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Gamer is royalty in S. Korea

Times Staff Writer

HE confessed to feeling “more nervous than usual” as he waited for his comeback fight to begin, his fingers fiddling inside a hand warmer to ward off the winter chill seeping through the walls of the coliseum.

The Emperor knew he had to keep his fingers loose.

A crowd of more than 1,000 people was waiting in the arena, with 1.78 million more watching over the Internet and on TV to see what those fingers could do, or, more to the point, whether they had gone cold in the five months since he disappeared from public view.

He is in the air force now. Conscripted. Snatched away from his calling and from the fans who revered him for leading their sport -- no, their passion -- to respectability.

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In the crowd, teenage girls squealed. Preteen boys, tugging baffled-looking parents along, craned their necks for a better look.

It was like Elvis getting out of the Army.

The Emperor was back.

For every teenage boy whose dad hollered to turn off that stupid video game because it’ll rot your brain and ruin your life, Lim Yo-hwan is a god: The 27-year-old is the most famous professional gamer in South Korean electronic sports, and his dominance has earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in salary, prize winnings and commercial endorsements.

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Lim’s skill at playing the futuristic battle game StarCraft has turned him into the first superstar of the e-sports era, South Korea’s Babe Ruth of gaming. Usually referred to by his nicknames Boxer (short for his game ID SlayerS_’BoxeR’) or the Emperor, he has won more games of professional StarCraft than anyone else in South Korea, becoming a celebrity in a country so serious about gaming that it boasts professional leagues and two cable channels televising games 24/7.

His good looks and easy smile have made him a sex symbol in a “sport” supposedly the domain of geeks. He wrote his biography -- "(Try and Be) As Crazy As Me” -- at 25.

Lim’s life was charmed until the South Korean military stepped in last year to remind him that the armed forces are not a mosaic of digital dots and simulated explosions but real battles, waged by men and women, not Firebats, Wraiths and Zerglings.

Like every eligible South Korean male, Lim is obliged to put in 27 months of service in a military stuck in a 54-years-and-counting standoff with North Korea. In his mid-20s, he could put off his compulsory commitment no longer. He got his draft notice, went through basic training and was assigned to the air force in October.

No one knows exactly what Lim does for the air force, though the gaming community is pretty much convinced that the generals have him running computer simulations of war games. But the air force clearly knew it had a special conscript in Pvt. Lim Yo-hwan. Lim in uniform was a PR opportunity it couldn’t miss. The air force formed its own electronic gaming team and asked him to lead it into battle against the enemy: e-sports clubs sponsored by South Korea’s big TV, telecom and shipbuilding corporations.

That’s why there was so much buzz over Lim’s first air force fight: a daylong tournament against 11 other teams held at Seoul’s Jamsil Indoor Stadium. For StarCraft fans, the $20,000 top prize money was almost incidental.

“How’s life in the military?” the announcer asks Lim before the games begin.

“Everything’s going great,” he says.

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The crowd goes nuts.

SOUTH Korean gamers are obsessed with StarCraft. Because the first generations of video game consoles were Japanese-made and banned here by trade restrictions against Korea’s old colonizer, the gamers developed their skills by playing online with PCs. And in the late 1990s, StarCraft was the hot game.

To most Korean gamers, e-sports start and end with StarCraft.

“StarCraft is a great game, but it’s the only game that is popular at a professional level in Korea,” said Daniel Lee, manager of the professional eNature Top Team. Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, the game’s maker, has sold more than 6 million copies in South Korea, where it has been played by more than 10 million people in a population of 49 million.

But nobody in South Korea has ever played StarCraft like Lim.

The game requires players to choose one of three “races” to wage their intergalactic battles, and Lim made his reputation by winning with troops from the Terran race -- hence his full nickname the Terran Emperor. Some players argue that Terran is the weakest race, but Lim says he was always convinced that the genius of StarCraft lay in the fact that the three had equal abilities.

The StarCraft obsession evolved from being the game of choice in PC bangs, as South Korean Internet cafes are known, to scattered tournaments in the late 1990s.

Spotting the audience potential, promoters soon formed professional leagues. Games have been televised here for seven years, with Ongamenet, the largest channel, reaching 3 million to 4 million viewers during the 6-to-10 p.m. prime time, and its competitor, MBC Game, drawing 1.5 million at the same time for its own leagues.

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The 2005 SKY Pro League final attracted 120,000 spectators to an outdoor stadium in the southern city of Busan.

Lee says the level of organization in South Korean pro e-sports is far ahead of that in the United States, where the start of professional gaming has been slower despite recent deals for more investment and TV exposure. Lee is pushing Korean organizers to use their head start to take their sport global but says the effort is being held back by this country’s addiction to a single game.

