Koreans’ interest in golf soared when 20-year-old Pak Se-ri became the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998. A few years later, “screen golf” arrived, driven by information technology that projected the path of a player’s struck ball. An indoor simulated sports craze is now under way with some 20 sports joining screen golf, which generates 1 trillion won in revenue per year by attracting more players than actual golf courses.
The sports center at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology is equipped with state-ofthe-art facilities, such as an indoor driving range. The center is popular among students as well as faculty members.
Until recently, the workday in Korea frequently ended with a staff dinner, followed by time at a karaoke club, and then a soju bar or beer pub. But the new generation of employees prefers moderate drinking and healthy leisure activities. As Koreans reset their work culture, indoor sports, a kind of virtual reality activity, has become a booming business.
Sports simulation venues appear to be a combination of the gaming cafés and karaoke bars of the 1990s. But apart from having a large screen simulator, they are operated differently. Like a theme park, they apply various fees instead of a flat fee, and serve drinks and snacks. Still, many office workers and young people consider these places to be a cheap option for leisure activity.
The indoor sports craze is a byproduct of socio-cultural factors. Korea is a sports powerhouse in terms of Olympic medals per capita. However, its weak sports infrastructure denies most people the opportunity to play real sports themselves. With the population concentrated in urban areas, outdoor spaces for sports are few and far between. There is practically no field big enough for amateurs to play baseball or football. Indoor simulation fills the void, meshing Korea’s IT and video gaming, both global powerhouse industries.
In contrast, on-screen sports simulation would not be a likely alternative in countries that have sufficient infrastructure to play outdoor sports at little cost. For example, in countries where green fees are low and booking tee-off times is not difficult, there is little reason to play screen golf.
Screen golf centers appeared in Korea in the early 2000s. At the time, not many people expected they would succeed. A standard 18-hole golf course typically covers one million square meters. The idea of playing a round in a mere 10-square-meter room with the help of a simulator was an alien concept to the golf community.
Numerous critics were unconvinced about the technical aspects. Amateur and professional golfers doubted the simulator could accurately reflect the flight and direction of their ball after a swing. They also doubted if the sensor could account for delicate green undulations. Obviously, there existed technical limitations in the early days that fed doubts. But many shortcomings have been corrected over the past decade. Now many users admit that the simulator replicates 90 percent of real golf.
Of course, there are still technical details to be resolved, like the feel of grass torn up by a tee shot. But many people are optimistic that this and other limitations of virtual reality will soon be overcome. These days, golf simulators provide such high-resolution digital images that users can feel as if they are standing on a real golf course. New programs are introduced one after another to allow users to experience the real feel of striking a ball on green. Prospects are all the brighter thanks to robots with artificial intelligence that can talk with customers.
Screen golf accounted for about 10 percent (1 trillion won) of the domestic golf industry, which was worth 11 trillion won, as of 2015, according to data from the Ministry of Science and ICT. The annual number of visitors to screen golf centers topped 1.5 million that year, outnumbering those who visited real golf courses.
What caused such a sharp increase in the number of golfers wanting to experience virtual reality visualizations? High user fees are the primary reason. To play at an outdoor golf range, an amateur golfer would set up a schedule with three other players and book a tee-off time. High demand for weekend reservations make them difficult to secure without paying an extra amount or hoping someone cancels. A weekend time slot also means a long drive to the golf range (from Seoul, an average of one hour) and a lavish fee to play.
In stark contrast, fees at the indoor simulation ranges that can now be found anywhere in cities are only a tenth of real green fees. Users can avoid the stress of trying to get a time slot, the time and fatigue from the round trip to the golf range and the weight of a bag of golf clubs. They can also enjoy screen golf alone.
Indoor golf and baseball are the top choices at screen sports theme parks, which have multiplied in cities. Golf simulators mostly attract middle-aged men, while baseball is popular among men and women of all ages.
Regardless of the type of sports, all indoor sports centers look similar. They all have booths with a wide screen and an electronic simulation unit.
Thanks to diverse programs and convenient access, anybody, man or woman, young or old, can enjoy them. Besides, indoor sports can be played anytime, rain or shine, hot or cold.
Convenient and Affordable
The rapid success of screen golf paved the way for a craze for indoor sports simulation. The industry is predicting that the entire indoor sports market will be worth some 5 trillion won in 2018. Defining the fusing of sports and IT as a new growth engine, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism is also keen to invest in this industry.
No doubt, the power of content that can satisfy users and expand the customer base has been an important factor in the success of the industry. There are now more than 20 kinds of indoor sports. They include tennis, horseback riding, shooting, bowling, fishing, billiards, and climbing. Golf and baseball remain the most popular. A recent addition is curling, thanks to the unexpected silver medal won by Korea’s women’s team at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Generally, men have far outnumbered women in terms of the number of indoor sports fans. But now, thanks to diverse programs and convenient access, anybody, man or woman, young or old, can enjoy them. Besides, indoor sports can be played anytime, rain or shine, hot or cold.
It is not difficult to learn how to play these sports indoors, either. For example, beginners can play a simulated billiards game, even though they are not familiar with rules or techniques. A projector-camera system and a sensor identify the location of the balls on the pool table and artificial intelligence analyzes the path of the cue ball. Not only billiards aficionados but novices can also play to their hearts’ content.
It is not easy to predict how long the indoor sports industry will remain viable. But it is clear that the current fad has been sparked by people’s desire to enjoy their favorite sports in an environment where a minimum investment of their time and money is required.