Monday, October 28, 2013

This Is eSports Ep. 1 - StarCraft 2 And Competitive Gaming

I've wanted to do a series on this subject for a long time, so I'm excited to finally get around to it.  I'll have more updates on things of greater consequence in the next couple days, but for now...let's have some fun!

If you know me, you know I love a video game called StarCraft 2.  It's one of the most popular RTS (real time strategy) games in the world today, and the focus of a huge amount of the professional gaming industry.  Yep, you read that right - there's a professional gaming industry.  It's big, especially overseas, and it's growing by leaps and bounds every year.  I'll have more of the nuts and bolts as this series goes on, but for now I just want to post a series of videos made by Red Bull specifically to help non-gamers understand what eSports is all about.  So, without further ado, here's the first video in the series:

The best description of StarCraft 2 I've ever heard is "chess at warp speed," and I think that's extremely accurate.  Players have to build an economy, create an army, and fight their opponent simultaneously.  If their opponent does something unusual or adopts a certain strategy, a change in one's own strategy is usually required.  Much like in football, hiding the strategy for as long as possible is an art form in itself, and some are better at it than others.  The trick is that players have to be decisive, intuitive, and both proactive and reactive, all at the same time.  StarCraft 2 is a game that is easy to play, but tremendously difficult to master.

But back to the pros.  The measuring stick for how "fast" they play is actions per minute, which is the number of keypresses and/or mouse clicks per minute.  Most pro players average -- AVERAGE -- between 200-300apm, with temporary spikes of up to 500apm or more during intense periods of the match.  And each click has meaning - some strategic, some tactical, and some both.  It is not uncommon for pro players to be building one or two new bases, managing multiple weapons/defense upgrades, and fighting two or three army skirmishes at the same time.  It's insane.

With the explosion in popularity of games like StarCraft 2, an industry sprung up to support it, and that's where eSports (i.e. electronic sports) comes from.  There are teams of pro players, complete with major industry sponsors (like Red Bull, Intel, or AMD) and endorsements, competing in tournaments all over the world.  Players get paid a full salary and keep their tournament winnings, and the top players in the world can make over $500,000 a year.  The biggest tournaments often have first prize amounts in the tens of thousands of dollars.  Aside from the players and teams, organizations like Major League Gaming have arisen to host tournaments and provide some structure to the industry.  Most of these organizations are regional, with MLG being the single biggest player in North America, Dreamhack being the major one in Europe, and so on, all around the world.  South Korea is the nexus of competitive gaming, and roughly 90% of the best StarCraft 2 players in the world are Korean.  It's one of their national sports, they have two 24/7 cable TV channels broadcasting live StarCraft 2 matches, and they have a team sponsored by the South Korean military so that the compulsory two year term of service doesn't derail the best gamers when they reach that point in their lives.  Major championship events in South Korea bring  in vastly more spectators than the Super Bowl does here in America.

As the eSports industry expanded, so did peripheral industries.  Not only things like specialized keyboards, mice, and other high performance gaming gear, but also new fields like "casting," or broadcasting the strategies and play-by-play as matches take place so that even viewers with little knowledge of the game have a solid understanding of what's going on.  Think John Madden for StarCraft 2, and you'd have a pretty good idea of what it is.  This works extremely well in live tournaments, of course, but the best casters (like Husky or Day9) also download replays from top matches, record their audio commentary, and then post the finished product to YouTube where anyone can watch.  The best casters have literally hundreds of millions of YouTube views, with individual videos getting as many as a couple hundred thousand views each.  These guys are professionals, too, as casting provides their sole source of income.  This is just one example of the peripheral industries that have been created around eSports, and the whole thing is still growing.

In reality, it's just now starting to reach a critical mass, at least in North America.  With the proliferation of broadband Internet and free or low cost sites like (the biggest streaming platform in the world) where people can share their gaming, it is easier than ever to find top quality matches for any game at any time, or post your own.  I'm convinced that the rise of mobile gaming has broken a barrier that kept video games pigeon-holed to young kids and geeks, and now it is perfectly acceptable to be a "gamer."  Combine all these factors with the more commonly accepted practice of watching TV shows online, and you have the makings of an entire industry that is surging forward with each passing year, gaining in popularity and becoming more and more lucrative at the same time.

So, now you have a taste of it, but I'll have much, much more about this in the future.

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