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Busan and BlizzCon bring StarCraft back to life

Thousands of fans bang their thundersticks and welcome StarCraft back to Gwangalli Beach in Busan, South Korea, on Aug. 14. StarCraft: Remastered helped revive the game, which is one of the most popular esports titles in the gaming-crazy country. Young Jae Jeon for ESPN

BUSAN, South Korea -- To most foreign or casual or new fans, an OGN broadcast on a Busan shore is first and foremost a spectacle. It's a showcase of South Korea's legendary passion for esports. But to those of us who have grown up alongside the yearly seaside StarCraft finals of the 2000s, it's more of a homecoming than anything else. It's like strolling through the streets we used to play in as children.

What Gwangalli Beach means for us has always stayed the same. It's the sun and the sand and the waves and the crowd and the thousands and thousands of deafening thundersticks. It's the dirty white gulls and the sticky night breeze and the glitter of Diamond Bridge shining in the darkness. It's the hoarse bellows of Caster Chun echoing over the ocean, probably all the way to Japan.

Gwangalli is everyone and everything from those years we loved most, the well-wasted days we will never get back but forever cherish. Occasionally we head back, like we did back in early August, and find out that the sights and sounds and joy all still out there. It makes us feel young and old and warm.

Friday's StarCraft: Remastered showmatch at BlizzCon 2017 is another chance to relive those Brood War days and think back to summers on the beach halfway around the world.


I arrived at Busan Station on that day in August with my middle school buddies at noon and headed outside to take a cab to the beach. StarCraft: Remastered was already in town -- every street in sight was lined on both sides with deep-blue twin banners advertising the launch event.

When we arrived the beach was golden and boiling and abuzz. It was very much like last summer, or the summer before that, or the summer a decade before that. Natives disagree, but for me Gwangalli never seems to change. Maybe it's because I only visit for esports, and esports is always here. Every summer.

The pedestrians were slightly different that day, though.

"I thought we weren't going to buy anything, but..." one friend said.

We stared agape. Every other person on the street was carrying the same cotton bag. The bag was half ivory, half navy blue and had a slick "StarCraft: Remastered" logo stamped in the classic StarCraft typeface. It wasn't just cool -- it was beautiful. It was the prettiest thing we never needed.

"That must be the merch bag."

"Want."

"NEED."

We wandered toward the venue and soon discovered the massive black merchandise booths. To our dismay, hundreds of people were standing in line already. I was very willing to wait forever for that bag, blistering heat be damned, but I needed to go cover the event's press conference that would start in 10 minutes.

I turned to my friends. "I need to run for work."

"Well, we need to run for cover. I'm swimming in sweat."

"Those bags will be worth (it)."

In a hurry I handed everyone $50 each and begged them to buy anything for me as long as it came with that bag. Then I ran to the hotel.


Brood War was always doomed to die. The first such prophecy was made 15 years ago, when the game experienced a momentary dip in popularity during the 2002 FIFA World Cup. Since then, not a single year went by without a mainstream media article or broadcast speculating wildly about how the scene was on the brink of death.

For a very long time they were wrong. Brood War flourished in South Korea for well over a decade. By 2010, however, it was clear that the game had lost its steam. In 2012, KeSPA shut down Brood War. The naysayers had finally got it right on the 11th try.

Or did they?

In a way, South Korean Brood War never really died, not even in 2012. Sure, the market did dramatically shrink: An entire broadcasting station, all the fat-cat sponsors and most of the casual fans were no longer there. It seemed like everyone had decided to lovingly bury the memories and finally move on.

But it wasn't quite so. Underneath the ashes, the original flame was still ablaze. Dead game or not, many continued to play it in PC bangs, South Korea's gaming-centric internet cafes, across the country. And despite discouraging viewer numbers, a handful of ex-pros started to stream on AfreecaTV. Slowly but surely, the audience grew -- or more accurately, recovered.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows right away, of course. There definitely was a long period of time in which these kernels of hope were considered anachronistic and even pitiful. From late 2012 to early-to-mid 2014, even the hardcore community looked upon Brood War as a thing firmly of the past, a faint bulb long overdue for the recycling bin.

By late 2014, however, public sentiment had turned. It was quite evident that Brood War, as downsized as it had become, was not going anywhere. And so perhaps for the first time in 16 years, Brood War was not doomed to die; it was now doomed to live. The seeds of rebirth were in place. All the scene needed now was a financial catalyst.

In December 2014, South Korean companies SBENU and HungryApp each launched a Brood War tournament with more-than-respectable prize pools. Some earnestly heralded it as a long-awaited Renaissance; others brushed it off as an unexpected but penultimate sendoff for a dead game. When the tournaments started running, however, it was clear Brood War was not only alive but also somehow kicking. Countless old fans rushed back for a dash of nostalgia, and many ended up staying close by. The casual fans had returned.

And as the casual fans returned, so did more and more pros. Streaming the game on AfreecaTV had now become extremely lucrative; even second-tier streamers could earn enough for a steady living. Dozens of familiar faces, including those who had retired around a decade ago, enthusiastically came home. Sure, the donations and sponsorships probably would not last forever. But at least while the market lasted, competitors would get to interact with longtime fans, play their favorite game and relive their glory days.


