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Last Updated: Tuesday, 16 December, 2003, 00:23 GMT
South Korea's professional gamers

By Charles Scanlon
BBC correspondent in Seoul

South Korea likes to describe itself as the world's most wired country - 70% of households have high-speed internet connections.

That level of access has fuelled a craze for cyber games that appears to consume an entire generation.

Gaming over the internet has proved so popular that professional teams backed by corporate sponsors now play in the world's first pro league.

Lee Ji-hun
At first I couldn't believe my luck - I was getting paid for something I really liked doing - but then I started to feel the pressure
Lee Ji-hun
Ten members of a professional gaming team sponsored by the mobile phone company KTF train all day long in a cramped three room apartment. In their late teens and early 20s, they are all at their computer screens blazing away at aliens - their fingers a blur on the keyboard.

Some of them make more than $100,000 a year.

But there is a price to pay. They live packed together in their company barracks, and are expected to spend 12 hours or more each day at a bank of computer terminals.

"At first I couldn't believe my luck - I was getting paid for something I really liked doing," said Lee Ji-hun, one of the veterans at 24 years old.

"But then I started to feel the pressure. It's really tough when your ratings go down. You've got to be on peak form all the time - it's not as easy as people think," he said.

Screenshot from Fifa 2003
Lee Ji-hun's speciality is online football

Lee Ji-hun specialises in Fifa - World Cup football with remarkably realistic graphics.

His favourite team is England and he is on a winning streak with three consecutive wins.

But today there is added pressure because his opponent is an amateur and that means he cannot afford to lose.

The competition is played at a downtown game centre with a live audience, big screens and two commentators. It is televised by a cable TV network.

It is the second half before Lee Ji-hun gets his first goal, but that is enough to break the tension.

Another three goals ensure an emphatic win for the professional player.

"I'm really relieved - my reputation was at stake today. If you lose to a pro you can say it was a bad day. But it looks bad to lose to an amateur and they're getting better all the time," he said.

Lucrative industry

KTF manager, Chang Ki-uk, said sponsoring a professional team made good sense for his company. Fifteen million people, or 30% of the population, are registered for online gaming, and that means a big marketing opportunity.

"Online gaming started out as a hobby, of course, but it's amazing how it's taken off as a professional sport. There are three cable channels that broadcast games and 10 professional leagues.

"Electronic sport like this has become a way of marketing and promoting our company, particularly with young people," Mr Chang said.

South Korea proudly plays host to the annual World Cyber Games and the country is becoming a Mecca for online gamers around the world.

For the thousands who seem to spend every waking hour in an internet cafe, there is a dream that someday they too could do this for a living.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Charles Scanlon
"It may look like fun and games, but these players are professionals who earn $100,000 and more each year"



SEE ALSO:
Thai gamers soak up computer skills
25 Nov 03  |  Technology
Germany takes cyber games crown
20 Oct 03  |  Technology
Gaming 'is good for you'
12 Feb 03  |  Technology


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