Heart and Seoul

Heart and Seoul
Baang You're Dead

Russ Pitts | 26 Aug 2008 09:46
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In South Korea, where competitive gaming can make you rich and famous, obsessive gaming is the cultural equivalent of street basketball. Young people take up the lifestyle in hopes of making it out of the ghetto and into the spotlight. It's more than a temporary, fleeting escape from daily life, it's an escape route to a better life altogether. To get there, you just have to train.

In addition to the e-sports stadium, Korea has put massive amounts of capital into a national high-speed internet connection among the fastest in the world, and since the late '90s, gaming cafes, called "baangs," have become as ubiquitous on Korean street corners as Starbucks. According to MSNBC, 64 percent of 5-year-olds in Korea use the internet, and 93 percent of preschoolers suggested they go online just to play games like StarCraft. The country is, in other words, growing gamers the way we grow basketball stars.

"I don't have any hobbies," 24-year-old Choi Yeun Sung told Time Magazine. "I just practice as much as I can, so I will improve."

Choi's team consists of 20 members who share two apartments in one of Seoul's upscale housing structures. They train for 12 hours a day, taking only an hour off each for lunch and dinner and playing until 3 A.M.

The team's coach, sports psychology graduate Ju Hoon, says to make it in pro gaming requires "absolute mind control," and a willingness to endure near constant pain to pursue the dream. Most gamers don't have what it takes.

Jun Mung-gyu is one of the ones who washed out. Jun gave up the - there can be no other word for it in this context - sport in 2005 at age 27, citing constant, throbbing headaches and sore shoulders from sitting hunched over his keyboard for 15 hours a day. He now operates a baang in Seoul.


"You have no life, you only focus on gaming, putting off everything, like getting a haircut," Jun told USA Today. "I've seen people who play games for months, just briefly going home for a change of clothing, taking care of all their eating and sleeping here."

Jun seems to be describing Lee to a T. Lee's reasons for playing games until he literally collapsed may not be entirely reasonable, but, in the context of a society where a national gaming obsession is an inevitable by-product of the state's emphasis on internet connectivity, and where a passion for gaming can be parlayed into a lucrative career, they are certainly understandable. Add in the fact that games, in and of themselves, are enjoyable pastimes, and it's a wonder more countries don't have these problems.

Nevermind. It would seem they do. And they learned it from watching us.

Peter Burkowski, the first man ever recorded to have died playing videogames, was a fan of the classic arcade game Berzerk. He was 18 years old, a straight-A student and planned to become a doctor. Instead, he gamed himself to death.

At 8:30 P.M. on April 3, 1982, Burkowski walked into a local videogame arcade in Calumet, Illinois, dropped a quarter into Berzerk and played for 15 minutes. During that time he recorded his initials "at least twice" in the game's leaderboard. Then he died. Cause of death: heart attack.

"Peter could have died in a number of stressful situations," said Mark Allen, the Lake County, Illinois, deputy coroner. "We once had a boy who had a heart attack while studying for an exam. It just happened that he died in front of a video game."

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