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Superstar gamers hot property

From CNN's Phil O'Sullivan

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A competitor at the World Cyber Games
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- It's a cold Tuesday night in South Korea and tens of thousands of people are staying indoors to watch online gaming matches on television.

But they hardly need the weather as an excuse to stay indoors. In South Korea, online gaming is must-see TV.

Here, new games rival movies for popularity, top players are superstars and gaming competitions are events that are televised across the country.

With such a strong following, everyone knows the game -- and everyone knows the players.

Names like Hong Jin-Ho -- or "Thunder Zerg," as he's known in cyberspace -- are sponsored gamers who are paid to play.

The 24-year-old is one of the country's top 10 gamers, earning him a six-figure annual income and a 200,000-member fan club.

He told CNN that since becoming a professional online gamer, his life had changed a lot.

"I've had experiences that others my age wouldn't even dream of experiencing," he says.

"As one of the forerunners in the pro gaming world, it was difficult but it was great, and if I hadn't become a pro gamer I would have been just another ordinary guy."

Three cable television networks broadcast gaming competitions every week in South Korea.

One program alone attracts nearly 250,000 viewers per show -- and that's not counting those who turn up to watch the gamers in action, live.

Cyber gaming is such a big part of South Korea that the government has created a special policy to promote "e-sports," as they are known.

The huge popularity of cyber gaming is driven mainly by the vast numbers off people using broadband Internet connections.

More than seven out of 10 people in South Korea have broadband Internet access -- a number greater than any other country.

Hank Jeong runs World Cyber Games, an annual tournament he hopes will one day be to gaming what the Olympics is to mainstream sport.

This year's final will take place in Singapore, with 250,000 people from all over the world participating.

And it is these young consumers that advertisers want to target. The business is now considered so mainstream that it is not just technology-related companies that are eager to jump on board -- global brands like Gillette and Coca-Cola are keen to get a piece of the action, too.

High-profile players like Hong Jin Ho are well aware that their game has become big business.

"I feel a huge responsibility," he says.

"I get paid a salary and I need to perform according the amount that I'm paid. At times the name of a huge corporation rests with one individual."

South Korea may lead the world in the business of cyber gaming, but the rest of the world is catching up. After all, the current World Cyber Games champion is from The Netherlands.


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