Matt is nervous; he rubs his hands together manically, staring directly at his dirty Vans. The T’s shaking and screeching doesn’t phase him. He is getting in the zone.
“All right,” he says, taking a deep breath. “This is us.”
The wind nearly blows us off our feet. We have the frost-covered sidewalk to ourselves. We pass a boxing gym, the Boston University athletic facilities, and Agganis Arena. Cars occasionally roll past us, their passengers pitying the fools out in this weather. Matt, however, is no fool; he’s a man dedicated to his sport. Well, dedicated to his e-sport at least. We are on our way to a Starcraft tournament hosted by the Boston University PC Gaming Club. Matt has promised to show me why e-sports are worthy of respect.
“There’ll be a bunch of nasty players there,” he told me the night before. “I even heard there’s a grandmaster coming.”
Matt entered my life as a random roommate sophomore year. His loony antics concerned me and my other roommates at first, but now his goofiness is nothing short of endearing. That’s why when I came home one day to find him furiously playing a loud, chaotic computer game on our television I didn’t even ask. I watched him tug at his thinning blonde hair and yell nonsensically at the TV as armies of little minions swarmed what appeared to be his fallen base.
“Goddamnit!” he declared in his perpetually loud voice. “That’s my fifth loss in a row! Those Koreans are too good!”
He was playing Starcraft II, the sequel to a science fiction real-time strategy computer game dating all the way back to 1998. Although archaic by gaming standards, aficionados consider Starcraft to be one of the greatest computer games of all time. It revolutionized the real-time strategy genre and has since spawned an expansive cult following and even a professional league.
“Basically you’ve got the three races,” he explains, “the Protoss, the Zerg and the Terran. The Terran are humans that have been exiled from Earth. The Protoss are these super advanced aliens with psionic power and the Zerg are big, ugly insect aliens. There’s some kind of plot but I don’t really follow it. I just like playing other people online.”
Matt’s next game started up and he suddenly forgot that I was in the room. Now it was between him and Voodoo126. Engrossed in his Zerg army, Matt began constructing a base and assigning Zerg minions to mine resources – minerals and gas – which he would later use to build weapons, grow his army and construct bigger bases. On the left side of the screen was a stats column in which numbers flickered and fluctuated like a stock market chart. The base started popping out bigger Zerg soldiers; some that could fly, some that slithered, some with great big spiky talons. The fingers on his left hand fluttered furiously over his keyboard while with his right hand he clicked his mouse incessantly. He sent his scouts to survey the map and find where his opponent had set up his base. Good God! Voodoo126 already had giant robots waiting to be deployed.
Matt winced and clicked back to his base, where his minions continued to churn out grotesque soldiers. He dragged his pointer over the winged ones, enveloping them in a yellow circle. He then clicked somewhere on the map and they flew to their assigned destination. A few seconds later, he had three different platoons converging on the enemy Terran base. I wondered whether the keyboard would survive the beating as he feverishly laid siege to Voodoo126. A smile grew on Matt’s face and victory seemed imminent until an alien voice shrieked out of the TV. In the onslaught Matt had left his base undefended! A stealth unit of Terran marines had snuck into his territory and were presently launching missiles at his base. Matt yelped and gave directions to his flying minions to go back on defense. A flurry of lasers and explosions ensued. And then it ended: the rise and fall of a Zerg army in eight minutes. Matt howled in defeat. I grabbed him by the shoulder in consolation and offered him a meek “better luck next time.” He sat with his head bowed in despair while I went into the kitchen for a snack.
We arrive at the BU dining hall over an hour early. The tournament will be held in a function room behind the cafeteria, but Matt’s not ready to go in. We stop at the Starbucks in the food court and he orders a tall black coffee with a double shot of espresso and an inordinate amount of sugar.
“I’m gonna get killed out there,” he says as we settle into a corner table. He drinks his coffee at an unprecedented pace. His right knee bounces quicker and quicker. After another shot of espresso Matt is ready to warm up.
We walk towards the back of the dining hall and into the room labeled GSU Backcourt. There are three tables, each with space for four people to a side. They are arranged perpendicular to the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Charles River. On the opposite wall is a large projector screen, in front of it is a table complete with two microphones like a ringside broadcast table at a boxing match. There is no one there save for Xuli Song, the founder and president of the BU PC Gaming Club. He greets us with a big smile and directs Matt to his seat at Table One. Matt pulls out his laptop and starts playing a few warm-up games with random people over the internet. The internet connection is fast today; ideal Starcraft conditions.
