On the beaches of Busan, South Korea, if you build it (and play video games on it), they will come.
In 2005, at the height of the StarCraft: Brood War craze in South Korea, more than 100,000 people reportedly packed Gwangalli Beach to witness the country's two largest esports teams, SK Telecom T1 and KTF MagicNs (now KT Rolster), play in the finals of ProLeague. Back then, admission was free, resulting in fans arriving in Busan the night before and sleeping under the stars for a chance to get a coveted seat near the front. Brood War was more than a phenomenon in South Korea; it was a way of life for a lot of people, a new tradition ingrained in the country's roots, and the setting of the Busan beaches was the perfect canvas for the fans to paint a picture for their love of the games.
Over the years, Gwangalli Beach would continue to be the home of summer finals for ProLeague, fans flocking to the event and unaware bystanders drawn to the colorful performance occurring at the end of the beach.
One of the most famous moments in Busan was in 2008 when Samsung KHAN challenged OGN Sparkyz for the same ProLeague championship SKT prevailed over KTF three years prior. In front of a sea of fans, Samsung and esports' ultimate showman Lee "Firebathero" Sung-eun put his team ahead 3-1 in the best-of-seven series and proceeded to perform the most outlandish victory celebration in esports history by stripping off his clothes to reveal a swimsuit, running past a swarm of his fans into the freezing nighttime ocean. He finished it all off by putting on a pair of sunglasses before gyrating on top of his team's bench right beside his head coach, all while enjoying a chocolate popsicle.
Samsung would go on to win the series 4-1, and Firebathero would dance the night away, becoming the symbol of what esports on the beaches of Busan stood for -- excellent play and a party-like atmosphere, which coupled together created a spectacle needed to be seen to believe.
As Brood War's presence began to fade, it wouldn't be until 2011 when another premier esports final would be held in Busan. This time it would StarCraft's successor, the aptly named StarCraft II, that would take center stage. This time the very popular Haeundae Beach was site of the game's top individual tournament, the Global StarCraft League. The final was a clash of Protoss players, the "Protoss President" Jang "MC" Min Chul, an already multiple GSLS champion, facing a rookie player making his way up in the ranks, Ahn "Seed" Sang-won.
An extravagant stage it was, but the crowd was too small to create the same atmosphere of the past, rows of seats left empty during the final. When Seed took home the championship in a massive upset and fireworks went off in the background to crown the winner, the feeling of the crowd, the electricity of days gone by, couldn't be mirrored.
Major esports events would return to Busan three years later when League of Legends, the game closest to capturing the same lighting in the bottle Brood War possessed, held its first final in Haeundae. A full crowd watched Samsung Blue and KT Arrows play one of the best matches in the game's history on that night, gasping and yelling at every turn in the best-of-five series that went to the final bell. At the match's close, it was the Arrows, an unlikely band of over-aggressive misfits, with the title, having gone to all five games in each of its three playoff matches.
In the prize ceremony, at the forefront of the team, was the Arrows' leader and the season's overall MVP, Lee "KaKAO" Byung-kwon who inhabited the same spirit as Firebathero did almost a decade earlier, playing to the crowd and grinning like a Cheshire cat. No, the crowd wasn't the same size as it was back in 2005 -- seats were sold and more limited -- and it didn't have the same fervor as when Lim "Boxer" Yo-hwan's SKT conquered his rival Lee "YellOw" Jin-ho's KTF. However, unlike the StarCraft II event, the old esports gods of the past were visible in background, the players of today, the ones who grew up watching the ProLeague finals on television, carrying on the legacy of Busan to a new generation.
Today, outside of special events, like the upcoming StarCraft: Remastered tournament in Gwangalli, the beaches of Busan lack major finals. League of Legends, although still widely popular, hasn't returned since the Arrows captured the domestic title, choosing stadiums and arenas to hold finals instead. The two beaches, Gwangalli and Haeundae, are forever etched inside StarCraft II, with both beaches having maps dedicated to them that are still playable to this day.
No one knows what is next for esports in South Korea. Overwatch continues to grow worldwide, but the uncertain future of Overwatch League in the country leaves the game in a stagnant state in the country. And StarCraft: Remastered, an HD upgrade from the original Brood War game that started the legend of esports in Busan, is yet to be released, and its future as a competitive title is still in question.
This week, though, as a special stage is built for the StarCraft: Remastered event, the old fans of the game will flock like the old days, and bystanders -- some too young to even know who or what a "Firebathero" is -- will turn their heads and move closer to the stage, as esports returns once again to the beaches of Busan.