SEOUL — Cheers ring out as Park Jung-seok uses futuristic troop transports to sneak a pair of wormlike tanks into his opponent’s base and blast a couple of buildings.
While many pilots in the South Korean air force engage enemies with F-15s and F-4 Phantoms, Park is using Protoss shuttles and probes in a "StarCraft" video game.
Watchers cheer and applaud wildly, some waving signs like spectators at a pro wrestling match, while multicolored lights play across a stage decorated with several large monitors.
Park, fighting his way to a record 99th win, remains cool as the match continues — fingers dancing across the keyboard as he sits in a soundproof booth resembling the cockpit of a spaceship.
Korean e-Sports Association spokeswoman Ahn Hye-eun says gamers like Park are celebrities in South Korea, where some players make as much as 250,000,000 won ($171,400) a year and are as recognizable as movie stars.
But unlike most players, Park, 27, is an airman first class in the Republic of Korea Air Force. When the match is over, he and his teammates, all members of the service’s Ace Team, won’t go home to posh apartments and adoring fans.
Instead they’ll head back to their barracks, complete with work details and guard duty.
The Ace Team was founded in 2007 as a way to drum up friendly publicity for the South Korean air force. At the same time it allows South Korea’s conscripted pro "StarCraft" players to keep their edge while fulfilling their mandatory service, according to team director 1st Lt. You Sung-yeol.
Korean males are required by law to complete at least two years of government service.
The team currently consists of 14 members, some of whom are among the country’s top gamers.
But top gamer doesn’t usually translate to much in the military.
"The gaming world is a small community where all of the gamers know each other," said Sgt. Kim Sun-ki. "But once you join the military, that is totally different. In the military you’re recognized solely based on your rank. One-time competitors or friends can become your superior or subordinate in the military world."
Their duties don’t stop at gaming, said You. While members of the team are given time to practice, they also must perform the same duties as other airmen, including patrols and physical training.
For some, it was a bit of a rude awakening.
"I am the lowest-ranking airman so I am supposed to run every errand for others, like picking up the garbage," said Pvt. Hong Jin-ho.
Hong is among South Korea’s most famous players, and he said that before entering the military he was making as much as 10,000,000 won ($67,300) a year playing for the Korea Telecom team.
Military gamers, You said, are forbidden by regulation from keeping their winnings. Instead, prize money is spent on "improving the welfare of the air force" or donated to charity.
While some players on the Ace Team, like Hong, hope to return to professional gaming when their service is complete, others are in the twilight of their careers.
In a sport where players hit their peak in their early 20s, members of the Ace Team, whose average age is 27, are the old men of the e-sports world.
"Most of the gamers in the military are relatively old when joining the military compared to other drafted soldiers who begin serving in their early 20s," said South Korean air force spokesman Capt. Park Yoon-seo. "It is because that peak of a gamer’s career is in his early 20s. None of the pro gamers want to miss their golden time as gamers fighting in the league."
Because of their age, and because the demands of military service don’t allow them to play full time, Ahn said, the Ace Team doesn’t do as well as other teams. They usually rank at the bottom of league standings, she said.
Despite this, Ahn said, they tend to be fan favorites.
"The association and online game fans understand very well the disadvantages the Ace Team players face dealing with dual duties as both the servicemembers and gamers," Ahn said. "When they win a game after a string of defeats, the online world goes crazy cheering their victory. People seem very touched and moved when they win and overcome all those hardships."