Saturday, April 13, 2013

When Korea's E-Sports was at the Brink of Death

Dear Korean,

I heard there was a huge scandal regarding E-sports about 2-3 years ago. From what I've heard, the scale of the scandal was so big that it almost put an end to the E-Sports itself. Would you be willing to explain what exactly happened back then? How did the Koreans react to the scandal?

Avid gamer

It has been more than three years since the Korean wrote the post about the popularity of Starcraft in Korea. Incredibly, it is still one of the most frequently read posts of this blog. Consider this post to be a sequel: how illegal gambling and match-fixing nearly destroyed the world's first professional e-sports league in Korea.

First, a quick review on how Starcraft became a professional sport in Korea. Starcraft was released in 1998. For a game released at that time, Starcraft had an ambitious Internet-based multi-player gameplay. This was ambitious because, at the time, it was not clear who would be able to take advantage of this multi-player design. Remember that 15 years ago, only a small portion of the world's population had Internet, and most of those who did have Internet relied on dial-up connection through the phone lines, utterly inadequate for online gaming.


Korea, however, recognized the potential of the Internet early on, and began a massive public investment in installing a fiber-optic cable network throughout the country. The result was that, by the end of 20th century, Korea had a national broadband network that boasted the fastest Internet in the world by a wide margin. Using the unparalleled Internet infrastructure, Koreans begin playing Starcraft, the best Internet-based multi-player game available. The rest is history: Korea is the forefront of the worldwide e-sports, with televised video games and professional gamers with rock star-like status.

(The lesson: government is good, and it should be in the business of picking winners and losers. If Korean government did not take the initiative in the late 1990s to invest a fortune in installing fiber-optic cables, but waited instead for private companies to build their own, would Korea be a major player in the high-tech industry that it is today? Would Korea have created, seemingly out of thin air, professional e-sports leagues, an entire new multi-million dollar market that can only grow in importance in the age of the Internet? If you say yes, the Korean has some Ron Paul presidential memorabilia to sell to you.)

Starcraft began becoming professional around 2000. Independent Starcraft tournaments began sprouting up, and cable televisions in Korea would broadcast the matches. In fact, in many cases the cable TV stations were the ones hosting the tournaments, with a prize money funded by its sponsors in exchange for advertisement placements. Soon, a pattern emerged: Korea's Starcraft leagues and players operated somewhat like professional golf--a collection of different tournaments, with varying levels of competition, prize money, and prestige.

For the next several years, the popularity of professional Starcraft leagues would grow exponentially. Then came 2007.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

KeSPA, and the Broadcasting Rights Controversy

The fate of professional Starcraft leagues in Korea would encounter a major turning point in 2007. By 2007, Starcraft was fully mainstream. There were 12 professional teams, all of whose players received regular salaries from major corporations who sponsored the teams. Eleven of the professional teams--or, more precisely, the corporate owners of the teams--belonged to Korea e-Sports Association (KeSPA), which was formed in 1999. (The Republic of Korea Air Force opened its own professional team to ensure that the pro gamers remained in game-shape during their mandatory military service. The Air Force is not a part of KeSPA.)

KeSPA logo

In 2007, KeSPA made a major announcement that would fundamentally change the way e-sports were being run in Korea. Instead of a golf-like system, KeSPA wanted a baseball-like system: a single league in which only a select number of league-sanctioned professional teams may play against one another.

Why did KeSPA want to change the format of play? The universal motivator: money. As KeSPA was made up of all professional Starcraft teams then in existence, it claimed that it owned the broadcasting rights of its players' games. (Since the players were drawing salaries from their teams, they hardly complained.) Previously, each cable TV station was free to host its own tournament with sponsors of its choosing, accept players who survived the preliminaries or invite major players, and broadcast that tournament. Now, according to KeSPA, anyone who wanted to broadcast any professional Starcraft game had to pay KeSPA for the broadcasting rights, because it owned the broadcasting rights over its players. If the tournaments would not pay, the players would not show up to the tournaments. At the same time, KeSPA would host its own tournaments to crowd out the previously established Starcraft tournaments.

