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Last Updated: Thursday, 3 January 2008, 16:29 GMT
South Korea's 'e-sports' stars
By Lucy Ash
Producer, Crossing Continents

Fans of Lim Yo Hwan
Fans show their support for pro-gamer Lim Yo Hwan

In South Korea, the most wired country on earth, computer gaming is a national obsession.

Top players, known as 'e-athletes', can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds and some are worshipped like pop stars.

The girl in the pink fluffy sweater giggles when I ask about the roll of paper she is clutching in her hand.

With a furtive glance at her boyfriend, she unrolls the poster. Written in felt-tip pen and decorated with hearts, it reads "Lim Yo Hwan - Marry Me!"

The boyfriend laughs. "I do not really mind", he says. "I like him a lot too. He is aggressive, he knows how to push."

Lim Yo Hwan, a pro-gamer who went undefeated for more than two years, is known as the Emperor to his legions of fans.

Some call him the David Beckham of the electronic sports world.

His boyish good looks - as well as his prowess with the mouse and the keyboard - have earned him dozens of lucrative contracts and sponsorship deals.

We have come to watch him play in a vast underground shopping centre in the southern part of Seoul.

National Service

Lim Yo Hwan with his coach
Lim Yo Hwan says "military discipline" has enhanced his playing
Lim Yo Hwan used to belong to a team sponsored by one of the country's biggest mobile phone companies, but now he is playing for something even more strategic: the South Korean air force.

Like all his male compatriots, he must complete two years of national service. Unlike most of them, he is mainly serving his country by playing a sci-fi themed strategy game called Starcraft.

On a stage, Lim Yo Hwan and his competitor are locked in separate, soundproof, glass boxes. Fans scream and cheer as TV cameras swoop and circle, broadcasting the match live.

The head of the team, Kim Pyung Gang, says pro-gamers have helped to carry out experiments in simulated warfare.

The country's star player also makes an excellent recruiting tool. "Many more young men want to join the air force these days," he says.

After the match, a victorious Lim Yo Hwan claims that "military discipline" has made him an even better player.

His dressing room is filled with presents from his admirers, such as chocolates, snacks and hot pads to keep his precious fingers warm.

A gaggle of girls is waiting outside, hoping for his autograph.

For all the adoration heaped upon them, the lives of pro-gamers are rarely glamorous.

Song Byung Koo 'The Stork'
Song Byung Koo trains for up to 10 hours a day
The routine of Song Byung Koo, the top player in the Samsung team, is typical.

A lanky 19-year-old, known to his fans as The Stork, he trains for eight to 10 hours a day and spends a couple more hours lifting weights in the gym before collapsing into his bunk bed in the dormitory he shares with his team mates.

"Only the most determined players will make it," says Kim Ga Eul, the Samsung coach, a charming but steely eyed woman with a pony tail.

"They must be very focused."


But there are concerns that many young Koreans are much too focused on their computer screens.

Up to 30% of the population under 18, or about two-and-a-half-million people, are at risk of internet addiction, says child psychiatrist Ahn Dong Hyung of Hangyang University.

Dr Ahn Dong Hyung
They [parents] have tried all kinds of things, such as cutting off the internet [and] breaking the computer
Dr Ahn Dong Hyung
Hangyang University
Dr Ahn who has just completed a three-year survey of the problem, blames the highly competitive Korean education system.

He believes excessive homework and extra classes after school may cause some children to retreat to a cyber world where they feel more secure.

He says by the time they reach his clinic, many parents are at the end of their tether.

"They have tried all kinds of things, such as cutting off the internet, breaking the computer or taking the keyboard with them to work so their kids cannot get online. Sometimes they even resort to slapping their children. They are desperate and totally helpless," he says.

Thirteen-year-old Jin Ki, one of Dr Ahn's young patients, used to steal money from his parents so he could play for hours on end in the local PC Bang or internet café.

Sometimes he would stay out all night and his distraught mother would have to call the police to look for him.

Government intervention

Today Jin Ki is nearly cured from his habit.
Jin Ki and his mother
Jin Ki used steal money from his parents to satisfy his addiction

He and his mother have been on a number of state-funded internet addiction treatment camps.

Addicts are sent on strenuous hikes in the countryside and are taught to identify birds, plants and trees.

Above all, they learn to communicate and to play with other children - offline.

The government is increasingly concerned about the dark side of South Korea's pioneering cyber culture.

KADO or the Korean Agency for Digital Opportunity not only promotes computer technology but also treats its victims.

Boys in a PC Bang
PC Bangs haven been an escape for Korean teenagers
Dr Koh Sam Young, a sociologist in charge of the main clinic, says the agency has 79 affiliated treatment centres across the country aimed specifically at teenagers.

That is in addition to treatment programs at almost 100 hospitals and a mobile counselling van that drives around the city targeting in PC bangs.


All these clinics and programmes are partly in response to a number of highly publicised tragedies when extreme addiction has proved fatal.

Dr Hyung Gon Song who works in the emergency department of the Samsung Hospital in Seoul has recently dealt with two cases when people collapsed and died after marathon gaming sessions.

The latest was a 17 year old high school student who suffered heart failure after playing non stop in a PC Bang for two days.

"These guys do not sleep, do not eat and some do not even stop to go to the toilet. Dirty smoky air, the noises, the flashing lights and the stress can easily over stimulate the cerebral cortex," says Dr Hyung.

"These PC games drive people crazy and I think more young people should be warned before it is too late."

Crossing Continents on BBC Radio 4 reports from South Korea on Thursday, January 3 at 1100 GMT.

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