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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 17:40 GMT 18:40 UK
Rise of the e-sports superstars
By Alex Bellos
Reporter, BBC Click

Concept art for Starcraft II, Blizzard
Nine years on, Starcraft II will soon make its appearance

In some nations gamers are looked down upon, but in South Korea professional gaming, or e-sports, is worth billions of dollars and players are seen as heroes.

Click got an idea of just how big by visiting an event held, as if to prove that computer gaming is like sports, in a stadium used in the 1988 Olympic Games.

Around 30,000 fans have turned up to see the biggest stars battle it out. The players go head to head in pods at the side of the stage.

Strangely enough they are not taking each other on in the latest title, instead they are playing Starcraft which was launched nine years ago.

It is the most popular game in South Korea and the only one with its own professional league.

Professional e-sports player Ma Jae-Yoon
I always appreciate the love and support of the fans
E-sports player Ma Jae-Yoon
It might look like any other war game but StarCraft requires a real grasp of strategy where each player must wipe out his opponent. As well as requiring lightning dexterity on the keyboard, players are required to make dozens of tactical decisions every moment.

Without a detailed knowledge of StarCraft, it is very hard to understand what is going on during a tournament match.

Gaming culture

The players here are seen as sex symbols. At 21, Ma Jae-Yoon is the number one computer games player in the country who has several fan clubs and websites devoted to him.

He says: "I always appreciate the love and support of the fans. Especially in one game I played a couple of weeks ago and one girl was crying because I lost.

"On Saturdays when I go downtown I sometimes get surrounded by fans. I feel so embarrassed. I always try to wear a hat."

There are about 300 professional gamers in South Korea, who play for 11 teams
After the match, some of fans gather to get a glimpse of their idols.

The obsession with gaming culture has even created a fashion for dressing up as characters from their favourite games.

Training camp

There are about 300 professional gamers in South Korea who play for 11 teams which are run by big business conglomerates which pay each of them a salary.

Each team has a house where the players live and train, and Ma Jae-Yoon invited Click to visit his.
People practising their gaming skills
They are just practising a lot to win. If they want to lose they don't need to play that much
Team manager Sean Oh

In the main training centre there about are about 20 pro-gamers.

Sean Oh manages the team, which he says costs the conglomerate $20m (10m) a year.

He says: "They usually play about 13 or 14 hours. It's a long time. They are just practising a lot to win. If they want to lose they don't need to play that much."

Winning seems to be all that counts. The players stay in the training house all week and only have one month off a year.

The atmosphere is intense. The only sounds are the patter of fingers on keyboards and that endless typing can take its toll on top players.

Ma Jae-Yoon says: "I suffer from light wrist and shoulder pain so I try to go to the gym every day. I try to stretch whenever I have time. My eyesight is getting weak these days."

Fan mail

As one of the top two performers Ma Jae-Yoon is getting the star treatment, sharing his bedroom with just one other player. The rest bed down in a dormitory next door.

Ma Jae-Yoon's bedroom is full of presents from adoring female fans, including his dog, Ari. For many of these players, Ari is the only female companionship they allow themselves.

"If they have a girlfriend they text message all the time, they can't concentrate on practising, so we recommend just don't have a girlfriend until you retire," says Sean Oh.

While Click was visiting the team had a game in a purpose built e-sports stadium in a shopping centre. The audience was mostly female.

"My favourite player is Ma Jae-Yoon. He has a special ability in StarCraft and he is very handsome," says one fan.

Despite those qualities the team loses. They are all downcast as they leave the stadium. But Ma Jae-Yoon must live to fight another day.



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