Meet One of the crucial International’s First Superstar Avid gamers

Lee Yun-yeol korean celebrity gamer

Lee Yun-yeol as a gamer and Lee Yun-yeol these days. Collage: VICE / Photographs: (L) Courtesy of CJ ENM. (R) David D. Lee

On an enormous live performance degree at the well-known Gwangalli seashore within the port town of Busan, South Korea, two cubicles face every different. Inside of one is a person with bleach-blonde hair, within the different is a person with lengthy black locks. They’re dressed like race automobile drivers however the massive monitors striking over them disclose that their festival is in truth digital—StarCraft League, to be precise. About 100,000 reside spectators watched people, an insectoid species, and extraterrestrial beings combat to the demise as commentators analyzed the avid gamers’ each and every effort to keep watch over the characters. Much more tuned in from their TVs at house. This was once in 2004, when the real-time technique pc sport StarCraft invaded South Korean popular culture and became its players into family celebrities—players ike Lee Yun-yeol, aka “Genius” and “Device.”

Underneath the participant deal with NaDa, he cemented his legend standing by means of accruing probably the most wins (708) and league titles (six), and overcoming one of the vital maximum adrenaline-pumping suits that also rack up hundreds of perspectives on YouTube these days. 

Lee Yun-yeol korean celebrity gamer

Hundreds of lovers would watch reside StarCraft suits within the 2000s. Picture: Courtesy of CJ ENM

Lee was once 13 years outdated the primary time he visited a PC bang in 1998. Those web cafes had been well-liked amongst players in South Korea, together with scholars like him. He tagged in conjunction with his good friend who would not forestall speaking about StarCraft, a brand new sport everybody was once taking part in. 

Now 37, Lee stated that he would have by no means guessed he would turn into probably the most largest esports athletes of all time. On the peak of his profession, he was once increased to rock megastar standing with tens of hundreds of lovers international. At one level, he even went on a blind date with individuals of Ok-pop woman staff Women’ Era for a fact TV display. 

“After taking part in for 2 hours that day [at the PC bang], I wouldn’t forestall bugging my good friend with questions on it,” recalled Lee, who spoke to VICE from his place of job in Daegu. “This was once when everybody at school knew the scholars who had been just right on the sport. So, I begged my mother to shop for a house pc, even if I knew completely smartly that our circle of relatives couldn’t have the funds for one.”   

The USA-based online game developer Snow fall Leisure had simply launched StarCraft previous that 12 months. Its premise is very similar to the Alien film sequence the place the human race (recognized within the sport as Terran) fights with an ever-evolving insectoid species (Zerg) and a god-like alien race (Protoss). Opting for amongst those 3 species, avid gamers gather minerals and gasoline to construct infrastructure and a workforce of infantrymen who would assault the opposing teams. 

Coinciding with the emergence of high-speed web and residential computer systems, StarCraft briefly won reputation in South Korean school campuses and PC bangs. It was once a countrywide interest that appealed to males, ladies, and youngsters who may now not get sufficient of its graphics, multiplayer capacity, and sophisticated methods. PC bangs began internet hosting tournaments providing money prizes, whilst newbie leagues shaped on-line and offline to resolve the most productive avid gamers in every area. 

Lee purchased a non-public pc and practiced at house to overcome his good friend, the most productive participant of their faculty. Then he began profitable money prizes price about 200,000 South Korean received, simply sufficient to shop for the most recent mobile phone. After becoming a member of nationwide tournaments in main towns like Seoul and Busan, it hit him that gaming may in truth be a fulltime activity. 

“Lee Ki-suk, who was once a part of the primary era of pro-gamers, was once strolling previous along with his supervisor, and I simply have in mind a crowd of lovers following him,” Lee stated.  

It wouldn’t take too lengthy for Lee to turn into a qualified gamer himself. Whilst mountain climbing the ranks in newbie on-line servers, he become referred to as the “child who got here out of nowhere.” At 17 years outdated, he joined fellow players Lim Yo-hwan and Hong Jin-ho to shape a workforce subsidized by means of broadcast stations taking a look to make StarCraft League much more mainstream.

