From dimly-lit dens shrouded in cigarette smoke in the 1990s to bright, cafe-like environments in the 2020s, South Korea's internet cafes – called “PC bang” in Korean -- have updated their appearance and services to stay relevant amid rapid changes in people's lifestyles and preferences here.
These days, PC bang are stocked with state-of-the-art computer equipment and super high-speed internet, offering a myriad of video game titles for players, while serving as social hubs for esports aficionados, befitting Korea’s reputation as a global esports powerhouse.
Nevertheless, in recent years, PC bang spaces have vanished across the country, dwindling from 21,549 in 2009 to 9,265 in 2021, as reported by the annual "Whitepaper on Korean Games" released by the Korea Creative Content Agency (KOCCA).
More recent data from the National Tax Service put the number of PC bang establishments in April this year at 8,152.
Many in the industry worry that the golden age of the PC Bang has entered its twilight years.
“The popularity of mobile games and the increased ownership of high-end PCs in households, especially after COVID-19 regulations, have made the option of visiting PC bang less appealing,” Lim Su-taek, president of the Internet PC Culture Association (IPCA), an organization that advocates for PC bang proprietors, said in an interview with The Korea Herald.
Struggling to survive
In their prime, PC bang were an inextricable part of Korean teenage life, with their affordable hourly rate of just 1,000-1,500 won (around 75 cents to $1.12) per person for computer use. They were a multi-functional public space for teens and students to gather, socialize and hang out together in.
That pricing structure has remained relatively consistent for decades, with a significant portion of revenue now coming from snack and beverage sales.
Whereas in the past, patrons – both teens and otherwise -- would visit to watch movies, utilize printers or access the reliable high-speed internet for practical purposes like enrolling in online classes for a new university semester, these features no longer draw customers. Now, people go to PC Bang mostly just for gaming, while enjoying food and drinks there, industry insiders say.
However, the increase in households equipped with computers with top-shelf hardware, along with the popularity of mobile games, means that gamers don’t necessarily have to come to PC bang to play video games.
An office worker named Lee in his 30s told The Korea Herald, "Playing games on my phone during the commute to work saves me time and energy. I can manage my time more efficiently while satisfying my gaming desires."
“These days, many PC games are being relaunched on mobile gaming platforms. My friends and I can play them at a cafe together without even going to a PC bang,” he added.
According to the KOCCA report, 84.2 percent of 4,462 local gamers enjoy mobile games, followed by 54.2 percent who play PC games and 17.9 percent who play video games on consoles such as PlayStation or Nintendo.
Among the various reasons contributing to the waning allure of PC bang culture, the most prominent has been the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the past three years, enclosed multi-use facilities in Korea -- including pubs, cafes and noraebang (karaoke rooms) -- were subjected to periods of restrictions associated with the implementation of social distancing rules. PC bang were among the hardest hit.
Measures imposed on PC bang establishments included a ban on eating, mandatory gaps of one seat between customers, prohibiting access to minors, restrictions on operating hours past 10 p.m. and suggested limits on computer usage to less than two hours.
PC bang as esports centers
However, PC bang continue to play a pivotal role within the sphere of esports.
Weekly ranking data on online games played at PC bang released by Gametrics, a research firm dedicated to the PC bang industry, is a widely accepted measure of a game title’s popularity.
PC bang spaces have become a part of the local gaming ecosystem since their inception in the 1990s, experts say. Their widespread accessibility and affordability have introduced young people to the world of online gaming culture, sparking aspirations in some to pursue a professional career in gaming.
The rise of esports leagues in turn has spurred gaming publishers to innovate and create new games, while also facilitating the growth of gaming-related businesses.
In this context, IPCA President Lim emphasized the significance of PC bang businesses' fate within the local esports ecosystem. He noted an encouraging trend where gaming companies are seeking to enhance the quality and playability of computer games, while fostering collaborations with PC bang for promotional activities.
“While many mobile games are taking flak for their exploitative monetization tactics, gaming publishers are zeroing in on developing high-caliber games to draw in global PC gamers,” Lim said.
PC bang nowadays collaborate with gaming publishers to provide various benefits to local gamers, such as participation in esports leagues and area tournaments, he explained.
“PC bang should play a key role in promoting esports events, as they can create a local fan base and hold events involving professional game players,” Lim explained, saying that the official debut of esports as a medal sport at the Hangzhou Asian Games this year has the potential to reignite the gaming spirit of Koreans.
Another new trend unfolding in the PC bang scene right now is the emergence of locations branded by local esports teams.
Teams like Nongshim Redforce, SK telecom T1 and Liiv Sandbox have recently launched PC bang spaces under their brand names in the Seoul metropolitan area to hold a variety of events for their fans.
In addition to offering spaces for retailing esports merchandise, fan conventions and group viewings, PC bang also provide esports programs aimed at nurturing new professional gamers. An official from Nongshim Redforce said, “PC bang owners profit from the brand's influence, while the team utilizes PC bang as platforms to expand their local fan community and explore additional business opportunities.”