Competitors start to trickle in. Luke Jones is assigned to the seat across from Matt, who observes him as he unpacks his laptop and specialized secondary keyboard. This guy means business. He gives us a friendly nod, knowing not to interrupt Matt mid-game. His resemblance to Michael Cera is uncanny.
Suddenly the room is teeming with excited gamers. Just over half the competitors are Asian and only one is female. They all chat enthusiastically with each other during warm ups, discussing preferred tactics and favorite professional gamers and telling stories of past games, all in esoteric Starcraft jargon.
“Two cheeses? Are you kidding?” says one of Matt’s neighbors, astonished. “You just can’t pull that shit against Protoss.”
“I’m all about the Thor, you’ve gotta go big,” Luke explains. “There’s no sense in going micro with Terran.”
“Apollo is the best,” Matt offers when asked about his favorite tournament commentator. “Did you hear his gamecast at Worlds?”
Xuli announces the ten minute warning to game time. Headphones go on and the sound of rapid keyboard tapping fills the room.
Matt was allowed to play Starcraft on the big screen for three days before a house decision banned him from connecting his laptop to the TV. My four other roommates rejected the game out of hand; even I found myself not wanting to associate with it. We knew nothing about it other than its inherent nerdy uncoolness. There’s nothing wrong with video games; our house has been known to play NBA 2K13 for hours on end, Mario Kart is a staple weekend activity, and during finals week we vent our frustrations by shooting the hell out of everything that moves, Call of Duty style. But Starcraft is out of the question, the only distinctions being that it is played on a laptop and cheifly by oneself. My friends and I are usually a tolerant bunch, though, so I had to wonder why proposition “No More Starcraft” had passed without even a second thought. Now I thought back to the South Park episode where the kids get fat and pimply once they start playing World of Warcraft, to every movie that had a geeky computer nerd with thick glasses for comic relief, to the clowns on The Big Bang Theory who obsess over their Mystic Warlords of Ka’a stats. Popular culture, believe it or not, had ingrained a negative stigma into my brain, one that associated computer games with pasty, friendless virgins who lurked in their mothers’ basements. I never wanted to be that guy, so the more distance between me and computer games the better. But as an enlightened college senior and a student of journalism I wasn’t about to let a hackneyed comedic trope influence my opinion any longer, so I began my search for the legitimacy of Starcraft.
My journey started with Day, a retired pro-gamer who makes a living as a Starcraft commentator and gaming coach. I checked out his YouTube channel, which boasts 378,580 subscribers and nearly 97 million total views.
Every night, Monday through Thursday, Day sits in front of a webcam and breaks down, play by play, a professional-level Starcraft game. Behind him is a wall decorated with posters featuring artistic depictions of Starcraft characters, and bookshelves stocked with video game strategy guides, comic books and Starcraft fan fiction (oh yeah, that’s a whole thing too). He’s a normal enough looking guy – thinning brown hair, five o’clock shadow and a flabby physique – but as soon as he opens his mouth there is no doubt that he plays computer games for a living. He speaks with a sort of giddy, adrenalized enthusiasm and has an importunate sense of humor that often elicits crickets and groans of awkward discomfort. In “Day Daily #100” he detailed his life as a Starcraft player and what the game means to him. He told a story about qualifying for his first international competition; the hours of practice, the seventeen hour drive to the qualifier tournament, the burning desire to achieve the dream he’d been chasing for years. He was as dedicated to his craft as any aspiring athlete with dreams of championship glory. If Starcraft could mean so much to him, if he could treat it with the same veneration that an athlete does a sport, then it simply couldn’t be dismissed as the pathetic hobby of the anti-social.
Xuli raises his voice to make sure that he can be heard through everyone’s headphones.
“OK, you guys know how this goes,” he announces. The tournament setup is pretty standard: the first round of 16 players is double elimination and best-of-three games. Semi-finals are best-of-five games and the final round is be best-of-seven games. The map for the first game is picked at random, thereafter the loser picks. Everyone gets one veto. “First round games have been assigned, so get playing!”
