The significance of Starcraft

What might Starcraft mean for the global emergence of gaming as a spectator sport? First published on First Drafts, July 2010

The most-watched sport in South Korea, as in much of the rest of the world, is football. The second most-watched sport in South Korea, followed by almost a third of the population, is video-gaming. And above all this means the 1998 game Starcraft, which today boasts two dedicated cable television channels, a professional league of 500-odd players earning six-figure sums, and live events that can see up to 120,000 fans packing out stadiums.

Even beyond the fact that gaming isn’t considered a spectator sport in most of the world, this is remarkable. Starcraft isn’t a native Korean game: it’s an American creation, developed and published by US giants Blizzard Entertainment. It’s also twelve years old—almost prehistoric in the rapidly evolving world of gaming, not to mention laughably primitive-looking by modern standards—and extremely difficult to play well, let alone master. Yet it has both global sales of over 11 million and, within South Korea, a following that dwarfs any other modern title. Or that did until now. For the 27th July saw the release of perhaps the most hugely-anticipated game of the last 24 months, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty.

If all goes well, perhaps ten percent of the population of South Korea—around five million people—will buy a copy of Starcraft II during its first year of release, alongside several million others worldwide. Why exactly is the appeal of the game so intense; and what’s it actually like watching a pro-Starcraft match? This video, taken from a Korean cable television channel, gives a fair sense of the proceedings. To outsiders, it’s largely incomprehensible. To those who play, it’s a masterclass—and in this case a chance to see in action the man who, until a recent match-fixing scandal forced him into requirement, was one of the world’s most-revered gamers: sAviOr, the “maestro.”

Both Starcraft and its sequel are Real-Time Strategy games, or RTSs. Each player takes control of a small combat force, choosing from one of three factions, and must gather resources, build a base, train troops and ultimately wipe their opponent out. You view the map from a God’s-eye perspective, and games are perhaps best thought of as a three-dimensional, technicolor kind of chess, with armies surging, reforming, and desperately trying to outflank, outmanoeuvre or simply overwhelm one another.

Learn the rules and the unique troops comprising each faction, and you’re no longer watching a meaningless mess of figures and landscape: you’re seeing an entire military campaign compressed into ten minutes, with two grandmasters creating and manipulating dozens of troops simultaneously. The nature of the game is the key to its success: unlike the first-person-perspective of many of the most popular action games, the strategic command of an entire army creates both complexity and scope, while the distant perspective allows an expert commentary team to guide viewers through every nuance of the combat.

The chess analogy isn’t mere wishful thinking either. Despite the science fiction theme, this is as abstract a game as it’s possible to imagine: an arena where precise rule-sets, capabilities and strategies interplay. There’s more than a touch of dexterous prowess too: professionals must work at staggering speeds to stay on top, performing in excess of 500 actions per minute during games. Beginners languish below 50, while even decent amateurs find it hard to top a couple of hundred.

Expectations are beyond high for Starcraft II, and on the basis of early play and reviews it seems unlikely to disappoint: endless testing and calibration have gone into optimising its balance and its mechanics, which will continue to be fine-tuned as data from millions upon millions of games around the world comes in. Hundreds of millions of dollars will be earned. What Blizzard Entertainment will really be hoping, though, is that this new game will export to the rest of the world something of the fever that for a decade has held Korea enthralled.

Conditions in Korea in 1998 were ripe for the first game’s success: a small nation with the world’s highest levels of internet connectivity, a pre-existing pro-gaming culture centred around the ancient board game Go, cable television networks hungry for novelty, and a government and a populace dedicated to technological prowess. There’s nothing quite like that elsewhere. Yet, while we’re unlikely to see major television channels broadcasting live gaming any time soon in either the US or Europe, the emergence of gaming as a spectator “sport” driven by both live events and online viewing is an idea whose time may have come round at last.

For an increasingly mature and broad base of consumers, electronic games are now an integral part of social and cultural life—and it’s becoming as natural to be in awe of an elite gamer as it is a premiership footballer (just as, a hundred years ago, it would have seemed bizarre that one might earn a small fortune from playing football). At root, watching experts moving electronic armies across a fictional field is no stranger than watching 22 people kick around a ball. It’s the scope of the game and the commitment of its audience that matter. And here, Starcraft II holds some potentially transforming cards. Blizzard Entertainment already runs a formidably effective online service that allows all gamers, from rank amateurs to seasoned pros, to find suitable opponents and either lock horns or watch others play. The game itself has looks, depth, millions of dollars of publicity—and history on its side. The stage is set. Even if Starcraft II doesn’t change the world, the age of electronic sports is coming.