Korea's fighting passion: The rise and rise of CafeId

Get hype.

Outside my Nonhyeon hostel in a quiet backstreet, I notice a white rose in the cigarette butt bin. Still sheathed in decorative plastic wrap, it's only one night dry, the leaves turning copper at the edges.

I contemplate how it got there. Maybe a girl went out partying in neighbouring Gangnam and was gifted it by an admirer, returning to the hostel only to ditch it in case her boyfriend asked about its origin. Or perhaps a passer-by bound for a date succumbed to nerves and deposited it in the ashtray, standing up a lonely would-be recipient.

Whatever the circumstance, I associate the discarded token with affection. Incidentally, CafeId is also a love story. About a rabbit.

And a girl.

I realise I'm going to need to put this into context.

1

Inside the cafe.

It's cherry blossom season in Seoul, pink leaves tumbling on the breeze. After accidentally missing my subway stop and jumping through hoops to get back to where I was going, I'm late when I finally exit at Guro Digital Complex. I follow a set of instructions across main roads and intersections, by churches, along a winding side street, past fruit stalls, around a special barber shop, up a steep hill, and finally into a stairwell where a small whiteboard with 'TeamID' scribbled in ink hangs on the wall. By chance, Kensouzzang, real name Dae-Hwan Kim and founder of CafeId, is on his way down from a Hobbit-sized bathroom, towelling his damp hair. He smiles broadly and extends a hand before we head into the basement.

CafeId opened in Seoul, Korea, March 1st 2011. After Dae-Hwan took his small circle of patrons to EV0 2012 with only the savings in his bank account, what started as a humble drop-in is now an international rumble.

In terms of drama, you couldn't have written it better. A group of young, yellow-shirted unknowns arriving for EVO's first King of Fighters 13 tournament, they struggled during the practice preliminaries. Uncomfortable with arcade sticks on their laps, the Korean team were doubly bewildered by exotic input spying tactics, button tap sound recognition, and unfamiliar western play styles.

Up against 1072 contenders, Dae-Hwan took action at the eleventh hour, and suddenly things began to change. When the dust settled CafeId occupied four of the top eight spots, seeing off favourite Reynald in the process. As one of the commentators noted, CafeId were of such superlative standard they could only be taken out by the people they trained with.

Seemingly oblivious to a room of fans taunting him with reprehensible language Kwang-No Lee, better known as MadKOF, took the $11,000 first prize in a gripping grand final, opening proceedings against Mexico's then-undefeated Bala with an eyebrow raising perfect victory.

It was an upset to remember.

In new premises as of a year ago, CafeId's basement habitat is large, painted a neutral grey, and sparsely decorated. EVO medallions hang over the side of a shelving unit dressed in trophies, and a central rack heaves under the weight of twenty-plus arcade sticks. Various gaming set-ups are assembled about the room, and a giant screen running Xbox One's Killer Instinct sits beside an arcade machine of unknown origin. A makeshift entertainment centre occupies the north wall, a movie streaming on one monitor while an internet page twiddles its thumbs on the one beneath: remnants of Cup Noodles and instant dinners decorating the cluttered desk. At the back corner is an assembly of sofas, futons, Korean language manga, and a fridge.

It's also a mess. Dae-Hwan hasn't had time to clean up since holding last week's ID Global Tournament (IGT) in the Jeju Islands. Billed as Korea's first major, and with a strict cap of 128 entrants, the likes of Infiltration, Tokido, Justin Wong and Gamerbee set a blazingly high watermark from the earliest rounds.

My ad-hoc translator, Kevin 'Burnout Fighter' Kim, emerges from a curtained area housing a set of bunk beds: a Korean born Australian from Melbourne's Shadowlogic tournament group. Formalities aside, we're in a rush for an event with ATEN, an audio-video tech company collaborating with CafeId to promote new products. My lateness means there's only time for Dae-Hwan to throw on a blazer and have us all jump in a taxi.

"It's happening more often," Dae-Hwan replies to my query about the ATEN cooperation. "As CafeId becomes better known, we've been invited to work with several companies."

On the seventeenth floor of a corporate building, various tech and gaming parties are buzzing around two prototypes: a lag-free wireless HD video splitter, and a box that allows players to map console inputs directly to a USB keyboard.

Why would anyone want to play Tekken on a keyboard?" I ask.

"Korea's a PC gaming nation," Kevin shrugs. "People are discovering fighting games through Steam and learning to play with a keyboard rather than traditional arcade stick set-ups."

Later, one of CafeId's members takes on opponents in a keyboard versus stick demonstration, and clean sweeps the room. Like everyone else, I hardly have time to react with my Sanwa interface, keyboard juggled through three rounds of emasculating dismissal.

Distancing myself from the whitewash, Dae-Hwan and I sit down over an iced coffee in the outside lobby.

"Growing up, arcades were very important me," he begins reflectively, looking at Seoul's jumbled, dusty skyline outside the window. "When they began closing down one by one, I realised that the fighting game community was being dispersed. Later, when I discovered remnants of the scene were resurfacing, I was inspired to try and reunite everyone.

"I used to be an office guy - a regular salaryman - but eventually I got a job in broadcast photography, which I still maintain in a freelance capacity. It's difficult to juggle both occupations, but there are volunteers who look after CafeId when I'm not around.

2

Dae-Hwan himself.

"I did the location scouting on my own, just walking around the city," he says when asked about the Cafe's beginnings. "It was important to find something in a busy spot, and spacious enough to accommodate a regular group of visitors. I settled on a place in the Hongik University area, but CafeId's popularity outgrew its four walls. For the last year we've been in the larger space at Guro Digital Complex - a more electronic and game-oriented district.