Imagine that, suddenly, the PGA began claiming ownership over the broadcasting rights of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and the majority of the world's professional golfers worth watching on television. And then the PGA demanded that Augusta National Golf Club pay it a boatload of money to broadcast the Masters. If Augusta does not pay, no professional golfer on PGA's payroll will attend the Masters. In addition, PGA would host its own series of golf tournaments every weekend, so that golf-watchers can forget all about the Masters. That is exactly what KeSPA did to Korea's e-sports.

An ugly series of lawsuits, backroom negotiations and public clashes followed. When a cable TV station refused to pay for the broadcasting right to hold its tournament, a KeSPA official ordered the players to quit in the middle of the tournament, on live television. The matter became even more complicated when Blizzard--the guys who created Starcraft in the first place--intervened to claim a share of the broadcasting rights. Blizzard had a point: if KeSPA is earning money by hawking the broadcasting rights of its players interacting with Blizzard's intellectual property, why wouldn't Blizzard deserve a share of that money? Based on this argument, Blizzard claimed that it had its own broadcasting rights of Starcraft games, and licensed the rights to Gom TV, an Internet TV station in Korea. Gom TV hosted its own tournament, called Gom TV Classic, which lasted just three seasons over two years as it became unclear whether the KeSPA players would continue participating in the tourney.

Meanwhile, to maximize their leverage, KeSPA began hosting a huge number of its own games. KeSPA correctly realized that its biggest asset is the stars on their payroll--the greatest Starcraft players who were becoming household names in Korea. Parading its stars for its own tournaments, and taking them away from other independent tournaments, were the best weapons that KeSPA could wield. Thus, beginning in 2007, KeSPA would hold professional matches five times a week, and added more post-season playoff games. To make the game more about the stars, KeSPA stopped holding team versus team games, and only hosted one-on-one matches. Also, to build the anticipation for the games, KeSPA announced the match-up of the players up to 48 hours in advance.

All of these measures fertilized the ground for corruption. KeSPA may have wanted baseball, but from the perspective of Korea's e-sports fans, the game began to resemble boxing: renowned individual players walking into a much-hyped match, which was preceded by a number of less important under-cards. When the game takes on the characteristics of arguably the world's most corrupt professional sport, perhaps it should not have been a surprise that the same type of corruption would taint Korea's e-sports.

The Maestro's Match Fixing

Except at a small number of casinos around the country, gambling in Korea is illegal. Betting on sports, except through the government-issued sports lottery and government-run horse- and bike-racing, is likewise illegal. But illegal gambling is ubiquitous wherever gambling is illegal, and Korea is not an exception.

Illegal gambling on Starcraft matches began as early as 2006, when Starcraft was well on its way to becoming a mainstream entertainment. But there were only a handful of illegal gambling websites in 2006 that allowed betting on StarCraft. When the stories of Starcraft betting began leaking, it was actually KeSPA that took the lead by bringing in the police and shutting down the gambling websites. For a year or two, the Starcraft gambling front was quiet.

So it is rather ironic that KeSPA--which ought to be in charge of maintaining e-sport's integrity, in exchange for the broadcasting rights it claimed--contributed toward the proliferation of the second scourge of betting on Starcraft games. Every change that KeSPA made since 2007 to professional Starcraft made it easier for gambling. Because the games were played five days a week, there were more games to bet on. More games also meant that the games became more predictable, as the grueling tournament schedule robbed the players of the time to devise different and creative strategies. Pre-releasing the match-up likewise made the games more predictable. KeSPA persisted and made these changes stick. Seizing on more favorable grounds, dozens of illegal gambling sites for betting on Starcraft mushroomed again by late 2008. It was just a matter of time before these illegal gambling sites had the players and league officials on their payroll.

Everything blew up in April 2010, when the first allegations of match-fixing appeared. The Supreme Prosecutor's Office launched a month-long investigation, and made shocking a revelation: at least nine pro players and two former players were involved in match-fixing, in addition to several brokers and former league officials. Particularly shocking was the participation of Ma Jae-yun [마재윤], considered one of the greatest players in the history of the game.

