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Economics of the Real Squid Game Behind Squid Game

in K-Drama Insights

456 participants, 45.6 billion won (US$38.6 million) in prize and 1 winner — that's the mega-billion motivation pushing participants to risk probable death for an equitable chance at upturning their lives entirely.

That's the premise of Squid Game — the chart-topping Korean drama that has the world on its seat in the second half of 2021 and drove the Instagram and TikTok world crazy with fan renditions and cosplays featuring the iconic pinkish red guard uniforms and teal player garb.

What are the economics behind this successful run that now promises an upcoming sequel? Is there a metaphorical real-life "Squid Game" behind this namesake thriller?

More importantly, who is the biggest winner here? Who gained the most in the runaway success of this K-drama hit?

The total cost of producing Squid Game is around US$21 million dollars. With a short and sweet series of nine episodes in Season 1, this works out to a cost of about US$2.3 million dollars or 2.7 billion won per episode on average.

At 2.7 billion won (US$2.3M) per episode, Squid Game is also one of the costliest Korean dramas to be produced, easily among the top 5 most expensive dramas in cost per episode, in the company of Korean dramas like The Arthdal Chronicles, Sweet Home and Kingdom.

#Korean DramaCost Per Episode (Won)Cost Per Episode (USD)
1The Arthdal Chronicles3 Billion2.5 Million
2Sweet Home3 Billion2.5 Million
3Kingdom2.9 Billion2.45 Million
4Squid Game2.7 Billion2.3 Million
5The King: Eternal Monarch1.88 Billion1.59 Million
6The Legend1.8 Billion1.5 Million
7Mr. Sunshine1.67 Billion1.4 Million
8Vagabond1.56 Billion1.32 Million
9Crash Landing On You1.25 Billion1.06 Million
10Vincenzo1.25 Billion1.06 Million
11Hotel Del Luna1.25 Billion1.06 Million

Lee Jung-Jae ~280 million won per episode

Lee Jung-jae's character Seong Gi Hun was the sole and biggest winner in Squid Game, winning the highly coveted 45.6 billion won prize money. Just like his character in reel life, Lee Jung-Jae also netted the largest paycheck among the Squid Game cast in real life.

His salary is reportedly 280 million won (US$240,000) per episode or US$2.2M-2.3M in total. This works out to be roughly about 10% of the production costs, surpassing the next highest salary of a fellow cast member by a wide margin.

Park Hae Soo ~58 million won per episode

Park Hae Soo's character Cho Sang Woo was technically the runner-up in the Squid Game, although second place in Squid Game was as good as the last place in this winner-takes-all contest. In real life, he was, of course, duly paid for his role as one of the main characters.

Park Hae Soo is reported to earn around 58 million won (US$49K) per episode, which is slightly more than one fifth of Jung Jae's salary per episode.

Jung Ho Yeon ~20 million won per episode

The third-place contestant in Squid Game was North Korean defector Kang Sae-byeok acted by rookie model-actress Jung Ho Yeon. Her salary was around 23 million won (US$20K) per episode. However, her salary figure is not the most critical number to watch.

Ho Yeon's Squid Game exposure skyrocketed her fame fifty-fold (50x) — from only 410,000 followers on Instagram on 17 September to a staggering 21 million followers on 17 October 2021. With this milestone, Ho Yeon became the South Korean actress with the most followers, easily surpassing the previous crown-holder, Lee Sung Kyung who has around 12.9 million followers.

Other Cast Members

For the lesser known participants in Squid Game, the compensation graph has a huge dropoff — they could earn anywhere from 100,000 won (US$85) per episode to 500,000 won ($425) per episode (for more prominent roles like Player 199 Abdul Ali acted by Anupam Tripathi).

Value to Netflix ~US$900 million

While Lee Jung-Jae may have scored the highest per-episode earnings, we could say that the real big winner is ultimately the originator of the Squid Game — both in reel and real life. In real life, that winner is Netflix which is estimated to have earned at least an estimated US$900 million from this runaway streaming hit.

Viewership ~142 million households

Around 142 million household in across 80 countries watched Squid Game, propelling the Korean drama to the crown of the most watched show on Netflix ever, eclipsing the previous record set by 1813 drama Bridgerton with a viewership of 82 million households. In fact, within the first 23 days of release, about 132 million viewers watched at least two minutes of "Squid Game".

This achievement is especially stunning, considering the most viewers outside of South Korea do not speak nor understand the Korean language, and yet a South Korean drama was able to deliver such a monumental viewership performance, beating out English-language TV dramas.

Subscribership +4.4 million subscribers

Squid Game also contributed in an pivotal way to Netflix subscribership, which saw a marked increase to 4.4 million subscribers in third quarter of 2021. On the back of 214 million paid subscribers, the revenue in Q3 soared to $7.5 billion dollars, towards an annual revenue target of $29 billion dollars for financial year 2021.

Market Cap Boost ~$19 billion

In the 13-day window since Squid Games started streaming on 17 September, Netflix's stock price gain more than 7.1%, strongly boosting its market cap by a cushy $19 billion dollars.

Investment in Content ~54.5% of Revenue

The good news is that Netflix invests 54.5% of its revenue towards content creation. If its annual revenue target of US$29 billion dollars holds, this will mean a significant investment of $16 billion dollars allocated to create quality shows and movies, up from $13.6 billion dollar budgeted for 2021.

Currently, Netflix is investing US$500 million dollars on original Korean content alone.

Who are the big winners here?

Individual winners are Lee Jung-Jae for his significant paycheck per episode and Jung Ho Yeon for her meteoric rise to fame (endorsements abound!). Congratulations to both talented and extremely hard-working Korean drama artistes!

Financially, Netflix is undeniably the biggest winner of all with the $900-million-dollar value impact, 4.4-million increase in subscribership and a $19-billion market cap boost.

BUT in our opinion, the ultimate winners are the spectators and audience, just like in Squid Game — no risk of life or money, an affordable cost and the experience of watching really high-quality and well-produced content!

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