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SYFY WIRE Squid Game

What is Netflix's 'Squid Game'? The story behind the surprise, Battle Royale-esque hit

By Josh Weiss

Katniss may have the Hunger Games, but Netflix has the Squid Game. If you're imagining a bunch of cephalopods playing Twister or Monopoly, you've got the wrong idea. The Battle Royale-esque TV show from South Korea (now streaming) has taken American audiences by storm, wrapping its tentacles around the current cultural conversation, especially on TikTok.

According to the most recent data provided to SYFY WIRE by Parrot Analytics, Squid Game was the number one show in the world between Sep. 26 - 28. On the 28th, it was 89.3 times more in-demand than the average series worldwide.

"Global demand for the show has grown every single day since its release on Sep. 17, when it debuted to 17.7 times more demand than the average show worldwide," says Parrot. "Global demand for the show has increased more than fivefold since debuting (from Sep. 17 to Sep. 28). We rarely see a binge released show — especially a Netflix Original — continue to build demand a full week-and-a-half after its release. For example, global demand for the fourth season of The Crown started to trail off after three days — when the first weekend buzz died down."

This unexpected popularity in the United States isn't due to some expensive marketing campaign (though that was the approach for reaching viewers in Korea and other Asian countries). Rather, it's a classic example of the sheer power of fans doing all the legwork for you without them even knowing it — not to mention a bonkers premise that is guaranteed to catch your eye on the Netflix homepage.

"We could not imagine that it would be this big globally,” Bela Bajaria, Netflix's head of global television, told Vulture. “We always knew it was going to be a signature title for Korea, but there’s no way to have anticipated it would be this big ... It just grew through word of mouth. People hear about it, people talk about it, people love it, and there’s a very social aspect to that, which does help grow the show outside of what we do."

Ok, so just what the heck is Squid Game? Well, the title refers not to an ink-spewing sea creature that tastes great when cut up into rings and deep fried, but to a popular children's game in Korea. It's a rather fitting title because the entire show — written, and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk — is about a deadly tournament in which 456 individuals compete for 45.6 billion won (around $38.4 million USD) by playing games intended for younger players (old favorites like "Red Light, Green Light" are on the agenda).

But here there's no room for error because losers are killed with no exceptions. As contestants are picked off one-by-one, a massive question begins to present itself: what is the true purpose behind this incredibly strange dystopian contest? Ah, ah, ah — not so fast. We're not here to talk spoilers or anything like that. We're just here to give you the quick lowdown on what is fast becoming Netflix's "biggest show ever," according to CEO, Ted Sarandos. 

Just this week, Business Insider clocked fan favorites like Stranger Things, The Witcher, and Sweet Tooth among the streamer's biggest original projects in terms of viewership numbers.

With each passing day, however, it seems more likely that Squid Game (rocking a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes) could eventually tower above all of these homegrown juggernauts. It's a feat made even more impressive by the fact that the show has only been available on Netflix for three short weeks. In addition, the series is currently the second most popular TV program in the world — per IMDb's user ranking — behind another Netflix title: Sex Education.

When asked about the odds of a second season, Bajaria pointed to Dong-hyuk's busy schedule and love of collaboration that may lead to another writer being tapped to tell future stories in the Squad Game universe. “He has a film and other things he’s working on,” she said. "We’re trying to figure out the right structure for him."

Below is a quick breakdown of Squid Game's international appeal (via Parrot Analytics):

  • United States: 15th most in-demand show across all platforms; 33.7x more in-demand than average show in the US 
  • South Korea: #1 most in-demand show across all platforms; 37.9x more in-demand than average show in South Korea
  • France: 6th most in-demand show across all platforms; 25.6x more in-demand than average show in France
  • United Kingdom: 3rd most in-demand show across all platforms; 30.1x more in-demand than average show in UK
  • Brazil: #1 most in-demand show across all platforms; 33.8x more in-demand than average show in Brazil
  • India: 2nd most in-demand show across all platforms; 27.7x more in-demand than average show in India