Why is Squid Game such an international success?
Over the past few weeks we’ve seen Squid Game go from Netflix’s latest original Korean show, to a worldwide sensation. It doesn’t sound like anyone expected the drama to perform quite as well as it did, and I, for one, didn’t expect it either. Gone are the days of trying to force co-workers to watch Kingdom and suck it up when it comes to reading subtitles; now, everyone from a local waitress to out-of-touch friends are asking me, “Have you seen Squid Game?!”
Blowing up in the South Korean market — or even Asia more broadly — is one thing, but Korean content going this wide is almost unheard of. The last time we saw something similar was with Bong Joon-ho’s 2019 Oscar-winning film Parasite. Interestingly, the smash hit film did pretty much the same thing that Squid Game is doing: invading entertainment media (especially Western media), and opening up loads of conversations. Those various conversations — whether you’ve been seeing them, reading them, or having them yourself — are what we’ll explore here.
Before we look at Squid Game’s success more broadly, it’s important to warn you first: this piece isn’t looking for any one answer, or even arguing for one. In fact, I’m not sure if there is one sole reason why Squid Game took off the way that it did. Instead, it seems like its success was caused by a combination of factors.
The actual content is the main draw, for sure, but there are other variables that have to line up for a success like this — things like timing, accessibility, word of mouth, and maybe even a little luck.
Think of how long K-pop groups were trying to hit it big in the U.S., only for BTS to finally be the group to get it done. I wouldn’t argue that BTS is demonstratively better or worse than comparable K-pop groups out there (though the fandom might argue with me there) — there was just something about them. The planets lined up, and now you can find BTS merch at your local Target. It’s the same with Squid Game. Right time, right place.
But that’s just one part of the equation, and surely there’s more to the success of Squid Game than just right time, right place — there’s also the cross-cultural nerve that it has hit. And this phenomenon is the most interesting part of Squid Game’s success.
Once Squid Game hit Western media full force, along came piles of articles and editorials claiming to explain why the series became a global sensation, and then explaining their reasoning in great detail. While there’s something to be said for Western media trying to explain why a drama series out of South Korea hit home for them, can they really know so easily? Can we really wrap up a drama’s worldwide success just by looking at it through a single lens, or distilling it into a single component that explains everything?
In trying to explain the phenomenon of Squid Game’s success, most go straight to the thematic content. We’ve seen explanations that the powerful dialectic of rich versus poor, and elite versus plebs, was what made the show resonate so much. We’ve even seen articles that defend the terrible line-delivery of the English speaking cast, convinced it’s a narrative choice meant to pack even more of a punch.
Just these few small examples show how deep it’s possible to go when trying to suss out Squid Game’s success — and that’s not a bad thing. Stories are powerful because we draw meaning from them. I’m a firm believer that you can find a message that speaks to you in any story, no matter how silly or how serious — but really, much of that is subjective. And if we’re going to figure out Squid Game’s international success, should we use subjective or objective means? Or maybe both?
We can’t talk about Squid Game’s success without talking about Netflix’s role in it, and in Korean content more broadly. When Netflix entered the Korean content game, it was clear they were playing by different rules. As a streaming service, and independent of the South Korean broadcasting structure and rules, they were able to create content that aligned more to their company ethos than what viewers expected to see on KBS, or even OCN.
Here in dramaland, it’s safe to say we all have different responses to Netflix’s foray into Korean content (and all the other competing streaming services that are cropping up as we speak). While some mourn the dramaland that once was (with its chaste, predictable, and yet delightful stories), others welcome this new, refreshed lens on K-dramas, and the space to experiment with more edgy storytelling methods and content. Whichever side you’re on (or perhaps you have a foot in both?), it’s obvious that the drama landscape is changing with the times.
Getting back to the idea of the many variables that came together for Squid Game’s success, we also have to think about access. Netflix not only offered viewers a fresh take on Korean TV, but made it incredibly accessible.
With over 200 million subscribers world-wide (as of mid-2021), that’s not only a lot of eyeballs, but a lot of eyeballs that only have to click “play” on their screen. It’s a big difference compared to what looking for subbed K-dramas was like only a handful of years ago. You don’t have to be an Internet sleuth with ironclad anti-virus software anymore; Netflix is basically everywhere.
Stitching all of these ideas together, we get something of a bigger picture that might explain Squid Game’s success: Netflix’s content speaks to today’s zeitgeist (and even works to form it), it’s is easily accessible to tens of millions, and the story is rich with room for interpretation and message.
All these factors coming together to inform Squid Game’s success makes sense to me, and each one checks an important box, but there’s one more thought to add to that mix, courtesy of Occam’s razor. This theory purports that the simplest answer to a question is always the best one, and that got me thinking about Squid Game in a different light.
Rather than delving into how streaming media is impacting content, or how the story of Squid Game gives so much room for people to analyze and English major the hell out of it, what if there was an even more obvious explanation? It’s so simple, in fact, that it’s easy to forget about.
What makes a TV show or a movie, or anything else, explode like Squid Game did? The entertainment factor. There’s nothing more simple that can unite the interest of people from all parts of the world, and from different cultures and creeds. Each of these people found Squid Game entertaining. In other words, the story was compelling, the storytelling was well-executed, and they got out of it what we (as humans) crave from a story: catharsis.
Turning from the question of why Squid Game became the global sensation that it did, the next question is: what comes next? I don’t know about you, but this definitely feels like a turning point in Korean content. With millions of new viewers, some watching their first subtitled drama, and some watching their first Korean drama — all eyes will be on what comes next.
Veteran actors from the Squid Game cast got a huge international boost to their already-successful careers, and the rookie actors sky-rocketed to fame. While their careers, with a little careful management, seem primed for international success, there’s also the question of K-content more broadly.
We will, without a doubt, have shows racing to become “the next Squid Game,” but what’s even more curious is how the success of Squid Game will impact future content and content creators. For the first time, perhaps, we’ve witnessed how wide Korean dramas are capable of traveling. The question, then, is how hungry viewers are for more.
What will the aftermath look like? Will we have legions of new K-drama fans, itching to sink their toes deeper into dramaland? Will we have a bigger worldwide appetite for non-English content? Will the Hallyu wave hit an all-new peak? Though it’s hard to predict the future of dramaland and Korean content from where we’re all sitting right now (as devotees, Beanies, and consumers), I think we can all agree that change is in the air.
As a fan of K-dramas and K-content for over a decade now, it’s been particularly strange to see Squid Game explode like this. And it’s been ever harder to hold back my more emotional response — something like the drama version of “Get off my lawn!” It’s hard not to get territorial and explain, for example, that we’ve liked Wie Ha-joon since his early Pretty Noona Who Buys Me Food days, or that there’s already been a better version of Squid Game out there for years (*ahem* Liar Game).
But at the same time, holding back my inner (slightly uppity) superfan, it’s also exciting to think about the floodgates opening up and letting in legions of new fans — or even just interested viewers. Put simply, more eyeballs means more money and attention poured into the industry, and with that comes new opportunities for our beloved PDs and screenwriters and actors to create even more amazing content for us to enjoy.
Whether you’re on the Squid Game train, or got off at the first stop and ran for the hills, there’s still something to be said for the impact it’s had. While we may never know the exact moment that Squid Game flipped that invisible switch and became a global sensation, what we do know for sure is that it’s a watershed moment for Korean content. Let the games begin!