Why is Squid Game so popular? How Netflix’s K-drama took the world by storm

Why is Squid Game so popular?

Squid Game is a Korean Netflix original that’s on course to become the most popular show the streaming giants have ever produced. Sporting 9 episodes clocking in at a little under an hour each, this is an easy show to get into and a difficult one to put down. So how has this Asian series managed to grow into this unstoppable behemoth? Is it a stroke of luck? A viral trend? Or has the writing been on the wall for a while? Across this article we’ll dive into all the reasons why we think Squid Game has become revered the world over.


FOMO is more commonly known as “fear of missing out.” In its simplest form, this relates to social anxiety stemming from the belief that others might be having more fun without you. In other words, it encourages you to get involved as well for fear of missing something special.

This is essentially the core ingredient of viral trends, turning into an ever-growing snowball effect. Whether it be fidget spinners and Pokémon cards or an ice bucket challenge to raise money for charity, as social creatures we feel compelled to get involved too.

So with Squid Game talked about across the globe, showing up in newspaper headlines, online publications and social media feeds, it’s only natural that we feel compelled to get in on the action.

Given Netflix’s accommodating dubbing alongside its conventional subtitles, Squid Game has gripped the world and doesn’t look like slowing down any time soon.

Remakes, reboots and sequels, oh my!

Hollywood feels creatively bankrupt. There’s a reason big stars and creators are jumping across to streaming platforms and producing for TV. I mean, look at the cast list for Amazon’s Invincible or Big Little Lies. Both shows are well written and – more importantly – feel original. However, for every Invincible there’s a serialized reboot of I Know What You Did Last Summer or the never-ending seasons of Walking Dead and all of its spin-offs.

When it comes to mainstream movies, the same trends hit even harder, stagnating the market. Sure you get the odd Free Guy or fun original animated flick but the sheer number of remakes and sequels released every year is just exhausting. That’s before mentioning the recent cynical approach of female reboots like Ghostbusters blaming sexism when their movies are poorly received from audiences.

Remakes and sequels are, at best, an equal to their original counterpart. Regardless of how good The Exorcist TV show is, it’ll never be a match for the original movie. At its worst, these sequels retcon details of the original, anger their fanbase and turn those people away from the next inevitable instalment that’s spewed out. And that’s before mentioning the gleeful nonchalance when JJ Abrams told Esquire that: “Disney Didn’t Have a Real Plan When They Made the New Star Wars Trilogy” (You can read about that here)

If that wasn’t enough, last week Ridley Scott came out and announced that he’s currently working on a sequel to Gladiator. Why? What’s the point? Beyond the intent on making money, where’s the passion gone in creating projects that tell a good story rather than making a good profit?

And speaking of profit, that’s before mentioning the utter dominance that comic book movies have had at the box office in recent years. Since Spiderman dropped back in 2002, we’ve been graced with numerous big screen (and small screen) iterations of different superheroes… which are then subsequently rebooted and repackaged again. I mean, how many times does poor Uncle Ben or Bruce Wayne’s parents need to die?

The point is, the movie industry feels stagnant and the small screen slowly seems to be following suit. With the UK government promising more “Britishness” from their upcoming projects (what does that even mean?) and US dramas intent on ham-fisting social issues into everything rather than organically touching on these topics in a clever or creative way, good TV feels hard to come by in the west.

A Depressing Monopoly

This brings us along nicely to the current problems facing the movie industry. Now, I know Squid Game is a TV show but bear with me, because it all feeds into why the show is doing so well.

Disney’s acquisition of Fox marks another big blow for consumers everywhere. No matter what industry you’re in, a monopoly is never a good thing. Just ask wrestling fans what they think of WWE for the past 20 years or so.

Back on the subject of film though, Disney’s dominance of the box office is a terrible proposition for the future of cinema. That sounds like hyperbole, I know, and there will always be amazing indie projects that go under the radar. A24 for example, constantly churn out innovative and weird projects that are well worth checking out.

The point I’m trying to make though is that competition brings out the best in companies and all you need to do is look at the videogame industry for evidence of that.

Sony’s PlayStation and Microsoft’s X-Box have been involved in a “console war” since the days of PlayStation 2. This has pushed both companies to produce memorable games, show-stopping tech and a constant back-and-forth share of the market with each console release.

By comparison you have the movie industry, with Disney owning Pixar, Fox, Lucasfilm and – more importantly – the lion’s share of money from the top Box Office every single year. This makes it increasingly difficult for other studios to put their faith in original IPs.

After all, for these studios it’s all about profit and why bank on a potentially exciting new film that may or may not do well in the cinema when you can just pump out another sequel and know it’ll make money? A good place to see this change more clearly is in the top box office earnings for the years 1995 and 2019.