Ma Jae-yun celebrating the victory of the 2006-2007 Starcraft season.
The ridiculous dominance of Ma as a player deserves an additional explanation. Much like the way the NBA is obsessed with the question of "Who is the next Michael Jordan?", serious fans of Starcraft pro leagues are always keen on identifying the best player in the game, historically and of today. In the ten years of e-sports history, the fans would gradually agree upon the unbroken lineage of greatness, going from Im Yo-hwan [임요환] ( ID: BoxeR) to Lee Yun-yeol [이윤열] (NaDa) to Choi Yeon-seong [최연성] (iloveoov) and finally to Ma Jae-yun (first ipxzerg, later sAviOr). Each one of these players' online IDs was--and is--spoken with reverence in the worldwide Starcraft community. The adoring fans would bestow them superlative nicknames. For example, Im would come to be known as "the Emperor of Terran," and later simply as "the Emperor."

But even within this lineage, Ma Jae-yun was special. He was the impetus that made the Starcraft fans develop a sense of history: Ma was so dominant that he compelled the e-sports fans to look back on the history of e-sports, to find the examples of other players who similarly dominated. In this sense, Ma was more like Michael Jordan than anyone else. Prior to Jordan, the NBA fans were not as obsessed about who was the greatest player in the game. After MJ, that was the only question that mattered. Those who came before and after the game--Wilt, Russell, Kareem, Bird, Magic on one side, Iverson, Kobe, Wade and LeBron on the other--would come to be compared by the gold standard of Michael Jordan. In the world of Starcraft professional leagues, Ma Jae-yun was that gold standard.

Starcraft, in the most basic terms, is a strategy game featuring a galactic battle among the three distinct "races": Terran, Protoss and Zerg. Terran are the humans of the 25th century, flung far away from their original habitat of Earth. Protoss is an alien race with psychic powers and advanced technology. Zerg is also an alien race, bug-like and akin to the extraterrestrials from the movie Alien. Starcraft was a great game because the three races were extremely well balanced in their strengths and weaknesses, allowing for a huge permutation in the number of strategies. At a professional level, however, Terran always had a small advantage over the other two races. Thus, the three "greats" previous to Ma Jae-yun were all Terran players.

But Ma played Zerg. Yet, he rose to stardom by utterly destroying the field of Terran fighters. By 2005, Ma Jae-yun would regularly destroy Choi Yeon-seong, considered the greatest player at the time. Im Yo-hwan and Lee Yun-yeol were summoned to challenge this upstart, and the result was the same--Ma Jae-yun destroyed them all. The adoring fans began calling Ma "the Maestro," who conducted the Zerg swarm as if they were a well-honed orchestra. As Ma's Zergling swarm ripped apart the hapless Terran army, Ma's orchestra of death and defeat would play the song of despair in the opponents' mind.

Ma Jae-yun became so dominant that, in the 2006-2007 season, the tournament officials would change the tournament maps in Terran's favor. With the added handicap, Ma was the only Zerg player in the tournament left standing. Even Ma's most devoted fans whispered that, given the tilted field, Ma's defeat would be honorable. But Ma did not lose. In the semi-finals of the playoff, Ma Jae-yun would defeat Byeon Hyeong-tae (berserker) (who also played Terran) in a 3-2 dogfight.

The final, held on February 24, 2007, was against Lee Yun-yeol, himself one of the greatest. Even with the added advantage of the map, it was no contest: Ma would win in a walk, finishing off Lee three games to one. In the diminishing moments of the final game, Lee gathered its last remaining forces, and made one last desperate push--even as Ma Jae-yun's forces were destroying his main base. Even though Ma had split his forces in two to attack Lee's main base and defend against Lee's final push, Ma repelled the attack. The incredulous announcers screamed: "Lee Yun-yeol is but a man! A man cannot defeat God!"

(The final game of the Lee-Ma match. Scroll to around 15 minute mark for the declaration that Ma Jae-yun was God.)