"Now we can accommodate about 50 people for playing and spectating, and sleep eight across two bunk beds, two futons and the sofas. There's a bathroom for necessities, but for showering you have to visit the nearby bath house."

Noting how popular a venue it's become, especially with Korea's top Street Fighter 4 players using it as a sparring ground, I ask if there was a light bulb moment when he realised the venture was gaining traction.

"Not really. I feel CafeId had, and still has, humble beginnings. Momentum is always a great feeling though. In Korea, online is considered unacceptable for professional fighting game practice, so the opportunity to fight side by side is attractive. Anyone is welcome, we're never closed. Some drop in to study, others when they just need a place to crash."

A cheer goes up from the adjacent room. Someone must have clawed a round from the keyboard oppressor. With several of CafeId's members already in attendance, MadKOF, winner of EVO 2012's KOF 13 tournament, suddenly arrives late, spectacled and suited. He looks on edge. I ask him if he has time to talk.

"Sure," he says, looking like a fish out of water. "But not here. Back at CafeId. I just want to get the hell out of here."

15 minutes later I realise he was serious, ditching the gig before ATEN even started their presentation. He didn't even stay for the raffle.

When we arrive back at CafeId soon after 9pm, he's glued to Diablo.

"I promise I'll get this place photography-fit for the next time you visit," says Dae-Hwan, swapping his shoes for rubber slippers, "But it's late. Shall we get something to eat and we can talk more over a beer?"

It's an offer I can't refuse, although MadKOF sadly can't be pried from his monitor.

"He's kind of introverted," notes Ting, an ex-Dancing Stage style champion visiting from London. "He doesn't talk to us much either. He's a very private person."

We head out as a group through dim backstreets to a busier main road, seating ourselves at a warmly lit bar. Cosy under a clear tarp that separates us from the cool evening air, the TV is running breaking news on the capsized Sewol ferry. "There was a time when I almost gave up." Dae-Hwan admits, dispatching his first pint almost as quickly as he did my team on KOF '98 earlier in the afternoon.

"I felt at 32 I was too old to be dedicated to gaming. Then we went to a tournament in Dubai and I saw people from all over the world - some much older than me - visiting to play and spectate. That was an important moment: it gave me the encouragement to continue.

"If anyone has a dream like me, I would urge them to go for it. Be positive."

And the future?

"It's not about money. That's not why I started CafeId. At the moment we accept donations and take a small entry fee, and if it can ever become self-sustaining, that's fine. Despite what some people may think and say, I have no interest in CafeId as a business - I find the idea distasteful. But I would love for Korea to have an established fighting game show like Blizzcon or Dreamhack. If anyone is interested in setting something up like this, please contact me." I ask him how much of his own money he's poured into the project so far.

3

Yes, that is someone playing Tekken with a keyboard.

"I spent $20,000 USD to get us to EVO in 2012. It was a lot, but it was an opportunity for us to gain recognition as a team and as a country. It's very important to me that Korea is recognised for its fighting game players.

"Before EVO, CafeId were unheard of. But when MadKOF took first prize in KOF XIII I feel we succeeded in our goals. That attention was very useful. We rode the wave and have competed in various international tournaments since."

Having seen the sheer volume of equipment in the Café, I'm looking for a total figure. That sort of apparatus doesn't fall from trees.

He takes a moment to think. "I've spent approximately 100 million won in the last three years," he says, prompting one of the team to spit his beer all over the place.

We put our heads together for a currency conversion and come up with just under £60,000 British Pounds. I hurriedly order another round.

"You better let me get these," I say.

"We're going back to EVO this year," he continues as I hand him the glass, "and we're going to win the KOF 13 tournament."

He notices my eyebrow raise.

"Hey!" he laughs. "You can put that in your article! It's not the beer talking: we are going to win this year. It's guaranteed."

Fair enough. I'm not one to turn down an exclusive.

"You've missed your last train by the way," he says, calling the waiter for a snack refill. "You'll have to get a taxi."

I acknowledge it's been a great day, and well worth the 20,000 Won it's going to cost me to get back to Nonhyeon. He agrees. Spirits are high and after a round of photo snapping, I go for the killer question: the one we've been dancing around all evening.

4

Dae-Hwan and crew.

I want to know about the love story.

He pauses.

"You know about that?" he smiles. "Well, it's about a girl... but I don't know if your readership will understand. There might be a cultural boundary."

I push him. Everyone understands a love story, so let's hear it.

"There was a girl I used to be in a relationship with, and she had a rabbit named Id,' he begins - at which point I realise the pronunciation is Café 'Id' and not 'I.D.', and I've been getting it wrong all day. He assures me it's a common mistake, and continues:

"She had it since she was a child and loved it more than life itself. When the rabbit died she was heartbroken, and when I lost her, so was I.

"CafeId was named after the rabbit as a symbol and a gesture. The mammal represented a bond, and me taking the name on is like a personal challenge: if I ever let CafeId die, it will be like letting the rabbit die all over again."

But is there more?

"Deep down I dream that if CafeId ever becomes big enough, that girl might see my message, and perhaps I can win her back. In Korea, making the girl's parents happy is as important as making the girl happy. They don't believe in my game-related pursuits - which is why I'm determined to keep going. One day if it becomes something special, they might understand."

"And if that girl came back tomorrow, would you give all this up?"

"In a heartbeat."

The penny drops. For Dae-Hwan, CafeId is a crusade. His zeal for fighting games and his country's representation among them has driven him to deflect erroneous rumour and shoot for the sky. It's not about wealth or fame: it's a passion driven by a passion. It's about love. Love for the game, and love for a girl.

Who says romance is dead.

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