Fifth Friday

Fifth Friday Starcraft as a Spectator Sport.

So as you may have noticed, my columns drop on Fridays, and the subject depends on how many Friday's have passed since the start of the month. So what do I do when there are five Fridays in a month? Well, I could take a week off and get ahead on some of my other columns, but that seems like I'm cheating any of you who read this. So what am I going to talk about when there are five Fridays in a month? Whatever the hell I want to! Fifth Friday is a self indulgent column (unlike my other four which are produced purely for the edification of the unwashed masses) where I might talk about anything, even things non-videogame related. Expect a lot of talk about how great Batman is.

For my first installment though, I've decided to talk about something that is still a little bit videogame related, and something I'm quite interested in. Esports, in particular as they relate to three of my favorite videogames of all time, Starcraft, Starcraft 2, and League of Legends.

Esports, for those of you who don't know, is exactly what it sounds like.  The organized playing of videogames, playing them like a sport.  Really, any competition in video games could be called esport, but I'm going to focus on professional esports, that is, those that result in the players getting paid. 

Competition has been a part of video games since the invention of the "High Score".  Putting your initials in at the local arcade was a way of both showing off talented players abilities, and encouraging challengers to put in new quarters to try and beat those scores, and claim the high marks for themselves.  Atari held a Space Invaders tournament in 1980 that attracted over 10,000 players.  A few years later, Nintendo created a game specifically for tournament play that included the first levels of some of their most popular games, and are now highly sought by collectors.  A few years later, Street Fighter 2 hit arcades, which heavily encouraged multi player competition, by allowing anyone to interrupt a single player mid match by dropping in a quarter resulting in the now famous "Here comes a new challenger" line.

In 1993, Doom, a game all the hosts here enjoyed was released.  While the single player was engaging, one of us ended up giving multiplayer Deathmatch a try.  It was one of the first games with support for online play, and it changed what was possible in the realm of videogame competition.  Online matchmaking wasn't a thing yet, so people divided into teams, usually called clans, and would contact other clans via IRC with a time and date for match.  It required a lot more investment than modern gaming, but perhaps the trade off of having a team you knew all the time was a good one.

As new shooters came out, the players of Doom followed the newest best technology, and tournaments, both online and off, started to become common, usually with little if any prize money.  Fighting games which had fostered competition since Street Fighter 2 also became popular.  What really changed things however, was Starcraft.

This is quickly becoming the history of esports, which is fascinating to me and since it's my column that's what counts.  However it's always been my goal both with the Podcast and my columns to go beyond just reporting facts.  Starcraft made esports big.  For whatever reason, the game took off hugely in South Korea, so much so that it started getting televised.  Once that happened, big sponsors got involved, huge crowds showed up for live events, and much like we have two ESPNs here there are 2 24/7 esports channels in South Korea.  While it never took off that way outside of Korea, it started to get attention from outside the nation, jokingly called "South Korea's national sport" and the esports community began trying to make Starcraft as big elsewhere as it was there, even though they never quite made it.

What makes Starcraft a good spectator sport though?  Well even as some one who has watched a lot of games, it's hard for me to say.  While I'm writing this, I'm reading Shamus Young's take on things.  While I admire him as a blogger and a writer, I don't think he has it quite right.  His article is about how Starcraft is more intuitive than typical sports because the visual shorthand is obvious.  To a layman, it's easier to understand why it's bad that all your guys with guns suddenly burned to death than it is to understand why it's bad that a guy in a purple jersey caught that weird shaped ball instead of a guy in a blue jersey.  That said, Starcraft easily has as much jargon as Football or Baseball, some one watching the game for the first time probably has no idea what a Fast Expo is, or a DT Rush or what transitioning to the late game means.  Even if they've played Starcraft before, they might have different terms for these things.

So what is the appeal of Starcraft as a spectator?  It's hard for me to say.  Whenever I've gotten real into the Starcraft esports scene, it's been when I've been playing Starcraft.  Pro games serve as inspiration for new strategies to try as well as motivation to get back on the horse after a loosing streak.  That said, the reason you watch Professional Football instead of going out to a high school game is to see the best of the best play.  Pro Starcraft certainly has that feel for me, it's impressive to see play that I can conceive of but could never pull off myself.  

As far as esports go, I think RTS is one of the best genres to spectate.  First Person Shooters give me a headache after extended play, so I may not be objective on this, but I don't feel there's a good way to watch the action during them.  The view we get is from the first person, and thus the camera man and player view are always the same.  Imagine watching Football with the only camera being POV of Peyton Manning.  Sure it might be interesting to cut to every so often, but you'd miss a ton of action, and it would rarely be the best view of it.  Fighting games are better at this since you can always see all of the action on screen at once, but those tend to be brief.  An average Starcraft game is 20 minutes, which means a best of 3 can be expected to last about an hour, shorter than most pro sports, especially since they have fewer advertisements and no half time celebration, but that's a respectable length.  The action can be scrolled around and viewed anywhere, with picture in picture starting to become common for when multiple important events are on screen.  It's easy to follow the actions, and a good "camera man" will get all of it.

At some point, I realized I stopped talking about Starcraft, and started talking about Starcraft II although the games are nearly interchangeable from a casual point of view.  Starcfart II looks a lot prettier, and it's easy to see why most spectators "switched over" when it came out, forcing the players to as well.  The game was sleeker, had better spectating options, and just looks better on an HD TV or monitor. 

I don't know that I've said anything all that interesting about esports after all, and I didn't even get to my beloved League of Legends, but this is my self indulgent column, so I'm going to wrap it up here.  I don't think esports will ever become as prolific as regular sports here in America, but thanks to the internet, high production esports shows can be put on even if they won't reach the millions required for a TV broadcast.  If you've never given esports a try but are interested in Street Fighter, Starcraft of League of Legends, I recommend you give watching a few games a try.  Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to watch China stomp on North America in the LoL All Stars Game.  Or maybe America will pull it out, one of the beauties of sports is that you never know.