With the Intel Extreme Masters making their third stop around the world in Taiwan last week, it seems like this Asian event was not getting anywhere near as much attention as the European and American finals. That’s because of the simple reason that the Quake scene in Asia is not known for their skilled players and many people are banking on the old Quake 3 favourites Sajruz “ProZaC” Malekani and Zhibo “Jibo” Fan to come through these qualifiers.
However, perhaps these two will not be the ones to watch in the future. Asia has a long and strong history of gaming and professional gaming, just not in the first person shooter genre.
Korea was the first nation to really bring professional gaming to the mainstream media in a professional way. Hosting the first World Cyber Games, non-Korean gamers could then have a small taste of the life of a professional Korean gamer. Cars would follow the WCG busses to the venue, schools would take trips there, gamers wearing the WCG jackets would get hounded for autographs and receive free goods from stores.
It’s no secret that Starcraft matches are televised 24/7 on two dedicated channels, OnGame and MBCGame. Professionals there can earn upwards of $100,000 per year. They get their faces on candy bars. The corporate support and endorsements are something which the rest of the other professional gamers around the world can only dream about.
In Japan, competitive gaming has been a little more “underground” with the majority of the action happening in arcades in the fighting game genre. Daigo Umehara (known as Ume or The Beast) hails from Tokyo and is best known for his epic comeback in his Street Fighter III match at Evolution 2004. Even today Ume beat American Champion Justin Wong in Street Fighter IV to take home the gold at Evolution 2009, which is no small feat. Fighting games in America have a huge audience, with 23,000 people tuning in for the final of Evolution.
Even with such great accomplishments, Umehara is not a professional gamer. In a recent interview with Eurogamer, he says that:
“Playing games professionally is not really an option in Japan. If I did really want to do something with my gaming skills in the industry, I think I would have already done so by now. It’s only relatively recently that I started to receive invitations to overseas tournaments with prize money. In Japan, games are something you play for enjoyment; you don’t expect anything in return.”
In China, competitive gaming has seen considerable growth in recent years. So much that two top Warcraft III players XiaoFeng “Sky” Li (from China) and Jae ho “Moon” Jang (from Korea) were given the honor to carry the Olympic torch through china en route to the Beijing National Stadium! Like Korea, a large portion of their competitive gaming audience is focused on an RTS game but it isn’t Starcraft; it’s Warcraft III.
But when writing about Korea and it really being the epitome of professional gaming, exactly how popular is pro-gaming there? We have all seen the stadiums full of people watching Starcraft, but how popular is it amongst the general public? Do the professional players really have rockstar status? Even with all the information available to us online, when you yourself are involved in competitive gaming and follow the scene, of course you’re going to pay attention to it. But what about those who don’t? Is the popularity as widespread as football in the UK? It makes you wonder when you hear about new reality programs where famous popstars want to become professional gamers.
Why aren’t FPS games popular?
Obviously, Asian nations are not strangers to gaming but perhaps we need to turn to history to see why games like Counter Strike, Halo and Quake are not popular when they have had so much success in Europe and America.
One giant in the Asian (and global) gaming industry that I simply can’t ignore (no matter how much I want to) is World of Warcraft. In 2008, the game already had over 10 million players with 5.5 million of them coming from Asia, and the rest mainly split between Europe and America. Over in China, the popularity of internet cafes is steadily growing and the majority of the gamers choose to play the addictive MMORPG. To make this game a televised competitive sport would be opening it up to the largest gaming audience in the world.
Korea has been the prime example to the western world of how much potential competitive game has if only it could reach a large, mainstream audience. But is it too late for western society to embrace gaming as a true profession? Since the 80s, those who have had interest in computers, consoles and gaming have had to carry negative labels and stereotypes.
