On a windy Sunday morning in October I found myself biking through sparse, hungover NY traffic toward Midtown. Big, impersonal, tourist-trap Midtown, lined with fratty sports bars, generic comedy clubs, and seemingly the highest Olive Garden concentration on the planet.
Tourists are just inconvenient, they get in the way, but sports fans really and truly scare me. I don't understand them, and while I'm walking past the roaring and the booing emanating from a bar on my own block, on my way to something totally relevant and obscure, my greatest fear is that one of these bro-fans will make eye contact and then maybe approach me for a chest bump. But this one particular Sunday morning, I was one of them. I was a sports fan, a mega bro. I was on my way to watch some StarCraft.
My destination was Legends, a huge, impersonal sports bar, situated literally in the shadow of the Empire State Building on 33rd St. Imagine a ski lodge outfitted with extreme brass accents and overshined wood, decorated with shrines to sports and beers. I approached my very first “BarCraft” much like a first date. I arrived early, hair overly shiny due to a recent shower, wearing wool pants and my favorite plaid shirt — I was probably overdressed, given the occasion, but I wanted to look my best. In a bar designed to hold hundreds of sweaty, beer-soaked men, there were probably five or six of us nerds (my soon-to-be bros?) on the main floor, surrounded by dozens of too-loud-for-this-time-of-morning TVs and two projector screens streaming a game of StarCraft II live from the MLG Orlando tournament. Meanwhile, in two adjacent rooms I could hear the screams and groans of soccer hooligans.
What had I done? What brought me this low?
MLG Orlando is the penultimate stop on the MLG Pro Circuit, a full season of professional gaming that hops around the country throughout the year, filling huge convention centers with thousands of gamers and fans (15,000 showed up in Orlando, more are expected in Providence for finals this weekend). Each year brings a slightly different combination of games, mostly centered around first-person shooters and real time strategy games. MLG’s popularity has exploded since the inclusion of StarCraft II in the roster last year, and in addition to the live event, hundreds of thousands of viewers join in through live streams and archived clips. BarCraft is just the latest outcrop of the premiere e-sport’s popularity, with die-hard fans gathering in bars around the world to watch live internet streams of their video game heroes.
I asked the hostess for a table, but quickly changed my mind when I realized I'd be all alone for the next eight hours at a table meant for four. I retreated to the bar (also empty), and asked for a Diet Coke. For reasons I won't go into, I wasn't drinking alcohol that weekend, so I caffeinated pretty heavily that Sunday.
I was all alone, sipping faux-sugar water through a straw, out of a bar glass that faintly smelled of soap. A StarCraft II game, broadcasting live from MLG Orlando, blared in front of me, but I was still a little too groggy to understand what was happening. A couple of college students huddled in front of the projector did homework. A waitress eyed us all warily, wondering if we tipped… or bit. What had I done? What brought me this low? A crippling addiction to the sport of the future, as it turns out.
StarCraft II is the sequel to StarCraft, which was released by Blizzard in 1998, and went on to become one of the most popular (and most revered) real time strategy games ever. These days, Blizzard is best known for publishing World of Warcraft, but its StarCraft fan base has never really faded, particularly in South Korea, where there are two cable channels dedicated to video games, each of which runs its own professional StarCraft league.
Essentially, the game is a futuristic war simulation, where each opponent builds armies and then does battle with those armies — think real-time Civilization, in space. There are humans, aliens, lasers, space ships, and just about any other thing a 10-year-old boy might sketch in his Pee Chee. What sets the game apart is a delicate tri-part balance between the three different "races" that the player can choose to play: Zerg (the hive-mind insect swarm), Terran (the scrappy humans), and Protoss (the enlightened beings). Blizzard periodically releases minor tweaks (known as balance patches), but overall the game is stunningly fair, considering the vast differences in play styles and strategies for each race.
There are aliens, lasers, space ships, and just about any other thing a 10-year-old boy might sketch
There are around 400 'professional' StarCraft II players, half are from Korea
StarCraft II is the fastest selling strategy game of all time, with around 5 million copies sold, and another couple million pirated. Millions more play StarCraft II for free in Korea (the game is free with an active World of Warcraft subscription there), or for a small hourly fee at a cybercafe. Comparatively, there are around 400 "professional" StarCraft II players, with about half those hailing from Korea, though it’s hard to tell how many earn enough to make a career out of it. Many of the popular players run Twitch.tv livestreams to augment their erratic prize earnings.
Elbows up on the gleaming, vacant bar, I was sure I had made a terrible mistake. As my Diet Coke neared empty, I started formulating an exit strategy. I had hyped my BarCraft plans for weeks to my callous hipster friends. What would I tell them? That it was really lame, so I left? They'd pin a "captain obvious" medal on my chest and then get back to something obscure and artsy. I had to see this through.
I summoned all my social butterfly courage and walked over to a table, manned by another lone StarCraft soul. He let me sit down, and all of a sudden I had an ally. His name was Dimitar, a Bulgarian, who roots for Barcelona in soccer because he loves Messi. What a normal human being! Zerg is his favorite race, and he was rooting for Stephano, an 18-year-old professional Zerg player from France.
Stephano's opponent was BoxeR, possibly the most famous StarCraft player of all time, who plays Terran. His comprehensive mastery of Terran, and innovative new strategies, converted many players from the then-popular Zerg back in his original StarCraft days, and Terran is now sort of the "default" race in StarCraft and StarCraft II especially for Koreans. He lost the first game of a best of three to Stephano, but rallied back and won the second.
