew in size, and the first “Olympics” of online games, called the World Cyber Games, were held in Korea in 2000. The first World Cyber Games involved 174 competitors from 17 different countries.
The World Cyber Games 2008
The World Cyber Games are still held annually, and are still the largest global electronic sport tournament in the world.
Multiple gaming competitions exist and although the main competition category is usually Starcraft, some teams focus on FPS games such as Counterstrike and Special Force.
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Professional gamers: gaming as a career

From 2000 to 2008, the number of registered professional gamers increased by 16.3% per year.
Some foreigners even moved to Korea to play for the Korean pro teams, such as Starcraft players Grrr… (aka Canadian Guillaume Patry), or American IdrA (aka Greg Fields).
There are currently 10 registered pro-gaming teams in Korea. The age of professional gamers generally ranges between 15 and 30, and their average annual salary is around $20 000 – but the highest-paid professional gamers can have annual earnings that exceed $400 000.Apart from annual wages and prizes from tournament, professional gamers also benefit from other smaller forms of income from participation in corporate events, commercials and TV programs.
In Korea, the best pro-gamers are celebrities, followed by groupies and fans, such as LIM Yo-Hwan or YI Yoon-Yeol.
LIM Yo-Hwan (aka SlayerS_`BoxeR`) called “The Terran Emperor” is the most popular professional StarCraft player. He is one of the highest-paid professional gamers, with annual earnings around $500 000. A DVD compilation of his greatest games has even been released. In order to continue his career while doing is compulsory military service, he helped create the Air Force pro-gaming team in 2007[+] NoteThe ACE.X [7], which was the first military pro-gaming team.
StarCraft is a fast-paced game, in which gamers need to conduct many actions to defeat their opponents, such as attacking a building or training a unit for example. As a consequence, quick reflexes are essential, and Actions Per Minute (APM) (or the number of actions a player is able to perform in a given minute) is regarded as one of the metrics to judge a the skills of a player.
An experienced player can reach an APM of 75, where as an pro gamers can reach 200 to 400 actions per minute.

Demonstration APM
Although it could seem fun to be playing games for living, professional gamers have to face tremendous pressure. They have to follow a strict regimen, and are usually isolated from the rest of the world. As practice is the key, pro gamers live in training centers (each pro-gaming teams usually have their own training facilities), where they spend their days playing video games for a minimum of 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Apart from doing regular finger exercises, the regimen for professional players includes physical exercise and analysis of the opponents’ strategies by watching videos of previous competitions.
As team spirit is essential, pro-gamers live together, and they are supervised by coaches, who are usually retired pro-gamers.
Lately, the e-sports industry has however been weakened by various events. In 2011, 3 professional teams (MBC, Hwaseung OZ and Wemade FOX) were disbanded, and MBC Game, the professional game channel, ended. Recent lawsuits on intellectual property rights and a scandal regarding fixed pro-gaming matches have prompted the government to create
the ‘Mid- and Long-Term (2010~2014) Plan for e-Sports’ , and the ‘Law on the Promotion of e-Sports Industry’[+] Note2011.X [8].

The South-Korean government has been extremely involved in the development and promotion of the gaming industry, as well as its exportation abroad, through the set-up of five-year plans, the creation of supportive policies towards the game industry, significant investments…  State agencies have also been established, such as the Korea Game Industry Agency(KOGIA)[+] NoteIt was established in 1999 under the name Game Creation Support Center.X [9] and the Korea Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA).
The missions of the KOGIA include promoting e-sports and the gaming industry, supporting gaming SMEs, and promoting the development of core technologies to game applications, setting up incubator program for game developers, conducting researches and surveys...
The Korea Culture and Content Agency (KOCCA), established in 2001, is in charge of the promotion of games worldwide.
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South Korea really is passionate about online gaming – and even obsessed. In recent years, the country has been faced with a growing problem of addiction: according to the government, there are around 2 million game addicts in Korea.
Some gamers can spend days in front of their computers, so absorbed by the games they play that they lose track of time. Immersed in a virtual world, game addicts forget to eat, miss classes and don’t go to work anymore.

In 2005, a 28-year-old man died after playing for 50 consecutive hours. A few years later, in 2009, a couple from Suwon was found guilty of negligent homicide, after their 3-month-old baby starved to death. They were too busy taking care for their virtual girl on Prius Online, a game they played 12 hours a day.
In 2011, a 21-year-old man was found dead in his apartment in Inchon. He was spending his days playing, rarely slept and almost never left his room.
In 2010, two surveys conducted by Seoul’s National Information Society Agency and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, revealed that more than one in ten teenagers will likely develop a form of Internet addiction, and that one in 20 is already considered an addict.