On February 24, 2007, Ma Jae-yun made history in e-sports spectatorship: for the first time in the history of professional Starcraft league, absolutely no Starcraft fan disputed that he was the greatest. Head-and-shoulders above the competition, Ma stood alone. The fandom bestowed Ma a new nickname: bonjwa [본좌], a name given to the greatest martial artist fighter in the land. With the new title bonjwa, the fans began to compile the history of e-sports to search for the bonjwas of the past. In this sense, Ma Jae-yun meant more to the game than just about anyone else in the history of pro Starcraft: Ma was the player who made the fans have a sense of history, a heightened appreciation of what they were watching. 

Ma's reign, of course, did not last. Even Michael Jordan had to decline, and finally retire. By 2010, Ma was no longer the greatest. But in the minds of the Starcraft fans, Ma Jae-yun, the godlike Maestro, remained a hero. Then everything came crashing down: Ma Jae-yun was one of the ringleaders of the illegal gambling ring.

The eleven professional players who were arrested participated in illegal gambling in varying degrees. In some cases, the involvement was very slight. One player, for example, simply made a bet that he would win as a motivational tactic before he played. But other, more serious actions clearly damaged the integrity of the game. Some players sold the practice footages of their own teammates to the gamblers, giving away the strategy before the game was played. Some of the players intentionally threw the game in exchange for money.

Ma Jae-yun claimed that he never threw any game, but admitted that he acted as a middleman, persuading other players to throw the game and delivering money. For a player with a stature like Ma Jae-yun, however, being the middleman is a greater sin than actually throwing the matches. The fact that Ma was involved in illegal gambling legitimized gambling and match-fixing to younger, lesser players. As one writer put it, in the world of pro Starcraft, the fall of Ma was not comparable to the fall of Lucifer; it was as if Jesus Christ himself switched teams and appointed himself to be the overseer of Satan.

In the end, the court found eight people, including Ma Jae-yun, guilty for criminal charges of illegal gambling and match-fixing. The eleven pro gamers were permanently banned from e-sports.

The Death Spiral of e-Sports

The match-fixing scandal was the punctuation point of the sport that was already in decline. The KeSPA-mandated five games a week schedule was already destroying the league in various ways. Because the schedule was so demanding, the players no longer had the time to focus on devising new and innovative strategies. The game became a matter of execution, not creative vision.

KeSPA's vaunted star power was also losing its luster. In response to the criticism that pre-releasing the match-ups made the gambling easier, KeSPA tournaments began announcing match-ups at the beginning of the tournament instead of 48 hours ahead of the game. This, of course, destroyed the chance to build up  the fans' anticipation for watching the star players battling each other. Also, as KeSPA's tournaments slowly squeezed the life out of the non-KeSPA tournaments, new and exciting rookie stars became fewer and farther in between. An aspiring pro gamer could no longer capture the lightning in the bottle by suddenly making a run to the championship, like when Y.E. Yang did by defeating Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship. Instead, the aspiring gamer had to join a pro team, and undergo the deadening process of playing in the practice squad for the more established players until he was good and ready to play in the big leagues.

The sentencing in the match-fixing scandal was in October 2010. Around the same time, two of the twelve professional teams disappeared: one team, CJ Entus, would merged into Hite Sparkys, forming a new team Hite Entus. Another team, eStro, could not find a buyer and simply had to fold. The finishing blow would come the next year: MBC, one of the three major TV stations of Korea, decided to turn its e-sports channel into a music channel. This meant that the MSL (MBCgame Starcraft League), one of the two greatest Starcraft tournaments, would end as well. The Global Starcraft II League (GSL), run by Gom TV, stepped into the breach, but the Internet-based Gom TV simply could not match the gravitas that MBC lent to the legitimacy of e-sports. 

In addition, Blizzard released Starcraft II in June 2010, creating a period of uncertainty: will Korea's e-sports fans continue to enthusiastically watch Starcraft II matches, like the way they did with the first Starcraft? By all accounts (including mine,) Starcraft II is a great, fun game. But the broadcasting rights battle lingered between KeSPA and Blizzard: in 2010, the broadcasting rights issue was still not completely settled. With the two parties bickering, the smooth transition from Starcraft to Starcraft II became all but impossible. Accordingly, a significant number of fans did not make the transition from watching Starcraft to Starcraft II. Starcraft sold 11 million copies worldwide, 6 million in Korea. As of April 2013, Starcraft II sold 5 million copies, and only 400,000 copies in Korea. Once upon a time, every single one of Korea's PC Bang--the high-speed Internet cafes--carried Starcraft, playing a vital role in establishing Starcraft as a major part of Korean popular culture. Today, only 1 percent of Korea's PC Bang carries Starcraft II.

