Interview: StarCraft II's biggest champ on what makes Korea a pro-gamer's paradise
Life is good these days for Lim Jae-duck, the professional video game player known by the handle IMNesTea (pronounced I. M. NesTea).
In a few weeks, Lim makes his overseas debut at BlizzCon 2011, the biggest convention hosted by a video game developer -- Blizzard Entertainment, in this case -- in Anaheim, California.
That’s after becoming the first triple-crown winner at Global StarCraft II League (GSL) tournaments, and the only champ to never drop a set at that.
“I’ve really wanted to go to BlizzCon,” he said in an interview at an apartment in Oryu-dong, western Seoul, that serves as lodgings and practice space for his junior team members.
“I’ve been invited overseas multiple times, but I never could go... This time, I’m really excited and looking forward to it, especially because it’ll be the first time I’ve gone abroad.”
Rise and glory
A founding member of a top StarCraft II pro team, Incredible Miracle (the IM in his gaming handle), Lim is now at the top of his game. But at age 28 (30 in Korean age), Lim’s long career has hardly been a cakewalk, and he has the humility to prove it.
Previously a StarCraft: Brood War pro, Lim led an unremarkable run for years.
“So many people were criticizing him when he came over to StarCraft II, saying, ‘Well, this guy was never anything big in StarCraft I, why on earth would you just try your luck at StarCraft II? Why on earth wouldn’t you just move on and get a different career?’” said Nick “Tasteless” Plott, a U.S. pro-gamer and match announcer, in a January broadcast. “And who’s laughing now?”
Lim’s still modest about his meteoric rise in StarCraft II, which happened in the span of just a few months.
“Because I was an older gamer, I had to fight a lot,” he said, attempting to downplay his skill. “I knew I could do it, and I just had to start… At this age, I try all that much harder.” (Lim is the third-oldest pro-gamer of all time.)
Now, after two years with StarCraft II, he’s one of the game’s top players in the world and makes a cool ₩220 million (US$186,300) or so annually.
Talking over the clatter of his junior teammates upping their actions-per-minute, Lim, clad boyishly in a baseball cap and Hollister T-shirt, ruminated on what makes Korea’s e-sports scene so special.
“I think Koreans enjoy it a lot more,” he said, sipping hot cocoa. “We strategize together during games, and I think we have more stamina.”
He credits the ubiquity of “PC bangs,” the Internet cafes that dot just about every Korean street.
“I’m not sure if there are as many PC bangs in other countries, or whether people practice as diligently,” he said. “Since there are a lot (of PC bangs) here in Korea, gamers can get together a lot more.”
The best part?
“It doesn’t matter where you go, they’re all the same in Korea,” Lim said. “They all have good computers.”
His personal favorite PC bangs, he said, are in the city of Gwangmyeong, near team IM’s bunk bed-filled apartment.
As for must-see destinations for gaming geeks, he recommended two Seoul e-sports meccas.
First are the neon-lit, smoke-filled studios of GOMTV, the online broadcaster and organizer of the GSL tournaments in conjunction with Blizzard Entertainment. Located in Mok-dong, western Seoul, the studio’s theatrical, stadium-like set is like a high-tech version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”.
Lim’s other recommendation is the Yongsan E-Sports Stadium in central Seoul. As the world’s first venue fully tricked-out to broadcast pro-gamer matches, it’s the home of OnGameNet, one of Korea’s cable TV networks devoted to e-sports.
The coming months in Korea will offer more lures for e-sports fanatics. G-Star, Korea’s biggest gaming convention and trade show, opens in the southern port city of Busan come November, and Lim gave it a thumbs up.
“It’s the best one,” he said of the tournament. “There are lots of people, and it really feels like a festival.”
And for Lim, a trip to Busan isn’t complete without a stroll along happening Haeundae Beach and a bellyful of the local delicacies.
Between matches, he likes to nourish himself with a platter of hoe, Korea’s version of sashimi, or a steaming bowl of pork gukbap, rice mixed with broth, from the alleys of Haeundae Market.
Food is never far from Lim’s heart in Seoul, either. During his downtime, he frequents Shinsari Music Pocha, a charmingly shabby traditional eatery in Sillim, southwestern Seoul, for their spicy dakdoritang chicken stew and soju.
But with fall shaping up the way it is, looks like this star’s schedule will include more stadiums than stew. Game on.
More on CNNGo: Evolution of Korean "bang" culture