“This was once once I first wore space-themed uniforms and placed on make-up sooner than the reside suits,” Lee stated. “To my giant wonder, I had a big following of lovers who had been males, and as our suits become extra well-liked, ladies began to love me too.”

Lee Yun-yeol korean celebrity gamer

A fan crying after one among Lee Yun-yeol’s wins. Picture: Courtesy of CJ ENM

They had been like Ok-pop stars. Main firms and broadcast stations began to put money into the avid gamers and shaped extra groups. Ten groups competed in tournaments hosted by means of two leagues, and their suits had been aired on one among two 24-hour gaming channels. Those channels had been so well-liked that Ok-pop idols like IU had been announcers on their systems. 

Esports has most effective grown since then. Just about 100 million other folks tuned in to look at the 2018 League of Legends International Championship ultimate. Hosted in towns world wide like Paris, New York, Singapore, and Seoul, skilled players competed for multi-million buck prizes in entrance of tens of hundreds of screaming lovers within main stadiums. 

The South Korean StarCraft neighborhood pioneered Olympics-like esports occasions with International Cyber Video games in 2001 and set a precedent for the way a lot a qualified gamer may earn. Lee ultimately reached the highest of the league and made headlines for making 250 million received in 2004. With a excessive wage, prize cash from profitable league championships (a document six instances), and appearances on TV ads and presentations, Lee was once making more cash than a few of South Korea’s greatest baseball and football stars. 

However with the entire limelight got here sweat, tears, and lengthy hours taking part in the similar sport over and over. 

“My workforce was once in a one-bedroom condo the place all 10 people avid gamers lived. Our managers reserved area in a PC bang the place we practiced for hours,” Lee recalled.

They’d get up at 10 a.m. and follow for 4 hours all through the day, then 3 hours at evening. Trainees follow even longer, for roughly 10 hours day-to-day.  They measured their APM, or movements in step with minute, which confirmed what number of hand movements or motions a participant made with their mouse and keyboard. 

“I used to be referred to as a ‘device’ for having a 400 APM… Infrequently, once I would move out of doors after taking a look on the display screen all day, I used to be blinded by means of the sunshine,” Lee stated, but in addition famous that they ultimately lived in better flats and adopted extra structured schedules.   

Lee Yun-yeol korean celebrity gamer

Lee Yun-yeol accrued probably the most championships and wins all through his time in skilled StarCraft leagues. Picture: Courtesy of CJ ENM

Like maximum video video games, StarCraft ultimately disappeared from other folks’s cabinets and pc monitors, making method for more recent titles. 

Fanatics nonetheless exist these days however exhibition suits have moved on-line. Longtime broadcast commentator Lee Seung-won regrets that there wasn’t a larger effort to give protection to the leagues’ longevity. 

“I see it as a failure at the advertising facet,” he stated. “Fridays was referred to as sport days for lovers, as a result of suits had been performed as soon as every week, however the leagues began to air video games virtually each and every different day.” 

A number of the causes for this transformation in scheduling was once a shift in center of attention, clear of the person avid gamers and onto the groups and their sponsors—extra video games intended extra earnings for the corporations, Lee, the gamer, stated.  

His stardom waned too. He doesn’t even play StarCraft anymore. 

“Consider taking part in a sport for 8 hours each day for 17 years directly. It nonetheless can’t be amusing taking part in it [now],” he stated, recalling the day-to-day coaching periods he needed to bear.

Lee Yun-yeol korean celebrity gamer

Lee Yun-yeol in entrance of a pc display, like the great ol’ days. Picture: David D. Lee

Now, he needs to make video games. His final function is to create a sport that may someday turn into an Olympic recreation. As CEO of NADA Virtual, a sport creating corporate that made 5 billion South Korean received ($3.9 million) in earnings ultimate 12 months, Lee continues to experiment with gaming genres throughout platforms, maximum just lately launching a P2E (play to earn) cellular sport referred to as Slime International and making a metaverse for the social media platform Cyworld.

“However I’m now not certain if there might be every other sport somewhat like StarCraft,” he stated. “The steadiness of the whole lot within the sport is incomparable to some other.”

Observe David D. Lee on Twitter.

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