Guest Article: Foreigner - A Korean-American Perspective on StarCraft II
Written by Alvin Kim
I couldn’t stay still anymore. Kevin Riley, better known as qxc, had already demolished three members of Incredible Miracle, arguably the strongest Korean pro StarCraft II team. And in the fourth game he was controlling IMMVP, a former two-time GSL champion, like a puppet master. Wave after wave of Hellions reduced MVP’s workers to dust. Just when it seemed like MVP would hold off an attack, qxc’s Banshee would attack his mineral line. I stood up and started pacing. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Just one day after HuK secured victory for OGS-TL with two wins over the Prime team, qxc was on the verge of clinching an all-kill for team FXO, the underdog of the GSTL. When MVP’s eventual GG came, I cheered so loudly that I must have woken up my neighbors. qxc’s victory brought out many hidden emotions and stifled thoughts within me. I never would have guessed a year ago that I would be cheering so hard for a person to win in a video game. Furthermore, I never would have guessed that I would be cheering for an American to triumph over a Korean; I don’t even do that in the Olympics (sorry Apollo Ohno). I never knew a video game could be played at such a high level, and I certainly never thought a video game could make me ponder the merits of American vs. Korean culture.
“I don't call television racist / But I do watch The Simpsons and SpongeBob / Just to see some yellow faces.” – Chinese School by CHOPS
Even if it was on the fringe of my consciousness, the fact that a sustainable pro StarCraft scene popped up in Korea never surprised me. Koreans can take ahold of certain things and latch on to them with a fervor that is downright terrifying. My family moved to America when I was a little less than three years old to escape some of that fervor. If there is one thing Koreans can do just as well as playing StarCraft, it’s throwing a protest. The slightest incident can set off multiple days of yelling, screaming, and general mayhem. When pictures of an unmoving protester taking the full blast of a fire hose to his face went around the net earlier this year, I knew it had to be a Korean. The early 1980s were full of these protests, and coming off of years of presidential assassinations and military coups, my family decided to leave the country. Growing up, I preferred fighting games to RTS games. I was the self-proclaimed worst Korean to ever play StarCraft. Back then, if I wasn’t great at a video game I tended to ignore it. I had a false sense of competitiveness; I just needed to be better than my immediate peers. Anytime a real challenge appeared, I would ignore it and play another game. So of course I ignored StarCraft, a game where such instant gratification is almost non-existent. I also ignored the growing pro scene in Korea. It seemed so foreign and far away to me at the time.
I could not relate to any Koreans that were not in my family. None of my heroes were Korean. All of the Asian movies I would watch would be from either Hong Kong or Japan. K-dramas only taught me how to make mundane situations overly melodramatic. Hollywood was no help either. There was enough trouble getting any sort of Asian on the big screen, much less a Korean. Although it seems better these days, once in a while controversies such as the Last Airbender casting fiasco will pop up (although in retrospect, the cast was the least of that movie’s problems). Koreans were foreign caricatures to me, especially when I saw members of their government openly fist fighting on the floor on the news.
“Greetings from Seoul, South Korea.” -Tasteless
I remember finally getting in to the beta for StarCraft II, and then playing it only once or twice because I wanted to play the single player campaign. I certainly was not going to buy this game for the multiplayer, unless it was for custom maps. Those were the best parts of WarCraft III and StarCraft: Brood War to me. 1v1 matches seemed like the least amount of fun I could have playing this game. When the full game was released, I devoured the Campaign mode and all its achievements, and I honestly felt I accomplished something in the game. Lucky for me, the GSL was about to change my gaming life. I first read about the Global StarCraft II League when I was browsing TeamLiquid’s forums for tips on how to get certain achievements. I read a post announcing the league and its first place prize of $85,000. That certainly got my attention. Throw enough money at something, and the best of the best will come out to grab it.
Having a night job meant that I had the perfect hours to watch the live streams. I quickly became hooked on the intricacies of the gameplay, the jokes from Tastosis, and the awkward interviews with John translating. And there were Koreans. Lots and lots of Koreans. As I F5’ed my way through live report threads, I would see comments gushing over a certain player’s strategy or just simply cheering them on. I started looking at the locations of these posts: almost none of them came from South Korea. I could hardly believe it. Viewers from all over the world were cheering on two Koreans playing a video game.
“I guess they didn't know that that MinChul's nickname in the Korean community for SC1 was ‘suicide toss.’” – Rekrul, on oGsMC
When kids shoot a basketball, they pretend they are a star. “Kobe,” they might say while releasing the ball. I started to play Protoss because I wanted to be like oGsMC. I loved his aggressive play, his impeccable control, and most of all, his cocky personality. Here was a Korean with thick, nerdy glasses posturing like a villain from the WWE, talking smack and giving vanquished foes the thumbs down. He did everything a Korean was not supposed to do. And just like the difference between me and Kobe in basketball, there was a gulf of skill between oGsMC and myself.
