SEOUL (Reuters) - His fingers flying under the glare of bright stadium lights, the young man in a silver-and-white space suit makes hundreds of female fans swoon with his every move — by using a keyboard and a mouse.
Video-gamer Lee Yun-yeol, 22, is playing “StarCraft,” earning big money as he attracts tens of thousands of rabid followers in South Korea, where millions also tune in to cable channels devoted to live tournaments, and top players have achieved sports star status.
But this world of “e-sports” and virtual heroes may soon undergo some profound changes, triggered by the very game that has built its success in the last decade.
Blizzard Entertainment, a unit of French media and telecoms group Vivendi, last month announced a much-awaited sequel to its real-time strategy game “StarCraft.” While ordinary gamers greeted the news with excitement, professional players and industry officials expressed concerns.
“StarCraft II” keeps the original storyline about wars among three distinct species, set in a gritty sci-fi universe. But the sequel offers new eye-dazzling, three-dimensional graphics as well as changes in the gameplay strategies.
Pro gamers who have built up their state-of-art skills over the years may find their edge dissipated with the new version. Game channels and professional teams also face a tough choice over when — or whether — they should migrate to the sequel, and abandon the successful, still-dominant original.
“There’s high expectation for ‘StarCraft II,’” said Je Hun-ho, director at Korea e-Sports Association. “However, whether it can succeed as an e-sport is yet to be seen. Users will make that call.”
Lee, one of the first generation of professional players who earns upwards of $200,000 a year in prizes and endorsements, is more optimistic.
“It will be so much fun,” said Lee, who has been playing the original “StarCraft” in pro leagues for more than seven years. “It might be hard to get used to the new game at first, but it will certainly be a refreshing change for me.”
Blizzard is keeping mum on the official launch of “StarCraft II,” which went into development in 2003. But the company insists that the game will provide a deeper, more complex and challenging playing experience.
“It’s impossible to master,” Blizzard’s president and co-founder, Mike Morhaime, said in a recent interview in Seoul.
In professional video gaming, South Korea is well ahead of other countries in the areas of commercial profit and gaming skills. Early broadband penetration and the success of gaming TV channels played a crucial role, along with the popularity of “StarCraft.”
The “StarCraft” series has sold more than 9.5 million copies worldwide since its debut in 1998 and has led the development of e-sports.
Although the nearly decade-old game’s graphics are showing their age, its complex strategy, time pressures and relatively short match times have made it the No. 1 choice in televised leagues.
In South Korea gamers focus on speedy play. A match is often completed in half an hour, so spectators don’t get bored. “StarCraft” is also favored by broadcasters because viewers can easily follow overall game progress.
Lured by marketing potential, top companies such as Samsung Electronics and SK Telecom sponsor gaming leagues and teams. Even the South Korean Air Force this year formed a team, led by one of their top players.
But the world of professional video games is a constantly changing landscape. The original “StarCraft’s” fortune has been waning in recent years, particularly in the United States and Europe, with the rising popularity of shooting games such as “Counter-Strike.”
Even in South Korea, racing game “Kart Rider,” sports game “Free Style” and shooting titles such as “Special Force” and “Sudden Attack” are gaining popularity as e-sports.
Game developers are cooperating with booming Internet TV services to promote new titles in competitions, as Web TVs are keen to enter the profitable game broadcasting — dominated by established cable channels like OnGameNet and MBC Game.
“‘StarCraft II’ will be a leader in growing e-sports,” said Kim Sung-ho, producer at game channel MBC Game. “But there are many other games that can succeed as spectator e-sports and we will see the game world continue to diversify.”