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Com2uS, Gamevil Chairman Song Byung-joon: Mobile game pioneer, sports enthusiast

Had his sights on mobile games years before smartphones went mainstream

By Jun 02, 2021 (Gmt+09:00)

Com2uS, Gamevil Chairman Song Byung-joon: Mobile game pioneer, sports enthusiast


About eight years ago on Oct. 5, 2013, Song Byung-joon, the then-chief executive of South Korean mobile game developer Gamevil Inc., visited the office of its recent rival, Com2uS Corp.

It was the day after Gamevil announced the 70 billion won ($63 million) acquisition of Com2uS.

“I wanted to have a heart-to-heart with the Com2uS executives and employees who probably felt confused and overwhelmed that their company was being bought by a competitor,” said Song, now the chairman of Com2uS and Gamevil.

He made the trip alone and met with each company member.

“I didn’t go as their new boss, but rather their partner. I convinced them to join me on the journey of pioneering a global market,” Song recalls.

The following year, Com2uS released Summoners War: Sky Arena, a blockbuster game that became the bestselling mobile game in 87 countries. It was the first Korean mobile game to reach 1 trillion won in sales.

TARGETING THE GLOBAL MOBILE GAMING MARKET FROM THE GET-GO

Famous for his daredevil-like drive, Chairman Song founded Gamevil in 2000 and aimed to grab a big win with mobile games from the very beginning. This was nine years before the launch of Apple's iPhone 3GS, which is credited for kicking off the mobile gaming era.

Chairman Song began to release mobile games for feature phones, or basic cellphones, coming up with innovative ideas such as laying the phone sideways to play a game. As he expected, the games became a huge hit.

Oh ... the days of feature phones! 
Oh ... the days of feature phones! 

Song had global expansion on his mind from the get-go. In the early days of Gamevil when it had around 10 employees, Song hired an English tutor to prepare them for business abroad.

Industry watchers say that Song’s efforts are what led the company to build an international presence early on. In 2009, two of Gamevil’s games -- Zenonia and Baseball Superstars 2009 -- were featured on the Apple app store.

Gamevil continued to post strong growth, riding on the mobile revolution that the iPhone had ushered in.

Before smartphones went mainstream, the feature phone market was all that Gamevil had. And in the feature phone market, mobile games were often pre-installed on the phones, meaning that the company had to convince mobile manufacturers and telecommunication carriers to feature its games -- which wasn't easy.

“But the mobile gaming market being open to everyone provided a huge opportunity,” Song said.

In 2011, Gamevil released a mobile game named Air Penguin, which overtook the then-top mobile game, Angry Birds, alongside grabbing the attention of gaming industry players.

The following year in 2012, Gamevil became the first domestic mobile game firm to top 10 billion won in quarterly revenue. In the same year, the company logged revenue of 42.6 billion won, surpassing then-rival Com2uS and becoming the industry frontrunner. At the time, Gamevil’s overseas revenue accounted for 58% of its total sales.

The sky seemed the limit for Gamevil until it hit some turbulence. Major gaming companies at home and abroad were beginning to ramp up their mobile game operations, heralding an intensified competition.

In 2013, Gamevil saw its second-quarter operating profit drop by 38% compared to the year-earlier period. 

ACQUIRING RIVAL COM2US WAS GAMECHANGER

Gamevil founder Song Byung-joon
Gamevil founder Song Byung-joon


In October 2013, Chairman Song made the decision to acquire its competitor, Com2uS.

“I knew better than anyone about Com2uS’ competitiveness given that we were industry rivals and peers from the early days of Korea’s mobile gaming scene,” said Song.

Song explained that the acquisition made sense in terms of his global expansion plans since Com2uS had a strong development team.

But the decision was not entirely well-received by the industry. Some voiced positive views, stating that Gamevil’s game development would be enhanced by securing Com2uS game developers.

However, some expressed concerns over the two firms’ overlapping business models and predicted that Com2uS developers would leave following the deal.

During this period, Gamevil and Com2uS shares both hit a 52-week low, reflecting the market’s negative response.

But none of this crushed Song’s spirits.

In fact, Song’s strategy hit the bull’s eye. In 2014, Com2uS released Summoners War which had exceeded 100 million downloads by February 2019. The game also went on to achieve success in the esports scene with the Summoners War tournament last November attracting 1.3 million viewers globally.

Com2uS, Gamevil Chairman Song Byung-joon: Mobile game pioneer, sports enthusiast


The success of the Summoners War hiked up Com2uS' revenue -- from 28 billion won in 2010 to 508.9 billion won in 2020, increasing over 18-fold in just a decade. Last year, foreign sales accounted for 80% of the company’s total revenue.

Earlier in April, the company released Summoners War: Lost Centuria, a game created using Summoners War intellectual property rights. The game logged 5 billion won in sales just three days after its release.

Song plans to use the Summoners War IP across various channels, including drama series and animation. A webtoon using Summoners War IP is set for launch next year.

SONG SPEARHEADS M&A, INVESTMENTS 

Chairman Song is also famous for aggressive M&A deals as he fostered Com2uS' growth by acquiring various game developers. 

In March, Song stepped down as CEO of Com2uS and Gamevil, and instead became the chairman of both companies. His decision stemmed from wanting to focus on strategic investments and global growth strategies rather than game businesses.

Last month, Com2uS invested 50 billion won ($45 million) for a 2.1% stake in the internet-only bank, K Bank, which drew much attention across the investment industry.

“Games and internet banks are both future industry players that basically share the same fate,” Song said.

SONG, A RENAISSANCE MAN & SPORTS ENTHUSIAST

Chairman Song is a strong supporter of culture and fine arts in Korea as he believes that the growth of arts and culture will serve as the foundation for the domestic content industry, and ultimately the growth of the gaming industry.
 
Since 2017, Com2uS has been a corporate sponsor of the Korean National Ballet, the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA) and the National Museum of Korea. Last year, Song became the sponsorship chair for the Korean National Ballet.

Gamevil, Com2uS-sponsored triathlon in 2019. Song (third from left) takes a photo with his employees. (Courtesy of Com2uS)
Gamevil, Com2uS-sponsored triathlon in 2019. Song (third from left) takes a photo with his employees. (Courtesy of Com2uS)


Song is also a sports enthusiast. Under his leadership, Com2uS has sponsored various tournaments and events for baseball, basketball, and triathlons. Chairman Song himself is famous for completing the triathlon annually.

Last year, Com2uS concentrated on aid for causes related to the global pandemic at home and abroad via donation.

Write to Joo-wan Kim at kjwan@hankyung.com

Danbee Lee edited this article.

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