“Why can’t you fly over to Korea and do that?” a friend asked me when I showed him the GSL one night. “I see you playing this game all the time.” I explained to him that my two hours a day playing the game were laughable compared to the hours these guys put in. “But it’s the same exact game, you should have at least a slim chance right?” As much chance I would have playing Kobe one on one, I told him. That was the moment I realized how addicted I was to pro level SC2: I was trying to share it with someone who didn’t even play video games. Even if my friend didn’t understand everything that was going on, my enthusiasm was infectious.
“NesTea’s brains are probably leaking out of his ears right now.” – Artosis, right after Dimaga beat NesTea 2-1 in the GSL World Championship
In the StarCraft world, anyone who is not a Korean is labeled a foreigner. Koreans were at another level, and for a long time it seemed impossible for foreigners to bridge that gap. The GSL World Championship was the first step in cracking the armor of Korean invincibility. I watched with shock as White-Ra’s devastating Warp Prism play took down my hero oGsMC. When Dimaga beat NesTea in a best-of-three ZvZ series, those cracks grew bigger. I found myself starting to cheer for the foreigner underdogs.
I had finally found the Korean heroes that I lacked growing up, and here I was rooting against them. The Koreans were the Terminators, and the rest of the world was scrambling to form a resistance against them. Foreign teams were starting to imitate the harsh Korean training methods, but no one expected the Koreans’ iron grasp on the StarCraft II scene to be slipping so quickly. The center of the StarCraft universe had begun to shift away from Korea.
“If they want to play the bad boys, they should at least be able to deal with the criticism, however EG seems to demand high morale [sic] standard from everyone but themselves.” – LiquidTLO on the Evil Geniuses/Puma situation
With StarCraft II quickly becoming a worldwide phenomenon, it was only a matter of time before cultures clashed. The Internet has everyone addicted to a 24/7 news schedule, where a whole controversy can erupt while the people involved are asleep. Reading about the EG/TSL/Puma situation was like a window in to my own mind. The American in me argued that Puma never had a contract with TSL and was free to leave at the first offer. The Korean in me was annoyed at the lack of respect EG had towards a Korean team. The logical person in me knew that everyone will brush this situation off and learn from it—there is just too much money out there not to cooperate.
Cooperation is already happening. SK gaming and oGs have partnered up to send MC and NaDa to events around the world. The same is happening for team MVP and compLexity gaming with DongRaeGu and Genius. Huk’s recent successes—Dreamhack champion, Homestory Cup III champion, and GSTL hero—are clearly the results of hard work and the cooperation between oGs and TL.
“If a team has the budget to send their player just for that tournament. IT WILL MAKE THEM BETTER!” – FXOBoSs on the Code A qualifiers
FXO took a much more ambitious route to Korea. Bringing their whole team over, they entered the GSTL as a full-fledged team. Nobody, including myself, gave them a chance. I didn’t even know they were a team until the announcement of their participation in the GSTL. FXO had very little early successes. They would continually be lead to slaughter against top SC2 teams in Korea, such as StarTale, ZeNEX, and NSHoSeo. Yet FXO’s time in Korea was not wasted. With every week the team trained and improved itself. Halfway through the GSTL season, FXO acquired the Korean team fOu outright. The outside world was definitely taking notice of this game. FXO now had powerhouses such as sC and Leenock to represent them globally. The original FXO team prepared to leave Korea, but not without leaving a huge mark on the GSTL.
“I'll eat my brand new TL shirt if they manage to beat IM. 4-1 IM.” – Divinek predicting the outcome of the IM vs. FXO match
qxc seemed to inherently understand what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of StarCraft II. There are anecdotes about him trying to perfect a build order that would squeeze out a Hellion two or three seconds quicker. These advantages may not seem like much to us normal players, but they are absolutely game-changing in the pro arena. All of qxc’s repetition and practice paid off for him. On his way to the all-kill, qxc beat a Zerg, a Protoss, a Terran, and to finish it off, a two-time GSL champion.
With each qxc victory, my anxiety level rose. I was watching a piece of history unfold in front of my eyes, a piece I had been missing out on by not watching pro Brood War. I found it in StarCraft II: Koreans I could look up to and foreigner underdogs to cheer for. I could root for someone in appreciation for all the hard work they put in, and not just because they looked like me. I learned all this in just one year, and look forward to much more.