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State of Play: The Story of Real E-sports Pro Gamers

State Of Play Titles

State of Play review

On a visit to Korea in 2009 filmmaker Steven Dhoedt witnessed the professional gaming industry in the Republic of Korea. He knew there was a story in it and set out to make a film. Three years in the making, State of Play finally premiered in South Korea on June 27th 2013. Its the first Belgian Korean co-production of Visualantics and Minch & Films.

State of Play director Steven Dhoedt and producer KIM Min-chul (김민철)

State of Play director Steven Dhoedt and producer KIM Min-chul at the Stae of Play premiere

The documentary, filmed in South Korea and following the lives of 3 StarCraft players, revolves around the years of 2010 to 2012. State of Play reflects an interesting period in Electronic Sports history as e-sports was riding a wave of popularity. Some pro-gamers were earning as much as their physical sports counterparts. But that wave was about to hit a wall. A betting scandal would rock its foundations. The bed rock of e-sports, “StarCraft: Brood Wars” was about to be replaced by StarCraft II. Other Real Time Strategy games had also started to come to the fore and, yes, much had changed since the governing body for pro gaming in South Korea, KeSPA, was founded back in 2000.

The film opens with the familiar sounds of Starcraft as we see images of South Korea, gamers and StarCraft. A black Chevorlet van with tinted out windows travels one of the main highways of Seoul. In general, the only people who travel in such vehicles in South Korea are superstars. This is where we meet LEE Jae Dong a highly ranked StarCraft champion at the top of his game. We also meet 16-year-old PARK Yo Han who dreams of being like LEE Jae Dong and tries out at several semi-pro tournaments in search of his big break. There’s also KIM Joon Hyuk who we meet at a rookie tournament trying to get into the “Star League” (in golf terms it’s the equivalent of getting a pro card in the PGA).

Lee Jae Dong premiere SOP

Pro-gamer LEE Jae Dong at the State of Play Premiere

The strength of the film lies in the openness of each person. Writer and Director  Steven Dhoedt has done well to earn the trust of all involved in a very revealing documentary. And whats so revealing about it? It shows a side of pro gamers many would not know about it. Struggles for up and comers and the pains for those at the top. Dhoedt’s ability to be a fly on the wall shines through the dialogue of the characters and areas the documentary takes us through. From the rookie tournament speeches to the back rooms of TV shows and the homes and schools of the players, it’s an all access pass. State of Play is an intimate look at the trials and tribulations of pro gamers.

Don’t look for answers about the betting scandal (though it is covered in the film). When I asked Dhoedt about why he had not included more of the betting scandal in his film he said that “… one of the people that I had filmed for a very long time when I first came here was Ma Jae Yun [the Michael Jordan of StarCraft, who was found guilty in the betting scandal], so I actually had a lot of opportunities to talk about the scandal for a very long time, but at the end of the day I figured the movie is not about the scandal. It’s a very small obstacle in a bigger piece. There’s the switch to Starcraft 2 and I think it would have distracted too much from what was really going on.” It seems like a missed opportunity but Dhoedt is right that this would have distracted from the film and it’s core story line. The scandal itself is really its own story. So why mention it here. What this points to is a director who knows the story he wants to tell and the film doesn’t fail to deliver its point.

Dhoedt notes that “State of Play has two meanings. One is very simple, this is a country where gaming is very big, playing is very big, but then also it is the state of how we play now, video games used to be always fun but now, it’s a very big business.”

State of Play is a revealing documentary which should spike the interest of most documentary fans.

From left to Right: Steven

From left to Right: Steven Dhoedt, KIM Joon Hyuk, PARK Yo Han, LeEEJae DOng, JUNG Jong Hyun

[Special note: Writer, director, producer Steven Dhoedt is working on a new film which will highlight the rise of ‘Mvp’ (JUNG Jong Hyun 정종현) a champion StarCraft II pro gamer.

A solid 4 out 5 Roks.

4 roks

A few Interesting Notes on Pro Gaming and StarCraft in South Korea

In 1997 approximately five “PC bang” (PC방, internet cafes) existed in Seoul. By 2000 PC bangs had gone nation wide. It was difficult to walk down a street and not run into one. Much of the that growth was built upon the popularity of StarCraft and Warcraft.

In the early days, these internet cafes sponsored teams. This changed quickly to corporate sponsorship.

One of the first generation of pro gamers in South Korea was StarCraft icon, Guillaume “Grrrr…” Patry (기욤패트리). A Canadian player from Quebec with exceptional vision, was the first and only foreigner to win an OSL and a winner of the King of Kings tournament  [the OnGameNet Starleague, OSL for short, was a semi-annual StarCraft tournament that was broadcasted on the channel OnGameNet (OGN)].

Guillaume recalls, “In the early days the biggest sponsor was Samsung, but they were not fully committed at the time until other companies recognized the popularity of e-sports. Managers and coaches went from people who were just interested in the game to being professional management and coaching teams.” He also recalls how a the best players in the old days “… would make about $4000 a month from salary and maybe $4000 from tournaments a month. The average prize pool for a tournament being about $20,000.” These days the prize pool can be around 4 to 5 billion won (~4-5 million USD).

Patry also remembers LEE Jae Dong (이재동) entered the pro league when he was 16. Around the age of 18 he was earning 135,000 Euros a year.  After the 2008–09 season, at the 4th Annual Korea e-Sports Awards he was given the Best Zerg Award, and the Player of the Year Award.

StarCraft Players believe that much like poker, a good player must hold composure especially under stress. Learning to anticipate a player’s strategy and making quick decisions are essential skills. Elky (Bertrand Grospellier) a top 16 StarCraft player in the early 2000’s would go on to become one of the worlds best Poker Tournament players. According to one site. Elky has made over 10 million dollars playing poker. Other ex-StarCraft players have also followed this path.

To make it into the top player category of StarCraft one needs to perform at least 260-270 APM’s (Actions Per Minute). When a pro gamer plays, the mouse clicks and keyboard taps sound like a top-level secretary typing on steroids.

In State of Play it’s revealed that players can spend up to 12 hours a day practicing. Guillaume Patry notes that when he was playing he would practice by playing around 5 games a day. He also notes that the team houses offer a great environment to players to build their skills and attributes. This as a major factor of South Korea’s dominance in the sport. [Starcraft games can last from 10 minutes to one hour depending on players strategies].

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