Forget about Atari for a second and look at the other console dinosaurs; Nintendo and Sega. They were huge dominating forces in making gaming a worldwide pastime. Both being Japanese companies, console gaming and arcade gaming is what Japan was and still is mainly focused on. These arcades were the places to be as a young teenager – adult. This could be the reason that fighting games have always had their place in the Japanese competitive gaming market, as they are one of the most social games that you can play in an arcade. The popularity of gaming arcades in Japan has declined with the introduction of home consoles but now it is growing again. Check out this awesome 8 story arcade in Kawasaki City.
Since the Japanese have grown up with so many classic titles from their own nation (Mario, Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, Tekken etc) I guess there was very little room on the market to push the growth of first person shooters.
After the bloodshed of the 2nd World War, the import of Japanese consoles was banned for many years in Korea, and only in 2001 did the government barely begin to lift this ban. This paved the way for PC gaming to become dominant in its early stages. Because Korea is a small country with a densely packed population, when the country was connected up to the internet, the whole place was wired at once. In early 2002, Koreans were very early on the internet bandwagon, being the 4th largest internet user base with 26 million internet users.
Also because of the heavily packed cities, the Korean communities are close. Apartments are small and crowded and most families didn’t have enough money to buy their own PC or they simply didn’t have the space to fit it in their home. So instead, youth would buy time at internet cafes, known as “PC Baangs”.
Like the arcades in Japan, PC Baangs were major social places, like bars and clubs are to the western world. It was a mainstream part of youth culture. Even the layout of PC Baangs are social, with a large loveseat attached to two computers so that guys could sit with their girlfriends. Because of the ban on console imports, this allowed PC Baangs to only offer PC games and it just so happened that Starcraft was there. People claim that its popularity is mainly because Starcraft was in the right place at the right time. Would it be different had Quake or Counter Strike been available?
Since hosting the World eSport Games Masters in 2006, the rest of the world was able to get a peep at professional gaming within the country of China. Having great representatives already in Warcraft III, it was natural that the WEG was a huge event for the Chinese fans. From there, China then went on to host other events such as the WCG, WSVG and CGS Pan-Asia finals. For the Warcraft III player Grubby, he claims he couldn’t even go to the toilet at WSVG 2007 without fans storming him just to get some kind of signature. In 2008, construction was completed on the Wuhan Optical Valley Electronic Sports Stadium. Yes, a gaming stadium.
Similar to Korea, Chinas cities are densely populated and Internet cafes are a popular youth hangout. But mainly the youths are focusing on MMORPGs and MOCGs (multiplayer online casual games). But don’t count on China following in the footsteps of Korea. The Chinese government has put anti fatigue/anti addiction systems in place which allows them to monitor who is playing, when and how much they’re playing.
The gaming channels in Korea do dedicate some timeslots to other games such as Counter Strike, but almost always around 3am. Perhaps a reality show with a famous Korean pop star bootcamping with some of the FPS legends could also swing the interest in the direction of other games.
What can be done?
So in order to make FPS games such as Quake Live and Counter Strike popular in the largest gaming nations, I would say that the first step would be to make sure that these games are readily available in internet cafes. Maybe running promotions for these games in the internet cafes would draw more attention away from the growing popularity of MMORPGs.
The next big thing is to have “idols” in those games in that country. People tend to mainly cheer for their nation especially in tournaments like WCG and ESWC, and if there were some ass kicking FPS players from China, Korea or Japan it’s sure that the country will pay attention. Just like in sports, if your nation is doing well (eg: Canada + ice hockey, NZ + Rugby etc) then the media will cover it, people will pay attention and care. Send some FPS talent over to Europe for that period and see how helpful it really is to train amongst the best. It’s very difficult to improve when there is no one “better” to practice against and only the rawest of talent can acheive anything from this.
There’s a lot of potential and with some strong marketing pushes from some FPS developers in these internet cafes I think we could see a positive turnaround for FPS games. It’s proven that the audience is there, it’s just a matter of reaching them. If basketball and football can co-exist peacefully, certainly there is space for other types of games to engage such a large, gaming-savvy audience.
Every nation has its own story to tell and for those which I didn’t include, it would be really interesting if you could leave a comment (or send tweet @Helloliefje) about the state of gaming in your country.