After months of preparation, NCsoft, a South Korean online game company, launched a new professional baseball team on Thursday.
At the Changwon Convention Center here, about 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul, NCsoft celebrated the first expansion in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) since 1991.
You Young-koo, commissioner of the KBO, said, "A new history has been written" in South Korean baseball.
"During 30 years of professional baseball in the country, I don't know how often we've been as happy as we are today," You said.
NCsoft, known for its online role-playing game called "Lineage," got the final stamp of approval from KBO owners on Tuesday. The company first expressed interest in founding a baseball team in December last year.
Presidents and owners of the league's existing eight teams met over the ensuing months to discuss feasibility of the expansion and also ways to supply players for the new team. Aside from NCsoft, two other, unidentified local companies were in the running for the expansion ownership.
In the KBO, all eight clubs are owned and operated by private companies, some of them major conglomerates such as Samsung, SK and LG.
The NCsoft team could join the KBO as early as 2013. The KBO wants to add a 10th club soon so it could have an option of running a two-division league.
"If the city of Changwon and NCsoft can set an example (of municipality-corporation partnership), then the preparation for a 10th club will be accelerated," You said.
Kim Taek-jin, the chief executive of NCsoft who will serve as the owner of the ball club, said at a press conference that he wants to build a team that will be focused solely on baseball.
"A team that's crazy about baseball, about winning and about doing the best it can as a group of professionals is the team we aspire to become," Kim said. "Whenever our company went through difficult times, we drew inspiration from encouraging stories of baseball. We have to become a ball club that can give hope to the people."
The KBO started out in 1982 with six teams and expanded to eight in 1991. Baseball is the most popular professional sport in South Korea. In 2010, the KBO drew an all-time record of 5.9 million fans.
NCsoft will have to pay 5 billion won (US$4.5 million) in league entry fees, which are contributed to the league development fund. The KBO said the fees must be paid within 30 days of the owners' approval.
NCsoft will have to build a new stadium with at least 25,000 seats within five years of the team owners' approval, the KBO added, or it won't get back a 10 billion won deposit.
Park Wan-soo, mayor of Changwon, said the city "has work cut out for us" to lay the groundwork for the new team.
"We will remodel the existing park (Masan Stadium) for the new team and then construction a new stadium that will raise the brand of our city," Park said. "Baseball expansion here will help our image as a sports town and will also boost the local economy and create jobs."
The Lotte Giants, based in Busan, have been the most vocal opponent of the NCsoft expansion, for fear that they could lose their fan base to the new club. They threw the only dissenting vote when other clubs gave their green light for the expansion earlier this week.
Changwon is the second home for the Giants, and they play several alternative home games at Masan Stadium each year. Changwon fans often make one-hour trips to Busan to watch the Giants.
Lotte is the only club to have drawn more than 1 million fans in each of the past three seasons.