Millions of dollars have been spent by the government in treatment centers specialized in game addiction and educational programs for children. Major players in the game industry such as NCSoft have also spent hundreds of thousands dollars in the set-up of private care centers.
 In a PC bang
Moreover, in order to protect children and reduce game addiction the ‘shutdown system’ and the ‘selective shutdown system’ were recently introduced.
The ‘shutdown system’ or ‘Cinderella Law’ is a regulation proposed by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family Affairs under which children under 16 are not allowed to play computer games between 12pm to 6am. More recently, the ‘selective shutdown system’ or ‘gaming time selection system’ have also been proposed. This system can restricts the gaming methods, time, etc. for gamers younger than 18. For example, with this system parents could fix a certain amount of time during which their children are allowed to play online gaming: 2H per day, or 5H week… 
Finally, all computer games have to be rated by the Game Rating Board (GRB), and there are four categories: all ages, 12 and older, 15 and older, 18 and older. Violent, obscene or explicit games, as well as games depicting military conflict between North and South Korea cannot be distributed in Korea.
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In 2011, according to the KOCCA, the South-Korean game market recorded a 18.5% growth. Mobiles games now have a 4,8% market share (+33.8% compared to the previous year). But with the spread of mobile devices such as tablets and smartphones, the popularity of mobile games should increase in the following years.
For now, the biggest online-game companies of the country, such as Nexon, NCSoft[+] NoteIn June 2012, Nexon and NCSoft merged.X [10], Neowiz, NHN, CJ E&M, are focusing on enlarging overseas markets. However, some of them are already jumping on the mobile games bandwagon, such as NHN who recently separated its game and mobile division.
On top of mobile games, social network games are also becoming more and more popular, as shown by the tremendous success of Kakao Games, the game platform linked to KakaoTalk the popular South-Korean mobile messaging application.
Kakao Games brought in revenues of $51.6 million since its launch in July 2012, and its unexpected success has created a foundation for exceptional growth in the mobile internet and mobile game segments.
As a consequence, with the spread of smartphone and 4G LTE, it will be interesting to see what will happen in the following years in the game industry in terms of market shares: will mobile games surpass online games, or will gamers remain faithful to their first love?
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Key datas

Main game publishers in South Korea: NC Soft, Nexon, Neowiz, Softmax
Main mobile game publishers: Gamevil, Com2us, Theapps, KakaoTalk.
Game portals: NHN, CJ Internet, Neowiz…
Main game developers: NC Soft, Nexon, Barunson, Gamevil,Com2us, WeMade Entertainment,
Cable TV specialized in gaming: Ongamenet
Internet TV specialized in gaming: Gom TV, Pandora TV
Internet Portals specialized in gaming: Naver, Daum

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Juwon SEOK, Korean Game Market - The rising representative contents of Korea, Games,, dec 2010

KOCCA, White Paper on Korean Games, 2012
Nevena VRATONJIC, Zarko MILOSEVIC, Aleksandar DRAGOJEVIC, Video Games in South Korea, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, 2006-2007
Dal Yong Jin, Florence CHEE - KDB Daewoo Securities, Games and Culture – Age of New Media Empires : A Critical Interpretation of the Korean Online Game Industry, Sage Publications, 2008
Jun-Sok Huhh , PC bangs Inc.: the culture and business of PC bangs in Korea, 2007
Korea Game Industry Agency, The Rise of Korean Games, Guide to Korean Game Industry and Culture, 2007.
Photo Credits :
-Jens-Olaf Walter / Flickr
-Starcraft (iloveui / Flickr)
-Vidéo Starcraft 2 (blade9932 / YouTube)
-PC bang (linsay007 / Flickr)
-World Cyber Games 2008 (SurfGuard / Flickr)
-Korean Gamers : APM Demonstration (BobYoMeowMeow / YouTube)
-PC bang (joopdorresteijn / Flickr)

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  • 1. PC방 in Korean.
  • 2. For Internet Protocol.
  • 3. Such as character appearances and gameplay enhancements.
  • 4. The game development studio Wizet created the game, while their parent company Nexon runs it.
  • 5. 7.6% of South Korea’s GDP is spent on education, whereas the OECD average is of 5.9%.
  • 6. Such as the DigiTech High School.
  • 7. The ACE.
  • 8. 2011.
  • 9. It was established in 1999 under the name Game Creation Support Center.
  • 10. In June 2012, Nexon and NCSoft merged.
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