On a small YouTube screen I am watching a Starcraft 2 game featuring TheLittleOne vs Sen. It is Game 2 of a multi-game tournament. Play by play casting is being provided by HD Starcraft, a young Korean American Starcraft fanatic based in the Westcoast of the US. HD has cast hundreds of games and has played a variety of the top Starcraft players on the North American servers. His comprehension of the game, players and units available is masterful. His voice rises and falls in excitement as the game play advances. Zerg drones mine the minerals and zerglings advance and withdraw in a masterful display of “micro” (Starcraft speak for small tactical movements of troops on a map to maximize their unit strengths against an opponent’s units’ weaknesses).
The ongoing monologue of color commentary charts the broad strokes of both macro-strategy. HD’s play by play could give some of the best hockey commentators a run for their money.
“Look at this, TLO is throwing down a ten pool – what is going on here?!” HD says, his voice rising in amazement as the game kicks off with a Zerg vs Zerg map.”Whooaa. What is going on here? TLO is going for a double geyser build. I am shocked and stunned”
I’m shocked as well. Years ago I would have scoffed at the idea that I could be as excited as I am by the play-by-play calling of a computer game (even one as great as Starcraft). But these days, while my fiance will watch Mad Men and other primetime hits on her computer, I’m glued to my laptop watching the top ladder game reruns of what most consider the best real time strategy games in history. I’m not alone.
Since its birth in 1998, the Starcraft franchise (who’s genesis came out Blizzard’s – the game’s developer – Warcraft series), has been drawing legions of fans. The game, case you are unfamiliar, features three races Zerg, Protoss and Terrans. Each of a plethora of different units with different capabilities, strengths and weaknesses. For example the Zerg’s zerglings are very fast ground units but are vulnerable to air attack and weak against units with more armour or if they are isolated. Players compete in a real time battle where they work to maximize their resource extraction (you mine crystals and vespene gas in order to buy stuff) and martial large armies to send them against opponents.
For a player like me, its amateur hour. I slowly use my mouse to click on different units to assign them to different tasks. When it comes to battles, lacking a comprehensive understandings of the strengths of individual unit types or the control to do anything with my units even if I did, I opt for the old Chinese tactic of subsuming my enemy with pure numbers. While this is fun for me, I’m not going to make it very high up the Starcraft ranking ladders or leagues (of which there are 5, practice, bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond).
While the game is played by hundreds of thousands here in North America and in Europe, the real heart land of Starcraft is Korea.
You’ve probably heard that its here that thousands of tournaments are battled out by professional gamers with thousands up for grabs in prize money. Many games are broadcast on cable TV much like professional baseball, basketball and football games here. According to a recent Macleans article, the top stars are worshiped by fans (similar to any other star athletes). According to a recent article in the Economist, one of the best players Lee Yoon-Yeol (aka Nada) is rumored to earn over 200K a year through sponsorships and tournament prizes. That’s a long way from Lebron James wage, but still in the realm of a C-Level hockey player.
Most are in their twenties or even late teens. They aren’t making 200K. a journeyman Starcraft gamer starting out his apprenticeship but possessing the requisite talent to climb the Starcraft ladder and find a place on a top team will start out making 20K. He will live in dorms with his team members, play Starcraft around 10 – 12 hours a day, playing numerous matches and undertaking drills to refine both strategy and execution.
This October, many of these Korean gamers arrived in Seoul to compete in the first ever Global Starcraft 2 League. Over the next week, players, including reigning champion Kim Won-ki (aka FruitDealer) will play a series of games to advance to the finals of the tournament, where they will play for an $87K first prize before an audience of thousands in the stands (and hundreds of thousands online). In the meantime, many are questioning whether professional Starcraft gaming can make the transition from the peninsula into the rest of the world. Will it work? The Economist recently weighed in on this:
Professional computer-gaming in the West has been around for several years, with outfits like the Electronic Sports League in Europe and Major League Gaming in America. But it has never taken off to the extent that it has in South Korea. Activision Blizzard thinks that will change as faster broadband makes it easier to broadcast games over the internet. The company designed Starcraft 2 with spectators in mind and has flown famous Korean players to America to play an exhibition match. GomTV, the Korean firm that runs the league, is providing English commentary on games and it has opened the tournament to any non-Korean player that can manage to qualify.
Advertisers are attracted by the ability of e-sports to target an audience with plenty of spending money; Sony Ericsson is sponsoring the tournament in Seoul. The average American gamer is in his 30s and well-educated. With sponsorship comes the money necessary to attract players to pursue computer gaming as a career, says Sean Plott (better known as “Day”), an American player-turned-commentator. Intel recently sponsored a European tournament with a $15,000 prize pool. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to exporting e-sports to the West is a lingering belief that playing computer games is not a proper job—an idea that would no doubt sound familiar to pioneers of professional sports from tennis to snooker.
In the end while there are certainly some stigmas, the older I get the more comfortable I am embracing the viewership of what for all intents and purposes is a legitimate spectator sport. Afterall, if millions of people can find action, thrills, intrigue and interest in watching pro-golf, is watching pro-starcraft really all that different?