“Take WarCraft,” Lee said of the strategy game series that is among the most popular in the United States and Europe. “WarCraft is very, very small in Korea. For us to go international, we need to start enjoying new games.”

But pro gaming is also a source of nationalist pride here.

“Koreans are first in e-sports, and other countries will follow,” said Kim Jin-wook, a reporter for the Sports Seoul daily newspaper who was covering a match for MBC’s StarLeague (commercial sponsors: contact lenses, soft drinks and acne cream). “Our dream is to be the best-known country for e-sports, the way America is known for baseball,” Kim said. “And our gamers will be the role models, seen as the ideal human type for their ability to use IT, just like we now look up to those who can hit or kick a ball.”

The StarLeague has about 200 pro players and its games are played before an audience in a Seoul shopping mall. About half the spectators are young women. There are few female pro gamers, but since male players started to think more about their looks the star factor has jumped and women have begun to come out to watch.

FOR some in this young crowd of teens and early twentysomethings, Lim is already past his prime as a player. He no longer dominates tournaments and his ranking had slipped even before he entered the military, raising questions of whether aging fingers slow -- the way a hitter’s bat speed does.

But Lim already has left his mark on e-sports.

“I knew I wanted to become a pro gamer when I was 14 -- Lim got all of us into StarCraft,” said Jin Young-su, an 18-year-old rising talent on the STX Soul team. He has the tapered fingers of a pianist, perfect fingernails and an expensive haircut. His coach has him lifting weights and running to get in shape.

He also gets plenty of face time with the computer.

“I used to play one hour a day when I was a kid, but now as a pro I can play 10 hours a day,” Jin said.

Lim’s own work ethic is as legendary as his rise from PC bang “bum” to riches and fame. In his autobiography, which cites Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and Hollywood’s “Forrest Gump” as his inspiration, Lim recalls discovering the game at a friend’s house when he was in high school. At the time he was busy disappointing his parents by being, as he himself admits, focused on playing soccer and arcade games instead of school.

“I gave him a hard time,” said his father, Lim Byong-tae, who worked in the construction business and used to storm into PC bangs to try to haul his son home to study, once with a stick. “I scolded him a lot. And I refused to buy him a computer.

“Of course I was disappointed. He was my only son.”

Lim Yo-hwan once tried to quit StarCraft cold turkey, but one right click at the screen had him hooked again. He surrendered to StarCraft, calling it the “exit from the dark tunnel I had been looking for.”

He spent nights honing his skills in PC bangs and, with his reputation growing, was spotted by a team manager and signed as a pro gamer in 1999.

His parents, still mystified as to exactly what a pro gamer did, gave him their blessing.

THE players enter the Jamsil arena along a red carpet, past bodyguards in sharp suits and through swirls of fog from dry ice. They don’t so much march with Olympic precision as amble in. A few trip over a fold in the carpet.

The 11 corporate teams are dressed in standard gamer gear: Matching track suits under team parkas. Running shoes. Long hair carefully cultivated to fall forward just the way a Korean pop star’s would.

Only Lim and his three air force teammates look out of uniform in their pressed blue jackets and pants, their hair buzzed to military length.

“His hair reminds me of when I was in the army,” says Lim’s father, beaming as photographers make a fuss over his son.

But the father closes his eyes and clasps his hands in prayer when the younger Lim settles into his soundproof glass pod on stage and prepares to play. His opponent is in his own glass pod, behind a computer screen, visible in profile. Their aim: destroy the enemy base.

Ensconced behind his keyboard, Lim doesn’t look like he needs divine help. He says his heart rate always goes up during competition, but to a spectator, he looks as relaxed as if he were playing in his bedroom.

Lim’s fingers fly over the function keys. He commands his troops with furious shift-key combinations and mouse-clickings, and his opponent is in all kinds of trouble. Then Lim unleashes special forces to attack the enemy’s flanks. “He’s an air force man, but he’s fighting this one in close ground combat!” the arena announcer shouts over the crowd’s screams.

Now Lim is putting on a show. The giant screens above the stage show the mayhem as Lim blasts away. The crowd’s screams get louder. Some girls cover their mouths, eyes wide.

“The opponent fell for my son’s strategy,” says Lim’s father, staring approvingly at the screen.

It is over in five minutes. Lim’s overwhelmed opponent slumps over his keyboard, his thumbs pressed into his eyes.

Victorious, Lim steps out of the glass pod. On this day, at least, he has answered the question of whether the Emperor still has it.

“We were waiting for you, Lim!” reads a sign held aloft in the stands.

And then Pvt. Lim stands at attention, and salutes the crowd.

*

bruce.wallace@latimes.com

Special correspondent Jinna Park contributed to this report.


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