One of the tournament organizers walks in with a case of 18 ounce cans of Monster energy drink. He passes them out to the gamers, who sip the pungent beverage absentmindedly as they prepare for battle.
Matt’s first game is with a player two tables over. He turns around in his chair and waves excitedly to his opponent before the game starts. They message each other over the game’s interface: “HFGL”: Have Fun, Good Luck; apparently a formality detailed in the Starcraft code of ethics. Matt goes with his time-tested strategy.
Across the table, Luke is utterly distraught. He had the misfortune to be assigned to the only grandmaster present at the tournament. Pat, better known as Obi Wan Pwnobi, looks like a DJ with his expensive headphones and the canary diamond stud in his left earlobe. His T-shirt barely fits over his sculpted muscles. His hair is immaculately groomed. He is hardly what I expected of a grandmaster. He trounces Luke in seven quick minutes.
“I’ve got to tighten up my game,” he says in a debriefing of his first victory. “I made some sloppy mistakes.” He slides his headphones back on to let me know that his second bout with Luke is starting up. His keyboard is ergonomically designed, curving with the contours of his wrists. He has removed all extraneous keys; only the ones necessary for Starcraft remain. His stats bar shows a lightning fast 300 actions per minute while Luke’s APM hovers around seventy. The series doesn’t go to three.
After a few internet sessions with Day I realized that professional gaming is no joke. Its popularity is skyrocketing around the globe and there is even an International e-Sports Federation. Dozens of different games are played competitively on the professional circuit, ranging from Starcraft to CounterStrike to Call of Duty. The best gamers in the world are signed to professional teams complete with coaches, managers and other personnel, sometimes for hefty six figure contracts. These pro gamers often live in a team sponsored house where they dedicate their lives to bettering themselves at their game alongside their teammates. They can travel internationally on P-1A visas, meaning they are designated as “Internationally Recognized Athletes.” On top of their salaries, pro gamers stand to win millions in prize money at tournaments sponsored by companies like Redbull and Monster. The most popular e-sport right now is undoubtedly League of Legends, a multiplayer battle arena game in which two teams of five players fight each other fantasy-style. The 2013 League of Legends World Championship was played out on the floor of the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a far cry from mom’s basement. And get this: 32 million people tuned in to watch it worldwide. Compare that to the 14.9 million total viewers of the final game of the 2013 MLB World Series. By the way, the winning team, SK Telecom T1, walked away with a one million dollar grand prize.
Matt unplugs his charger and relocates to the audience tables; he didn’t make it past the second round. He, along with the other rousted competitors, gather around Luke’s laptop and watch the semi-final round in the game’s spectator mode. They observe tactics, critique mistakes, admire skillful maneuvers and cheer for the underdog. A hushed silence falls over the crowd when the projector screen flickers on and Xuli and another tournament organizer take their seats behind the microphones to commentate the final round. Obi Wan Pwnobi defeats iEatNoobs in five games to the sound of raucous applause.
After the presentation of the Game Stop gift certificate, Matt says goodbye to his fellow competitors and new friends, discussing times and dates for future pick-up games – so much for computer games being the domain of the anti-social. While standing at the T stop, Matt and I have a brief conversation about Starcraft.
“It’s just a lot of fun,” he says. “I love the strategy and the competition. I love being a general and commanding troops.”
And that’s what it all comes down to. Starcraft, like any other game, sport, whatever you want to call it, is simply a competition; an attempt to dominate, a narrative of success and failure, triumph and defeat. In that way it is no different from chess, or boxing, or soccer, or American football and is therefore no less worthy of celebration and fandom. The differences are only superficial; Starcraft is played on a computer rather than a field, the competitors score with their fingers rather than their feet.
When Matt and I get home, our roommates are watching Sunday Night Football. The Cowboys are playing the Giants. Commander Romo gathers his troops in a huddle. He assigns their routes and positions of attack. He orders a ground strike, but the Giants’ first line of defense is too strong. Commander Romo then opts for an aerial assault. First Officer Witten penetrates deep into enemy territory. His fellow soldiers disable the Giant’s ground-to-air turrets. He crashes into the end zone, conquering the Giants base. The crowd goes wild.
Photo credit: us.battle.net, wired.com, huffingtonpost.com