On September 17, 2021, the South Korean drama Squid Game was released on Netflix and quickly became a worldwide sensation. From official pop-up stores in France to gigantic Squid Game statues in Sydney to the ubiquity of Squid Game Halloween costumes, people from all over the world have experienced the massive popularity of the Korean show. The numbers behind that popularity are staggering, and have prompted a rush of investment into original Korean programming from other streaming platforms.
On September 27, just 10 days after Squid Game’s release, Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos went on record stating: "Squid Game will definitely be our biggest non-English language show in the world, for sure," and had a “very good chance” of becoming Netflix’s biggest show ever. On October 20, Squid Game solidified Sarandos’ prediction: about 132 million people watched at least two minutes of Squid Game in the show’s first 23 days, smashing Netflix’s previous top record set by Bridgerton at 82 million. The series has hit No. 1 on Netflix's Top 10 lists in 94 countries around the world, and it is the platform's first-ever Korean series to reach No. 1 in the United States.
Beyond viewership, the economic impact of Squid Game has been tremendous. Netflix estimates the K-drama will be worth over $900 million to the company after only costing $21.4 million to produce. However, the show is not just valuable to American-based Netflix. Netflix’s expansion into South Korea started in 2015, and according to Netflix’s internal data, its cumulative $1 billion investment into original Korean programming since 2015 has added $4.7 billion to the South Korean economy between 2016 and 2020 and created 16,000 full time jobs.
Thus, Squid Game’s massive popularity is just the biggest and most recent example of the global success of Netflix’s Korean expansion. Beyond Squid Game, other Korean films and shows have seen success on streaming platforms in the United States and worldwide. The K-drama Hometown Cha-Cha-Cha reached no. 8 on Netflix’s global chart; before that, the Korean drama Vincenzo reached no. 4 on the same chart, and Itaewon Class and Kingdom were the most mentioned K-dramas on Twitter globally from July 2018 to June 2021—not to mention the high-profile Oscar-winning successes of the South Korean film Parasite and the Korean American film Minari.
Netflix’s success with Korean programming, along with the rest of the wider Korean Wave, also called Hallyu, has inspired other American streaming companies like Disney+, Hulu, and AppleTV+ to begin investing in South Korean original content as well. Many South Korean creators even prefer working with these global streaming services due to their global reach and lack of strict censorship laws, which are prevalent on domestic South Korean TV stations. Thus, more global hit shows are poised to come from South Korea as more media companies step up investment and bring these shows to a larger audience. This investment trend illustrates the increasingly globalized reality of content production, with Squid Game as just the latest example.
Kimery Lynch is a Projects Coordinator at the East-West Center in Washington. She recently graduated from the University of Hawai'i-Mānoa with her MA in Asian Studies.