This article was, when I first posted it here, unpublished. I wrote it for Speak Out With Your Geek Out, which was running between Monday and Friday; since Chris Garcia was doing a bit on Speak Out With Your Geek Out in The Drink Tank, I offered him the chance to publish it and he leapt on it! Enjoy.
Published in The Drink Tank #292 (ed. Chris Garcia); available on eFanzines.com
I was torn, when it came to the time to write this article. No matter what segment of geekdom I move in, I am still a huge geek by anyone’s standards. I am involved in so many geeky pies that there’s always something that will make anyone look at me and say, “you did what?!” An excellent example of this is the fact that I once spent over $100 on a towel. In normal society, that’s totally insane; in SF fandom, it attracts raised eyebrows, waved hands and questions; even in Hitchhiker’s Guide fandom, it’s not considered an entirely rational step to take. So, believe me when I say I struggled to decide which part of my geek to embrace in this article.
However, I eventually settled on one that a lot of people in a lot of different areas of the pantheon of fandoms and hobbies would regard as somewhat odd: e-sport. As is usual with the prefix ‘e-‘, it stands for electronic; however, in this case we’re discussing the playing of videogames as a spectator sport. This is something that a lot of people haven’t even heard of, much less been tempted to try out! Whereas most people have at least heard of Dungeons and Dragons, or have rolled a dice in a board game, or saw a furry on that episode of CSI that was on a few weeks ago, e-sport hasn’t really achieved the same profile in public as a lot of other pursuits, which is a shame, in my opinion.
So, e-sport, then. The game that got me into e-sport was a real-time strategy (RTS), game by Blizzard called StarCraft II. You may have heard of it, or its predecessor; you’ve almost certainly heard of the MMORPG by the same company, World of Warcraft. At this point it seems sensible to answer a question: what is StarCraft II? You start out with a base and some workers that can be used to harvest minerals. From those minerals, you can build more workers, get more minerals, and begin to make buildings in order to create an army. You then proceed to use this army to crush your enemies beneath your feet/totally suck (delete as applicable). There are three races: Terran (the human race; think Space Marines and you’re there); Protoss (the ineffable and superior alien race; elves in space) and Zerg (bugs that can evolve from one lifeform into a variety of others; if you’ve seen Starship Troopers you’re set). It’s incredibly good fun, and the campaign lasts around ten hours. The multiplayer adds to that, with Blizzard’s ability to match suitable opponents ensuring online play is challenging, yet accessible and (importantly) fun.
SC2, as the game is known by its fans, is the 2010 sequel to a game that came out in 1998. It is played by hundreds of professionals from all the corners of the world, with major tournaments being played in South Korea (the GSL), the United States of America (MLG and the NASL) and Sweden (DreamHack). But all this comes out of the popularity of StarCraft, the first game in the franchise. Hugely popular in South Korea as a televised sport, StarCraft represents a cheap form of entertainment that everyone can pick up and play; a form of entertainment that can easily be broadcast, or streamed online. As a direct result of this, it took off in popularity in a massive way. One thing that often makes people look at you weirdly when you talk about e-sport is this relatively simple fact: StarCraft is, currently, the largest sport in South Korea. However, I don’t want to speak in great detail about the history of the game (if you’d like to read a little more, I recommend this great article by Ars Technica on StarCraft‘s South Korean popularity).
Why do I like watching people I’ve never met playing a game I’m not that great at in rooms that are often thousands of miles away, often requiring me to shift my sleep cycle so that I’m working on some American timezone? The answer is because it is some of the most nailbiting entertainment I’ve ever watched. The sheer scale of the battles (especially at the higher levels) can be breathtaking, but sometimes games are won or lost with just four units being used very cleverly. The players play at such speed that there is always something going on, and strategies are unfolding all over the map, different plays from both players that could eventually swing the game in their favour.
Concepts like macro (how good a player is at controlling their army’s economy and production) and micro (how good a player is at controlling their army’s units) come into play, and different armies have different abilities. For instance the teleportation of a Protoss Stalker can be used to duck out of enemy fire, whereas the long range and devastation of a Terran Siege Tank can hold a position very effectively. Different players bring their own style to each of the armies, creating a cacophony of strategies that it is incredible to see come up against each other.
My favourite tournaments to watch are DreamHack and MLG (Major League Gaming) – this isn’t hurt by the fact that both tournaments are entirely free to watch, making them incredibly cheap entertainment over a weekend. I have three friends who live together in Leicester and I often watch MLG at their place, especially since they have both a projector and the best vodka punch you’ve ever tasted. But both MLG and DreamHack show other games, like League of Legends, the free-to-play, microtransaction-funded Dota clone. MLG also shows Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops, whilst DreamHack streamed footage of Super Street Fighter IV and Heroes of Newerth at their recent Summer 2011 event. So, if RTS games aren’t for you, maybe you’ll find something else that tickles your fancy!
It’s fair to say that it’s plausible that, if you’re not a huge videogame aficionado, this is not really the sport for you. Part of what’s great about e-sport is that you can go and recreate the strategies and moves you’ve just seen, after you’ve watched the professionals make it seem real easy. However, I didn’t get into watching StarCraft II by playing the game; I got into playing the game because I’d watched the sport, so it isn’t a prerequisite. The commentators, too, can be the deciding factor in whether you enjoy watching the game – my favourite is Sean Plott, aka Day, whose enthusiasm and quirky sense of humour are really what drew me in, and are (to an extent) what keeps me engaged with it now.
Do I hope that e-sport becomes more widely watched? Yes, I do. At the moment, streams of big e-sport tournaments in the west are drawing in five-figure audiences, which isn’t by any means a small number of people (and the sponsors, such as Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola, certainly seem to feel it’s worth the money). However, it’d be great to one day see matches being streamed in pubs, just like football. Because, let’s face it: football has fewer explosions.