With the declining fan base, players no longer stepped up to become professional gamers. KeSPA had to cancel the December 2012 Starcraft II rookie tournament, because it did not have enough applicants. In 2008, 184 rookie Starcraft players participated in the KeSPA draft, aspiring to be professional gamers. In the 2013 draft, there were nine Starcraft II players. The writing was on the wall: e-sports with Starcraft would not be the same in Korea. Its heyday came in 2007. Greed and time destroyed it.

Is This the End? League of Legends and New Hope

In 2012, e-sports in Korea appeared to be at the brink of death. For the last decade, Starcraft was synonymous with Korea's e-sports. Without Starcraft, there was no more e-sports. Were the e-sports in Korea meeting the fate of jai alai in the U.S.? The excitement, the drama, the tens of thousands of screaming fans--were they all just a beautiful fleeting dream?

It was not the end. Starcraft may not reclaim its past glory, but the infrastructure of e-sports remained in Korea. Even though Koreans no longer watched Starcraft on television, the decade of e-sports in Korea legitimized e-sports, like the way poker became legitimized in the U.S. in the last decade through incessant coverage from ESPN. Video games are no longer children's games in Korea; at least certain high-quality video games deserved professional leagues, television broadcasts and live tournaments in which people would pay--directly or indirectly--to watch.

As Starcraft declined, a new game would assume the mantle: League of Legends by Riot Games. Riot Games developed League of Legends with an explicit goal of making it the next dominant e-sport platform. Although Riot Games is based in Santa Monica, California, it hired a former e-sports team official from Korea to create inroads to Korea's e-sports market. League of Legends is now the most distributed game in Korea's PC Bangs. In the League of Legends live tournament held in September 2012, more than 11,000 spectators gathered in an outdoor plaza in Seoul to watch. Significantly, 2,000 of them purchased tickets to watch the game live, marking this tournament to be one of the few occasions in which an e-sports event attracted a significant number of paying spectators who came to a defined space to watch the game live.

The high-flying era of Korea's e-sports, when professional Starcraft was regarded with the same esteem as pro baseball or soccer, is no more. But e-sports did not die, and will not die. As long as there are displays of high-level skills, and the giant crowd is wiling to watch those displays, e-sports will live on.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. While Riot and League of Legends do seem to be exploding, as a westerner it seems like GOM kind of took the mantle from KeSPA - are they that much less of a "big deal?"

  2. There is gravitas to your narrative. Enjoyed it!

  3. 어우 이건 진짜 역사에 남을 글이다

    1. 사실 지금쯤 레딧에 뜰 타이밍인데... ㅋㅋㅋ

  4. Re: your comment about the government SHOULD pick winners and losers. Korea's fiber optic network is pretty much a best-case scenario. Worst case? Look at the current debacle unfolding in China re: solar panels. The whole industry is about to go belly-up, with staggering losses. My view: government should fund research on issues obviously related to the public good (energy, diseases), and avoid big public investments in specific industries.

    1. Whether a given governmental project is a good or bad idea is a legitimate debate. Whether there should be any government project at all is not--yet libertarians insist on having that debate.

  5. I love your blog as always. You explain Korean history to us like noone can. I am a HUGE starcraft fan and when I lived in SK my favourite channel to watch was MBC game. When I got home everyday I would be straight on MBC game and cooking my Shin Ramyun and watch TV in bed. Nowdays I just watch GSL starcraft 2 league, but as you know it is not a huge following as 스타1 is/was. So this was awesome.. Honestly you are my hero. Hoever Dude. Don't mess with Ron Paul. If he was president there would be no 미군 in ROK right now. And you would have less to worry about drones attacking people in USA, and no messing with 2nd ammendments. Anyway we will see how history pans out with Obama.


    starcraft 1 is 99999999 times more complex and better than LOL , why??????????????

    :C now a simple moba reemplaze it :/


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