1995’s Top Box Office

Source: HERE

2019’s Top Box Office

Source: HERE

You can gain a lot from this chart, including how much the movie industry has grown and evolved over the years. However, it’s also worth pointing out just how many original IPs are in the 1995 chart.

With the exception of Batman and the two James Bond movies, the top box office features a wide range of different movies and tastes. The box office share is equaled out across these movies (all produced by different studios, I may add) and making the playing field far more even than it otherwise would be.

By comparison, 2019’s paints a grim picture of sequels, remakes and reboots dominating the box office. And if that wasn’t enough, it also shows how much Disney has monopolized the industry. With the exception of Joker (which in itself is still technically a comic book movie) everything in that list falls into either a sequel, remake or reboot.

2020 however, saw a big change to the movie industry – and the world at large of course – which has paved way for streaming giants and the small screen to step up. And subsequently, those people who would normally go to the cinema every week, now turn to TV for their latest movie or TV show fix. But out of them all, Netflix has been poised to take advantage of showcasing excellent international dramas from as far back as 2018.

Korea’s Dominance In The West

Back at the start of 2018, La Casa De Papel released on Netflix. This Spanish original took the world by storm, going on to become one of Netflix’s most popular foreign IPs at the time. As more and more players entered the streaming market, vouching for a lucrative slice of American pie, only one company had the foresight to actually look beyond the congested US market to the rest of the world.

Around this time, when Apple, Disney, HBO Max, Peacock, Quibi (RIP) and other streaming platforms released in the US, Netflix began to put more effort into producing international shows and gaining international rights to streaming, with studios set up the world over.

From African series like Blood and Water through to Thai dramas like Girl From Nowhere, Netflix have a myriad of different choices on the platform. They might not all be showstoppers but for every bad show or misstep is another to take its place.

One ever-growing presence on Netflix that feels like a constant for quality is that of Korean dramas. Unlike many other shows, K-dramas generally tend to be 16 episodes long, with each chapter ranging from an hour up to 90 minutes or more.

Smash-hit Crash Landing On You started the big trend of gaining a considerable following in the west, gripping the world with its enticing mix of comedy, romance, action and emotional, heartfelt moments. This was quickly followed up by Itaewon Class, and later shows like Vincenzo, It’s Okay not to Be Okay and, more recently, Hometown Cha Cha Cha have pulled in big numbers.

However, Netflix also have a slew of original Korean dramas that buck the trend of the conventional 16 episode format, compacting its stories into a more digestible format of between 6-10 episodes.

Love Alarm season 1 started this trend, with the excellent Extracurricular arriving later that year. In fact, the latter even ended up being nominated for some Baeksang Awards a few years back. (for those unaware, the Baeksang Awards are essentially the Korean version of the Oscars.)

Squid Game’s success then is not so much a surprise to anyone who’s been following this gradual trend of popularity for K-dramas. Interestingly, this is something that’s only reinforced with movies (albeit on a smaller scale) as Parasite became the first Korean movie to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

It’s All Just A Game

Another part of Squid Game’s popularity comes from the genre it adopts. Gameshows have been a mainstay on TV since the late 1930’s. The first major success in the game show genre was Dr. I.Q., a radio quiz show that began in 1939.

During the 1950’s, Japanese variants began to crop up, featuring a lot more wacky and flamboyant ideas, ranging from eating weird foods to playing weird games. Watching people making fools of themselves was – and is to this day – extremely entertaining and one of the more famous examples of this comes from Takeshi’s Castle.

Airing in Japan between 1986 and 1990, this series soon went on to become a cult hit across the globe, with us Brits graced with the wacky narration of Craig Charles as competitors are thrown through a series of increasingly difficult challenges. Some of those challenges will be familiar to fans of Squid Game, with specific reference to Stepping Stones which sees competitors traversing a perilous set of platforms, with some prone to fall into muddy water.

Since Takeshi’s Castle though, there have been a number of other physical challenge gameshows, including Total Wipeout, Gladiators, Ninja Warrior and Fear Factor to name a few.

The point is, this game-show format remains ever-popular to this day and although shows like Alice In Borderland and Liar’s Game have similar styles, both almost feel like stepping stones (no pun intended) to Squid Game’s Korean influences blending with a gameshow format and featuring some recognizable faces to anyone who has been watching these dramas over the years.

The perfect recipe

Ultimately all of the above points have played a part in Squid Game’s success, which is only compounded further by our current climate, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Of course, we did mention these themes in our review too, which goes into a lot more detail on the show in general.

Korea is no stranger to well written TV and with more and more people hungry to experience some of the best that Asia has to offer, Netflix look to have a winning ticket to come out of this streaming battle royale as the victor.

What do you think about Squid Game’s success? Do you think it’s simply sheer luck that this show has gone viral? Or do you have your own theories around what’s happened? Do let us know in the comments below, we’d love to hear from you!

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