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Gamer is royalty in S. Korea

He's called the Emperor, revered in a nation that takes its video play very seriously, and he earns hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

March 21, 2007|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Seoul — HE confessed to feeling "more nervous than usual" as he waited for his comeback fight to begin, his fingers fiddling inside a hand warmer to ward off the winter chill seeping through the walls of the coliseum.

The Emperor knew he had to keep his fingers loose.

A crowd of more than 1,000 people was waiting in the arena, with 1.78 million more watching over the Internet and on TV to see what those fingers could do, or, more to the point, whether they had gone cold in the five months since he disappeared from public view.

He is in the air force now. Conscripted. Snatched away from his calling and from the fans who revered him for leading their sport -- no, their passion -- to respectability.

In the crowd, teenage girls squealed. Preteen boys, tugging baffled-looking parents along, craned their necks for a better look.

It was like Elvis getting out of the Army.

The Emperor was back.

For every teenage boy whose dad hollered to turn off that stupid video game because it'll rot your brain and ruin your life, Lim Yo-hwan is a god: The 27-year-old is the most famous professional gamer in South Korean electronic sports, and his dominance has earned him hundreds of thousands of dollars annually in salary, prize winnings and commercial endorsements.

Lim's skill at playing the futuristic battle game StarCraft has turned him into the first superstar of the e-sports era, South Korea's Babe Ruth of gaming. Usually referred to by his nicknames Boxer (short for his game ID SlayerS_'BoxeR') or the Emperor, he has won more games of professional StarCraft than anyone else in South Korea, becoming a celebrity in a country so serious about gaming that it boasts professional leagues and two cable channels televising games 24/7.

His good looks and easy smile have made him a sex symbol in a "sport" supposedly the domain of geeks. He wrote his biography -- "(Try and Be) As Crazy As Me" -- at 25.

Lim's life was charmed until the South Korean military stepped in last year to remind him that the armed forces are not a mosaic of digital dots and simulated explosions but real battles, waged by men and women, not Firebats, Wraiths and Zerglings.

Like every eligible South Korean male, Lim is obliged to put in 27 months of service in a military stuck in a 54-years-and-counting standoff with North Korea. In his mid-20s, he could put off his compulsory commitment no longer. He got his draft notice, went through basic training and was assigned to the air force in October.

No one knows exactly what Lim does for the air force, though the gaming community is pretty much convinced that the generals have him running computer simulations of war games. But the air force clearly knew it had a special conscript in Pvt. Lim Yo-hwan. Lim in uniform was a PR opportunity it couldn't miss. The air force formed its own electronic gaming team and asked him to lead it into battle against the enemy: e-sports clubs sponsored by South Korea's big TV, telecom and shipbuilding corporations.

That's why there was so much buzz over Lim's first air force fight: a daylong tournament against 11 other teams held at Seoul's Jamsil Indoor Stadium. For StarCraft fans, the $20,000 top prize money was almost incidental.

"How's life in the military?" the announcer asks Lim before the games begin.

"Everything's going great," he says.

The crowd goes nuts.

SOUTH Korean gamers are obsessed with StarCraft. Because the first generations of video game consoles were Japanese-made and banned here by trade restrictions against Korea's old colonizer, the gamers developed their skills by playing online with PCs. And in the late 1990s, StarCraft was the hot game.

To most Korean gamers, e-sports start and end with StarCraft.

"StarCraft is a great game, but it's the only game that is popular at a professional level in Korea," said Daniel Lee, manager of the professional eNature Top Team. Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment, the game's maker, has sold more than 6 million copies in South Korea, where it has been played by more than 10 million people in a population of 49 million.

But nobody in South Korea has ever played StarCraft like Lim.

The game requires players to choose one of three "races" to wage their intergalactic battles, and Lim made his reputation by winning with troops from the Terran race -- hence his full nickname the Terran Emperor. Some players argue that Terran is the weakest race, but Lim says he was always convinced that the genius of StarCraft lay in the fact that the three had equal abilities.

The StarCraft obsession evolved from being the game of choice in PC bangs, as South Korean Internet cafes are known, to scattered tournaments in the late 1990s.

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