OGN's three most legendary casters sat in front of me with misty eyes.

Kim "TheMarine" Jeong-min, a former Brood War champion and beloved commentator in five Blizzard esports titles.

"The latest Afreeca Starleague shocked me. Its numbers were higher than some of [South Korea's] biggest leagues right now. Some people say that the game is old and archaic, but the explosive numbers leave no room for doubt. The game is still very fun and so very immersive. I hope StarCraft: Remastered becomes the golden standard of esports and that more foreign fans recognize its value. StarCraft is a game where every match provides a perfect introduction, development, turn and conclusion."

Then came Chun Yong-jun, the definitive voice of Korean esports.

"I run a KBBQ restaurant, and countless customers ask me if I'll return to broadcasting when Remastered comes out. They have no idea that I'm casting all these other games. Their entry into gaming was with StarCraft, and they don't play other games. They don't watch other games. Their interest in gaming, so to speak, is entirely discontinued. But StarCraft? They still care about StarCraft.

"People tend to think that only non-competitive games can transcend generations, like some Nintendo Wii games. But I must disagree. What is a game that truly transcends generations? It would be a game where a son and his father both decide to queue up for a match on their own, and they can meet by chance via matchmaking. I sincerely believe that StarCraft: Remastered can be the first game to make that miracle widespread."

And Um Jae-kyung, the greatest storyteller in Brood War history.

"Don't all games have a limited lifespan? Don't they fade away as technology develops and newer ones enter the market? And if so, how will a game ever be a lasting sport?

"I was asked these questions over and over when we first started broadcasting esports. And I usually just said something about Go and Janggi and Chess, how those games [functioned] as sports, because I wasn't really sure if or when StarCraft would end. Time did end up making a difference. When StarCraft II came out, StarCraft looked so old and outdated in comparison, even to me. The game soon passed into the annals of history, and other games took its place.

"But see now. My son was born in 2000, and his friends' favorite game is Overwatch. But the thing is, they really like StarCraft, too. They like it so much that they even play it together despite the horrible graphics. So what if the graphics were much better? This really is a magnificent experiment by Blizzard. If Remastered manages to pull in another generation, it will forever disprove the notion that games are doomed to fade away. We could play the same game forever and just update its visuals with new technology every now and then.

"It would be just like all other sports."


Once the press conference ended, I started toward the hotel where my friends were staying. Upon arrival, I realized hotel was the wrong word. It was a dump. It stank of something putrid and nauseous; it almost made me miss the fact that there was no air conditioning. After 10 seconds inside the lobby -- if a sweltering narrow hallway could be called that -- I had to stick my head out of the nearest window for fresh air.

"You here for the StarCraft thing by any chance?"

I pulled back and spun around. The innkeeper had come out of the front desk and was peering at me with wrinkled eyes. He wore a faded checkered shirt and frayed slacks and looked to be in his early fifties.

"Yes."

He beamed. "Ah, then did you see Kim Taek-yong and Lee Jae-dong? They arrived just a while ago. And Park Jung-seok is staying here too. He came earlier." The names rolled off his lips with loving reverence. His voice was raspy and warm.

"Oh, wow."

"When does the event end? I'd like to go watch if I can."

"Probably sometime around midnight."

"I see," the man said and nodded, staring off into the distance. Then he turned and ambled away toward the drying rack to finish hanging up the laundered washcloths.

It was still very hot.


Night fell, and the lights came on. It was the same dirty gulls and the sticky breeze and the glitter of Diamond Bridge shining in the darkness. It was the same hoarse bellow of Caster Chun echoing over the ocean.

Then our heroes started walking in one by one.

TheBOy.

Grrrr....

BoxeR.

YellOw.

NaDa.

Reach.

Bisu.

Jaedong.

FlaSh.

With every entrance, we hollered and shrieked and hammered our thousands and thousands of thundersticks together in a bloodthirsty crescendo against the terrible rock music that clearly wasn't Terran 1 or Electric Romeo. It was a brilliant racket that we made, and everyone looked proud by the end of it.

The most exciting moment of the event wasn't punctuated by any roar, but an overawed hush. It was the sound of 5,000 people falling in love at first sight. The moment came exactly as the first match loaded and the screen on stage flickered to Guillaume Patry's Nexus then to Kook Ki-bong's Hatchery. Every sprite was rendered so beautifully in high definition, and yet the entire picture was so thoroughly classical.

From then the night moved on in a blur. Silly blunders and epic battles broiled in what was, undoubtedly, a five-hour run of StarCraft. But in truth, the matches themselves barely even registered after the first hour or so. The thousands of us on that beach in August had not come for the games. We came for the game.

Gwangalli Beach was once again everyone and everything we loved most, and StarCraft: Remastered brought it all back. It had successfully stayed the same. And we all would probably run to the nearest PC bang tomorrow to drool at the 4K ultra-high-definition graphics, get wrecked by four-pooling bastards all over again and cherish it forever.

We'd feel old and young and warm all over again.