A few Hellions can easily melt a dozen workers, but Stephano saw it coming
The third game started off with BoxeR's patented, now-traditional opening "Hellion harass." Hellions, a quick, offensive unit with flame throwers mounted on the front, look like RC from Toy Story, and have the potential to wreak havoc on an opponent’s economy in the early game. A few Hellions can easily melt a dozen of your workers if you’re not careful, but Stephano saw it coming, and danced his workers away from the threat. Stephano charged toward BoxeR’s base with units of his own: a handful of slow, ranged Roaches (they look more like a rhinoceros beetle, with a green slime attack), and a small swarm of Zerglings (which look like raptors, and surround their prey much like the scarabs in The Mummy). While the Roaches slimed some of BoxeR’s workers, BoxeR maneuvered his faster army around in front of the Roach squad, and pinned Stephano. With no retreat possible, and no Zerglings to help, BoxeR killed the Roaches with his force of Hellions and a newly-spawned Tank.
After several back-and-forth battles, BoxeR amassed a formidable force near Stephano’s territory, and killed off Stephano’s fourth and fifth bases. When Stephano responded, half of his units were caught out of position, and his remaining force wasn’t sufficient. While BoxeR resupplied his army, Stephano attempted to upgrade some units into ultra-powerful Brood Lords, but BoxeR spotted them with a radar scan and knocked them down before they could finish transforming. BoxeR cleaned up the rest of Stephano’s limping army in little skirmishes all over the map, and as BoxeR finally stormed Stephano’s main base, the Frenchman forfeited the match with a simple, polite "congratz ! and good luck !" Stephano fans (myself newly-minted), Dimitar and I were in the minority, and the bar congratulated BoxeR on his well-earned win.
High-level APM is only physically possible for the low-latency young
I understand that what I just described might sound like pixels shooting at pixels, about as dramatic as an amped-up game of Galaga (or worse, not make any sense at all). But here's what's actually going on, behind the scenes.
In case you can't see the video embedded above, it depicts the Actions Per Minute (APM) that a high-level player performs with mouse and keyboard. It's basically a post-human performance, with many professionals regularly hovering around 200 APM. They're not just button mashing, either. They're running through complicated routines to gather resources, make buildings, and build units (beefing up their economy, or "macro"), often in multiple bases around the map, all the while clicking like mad to micro-manage the movement of their precious army on the front lines, or to squeeze a scout or assassin into an opponent’s base.
APM brings to mind the "mechanics" of a top-level athlete, those skills and actions drilled so deeply into a player over years that they become unconscious. It sets the pros apart from the wannabes, and the young from the old. While StarCraft’s chess-like strategy could be accessible to anyone at any age, the high-level APM is only physically possible for the low-latency young (high school age to mid-twenties). Even if old age doesn't get you, carpal tunnel will. StarCraft II has reduced some of the click burden, but it's still not exactly Windows Solitaire.
If a top professional could be compared to LeBron James, I'm your four-year-old niece. Sure, I can dribble the ball (kind of), and I made a couple baskets one time when my dad lifted me to the rim, but while I'm playing with the same equipment, I'm essentially playing a different game. I own the exact same copy of StarCraft II that Stephano owns, but I can't make it sing.
In fact, I know exactly how much worse than Stephano I am, thanks to Blizzard's incredibly mature Battle.net multiplayer matchmaking and ranking service. I'm currently in Bronze league, which represents the worst 20% of players in my North American region of play. The next 20% is Silver, then Gold. Dimitar, who claimed he's "not very good," plays Gold. Next up is Platinum (a Platinum asked to borrow my menu), and later on a girl joined our table who plays Diamond, representing the final 20%. My Platinum menu-borrower knows a Masters player (the top 2% of Diamond), and then there's the Grand Masters league. While Masters-level players often enter tournaments, Grand Masters typically win them. A Grand Master ranking means you're in the top 200 active players in your entire region. In Europe, as of the end of September, Stephano was #1 on the European ladder. I have a long way to go.
I am the (worst) 20%
It's not that I'm terrible. I've played dozens of hours of StarCraft, learned several "build orders" (the StarCraft-equivalent of chess openers), memorized several hot keys, watched a multitude of tutorial videos, and consumed an endless amount of online guides. And I'm really getting better! Sometimes I'm even in the top eight of my Bronze sub-league, and 2011 Paul could easily destroy 2010 Paul. It's just that StarCraft is very, very hard.
See, unlike most video games released in the 21st century, StarCraft has a learning curve that's not just a vertical cliff… it's a tidal wave that threatens to destroy you. Much like someone attempting to play a sport without first learning the rules, my pitiable forays into online play showed little understanding of the game’s strategy, and even less of the underlying gameplay.
As a human being I have a very specific combination of traits that make me obsessed with video games, but I’m rarely found with a controller in my hands. For starters, I didn't play much growing up, but I always wanted to play more, and therefore consumed any vicarious media I could — whether it was my friends describing the games they played, or the pitiful games section of Macworld magazine circa 1997. As an adult, I now have the money to buy the games I want, but I don't have any of the trained-from-childhood skills that it takes to excel. While my peers have a special NES-honed tolerance for frustration, my typical game cycle involves obsessing over a title, reading the reviews, buying a copy, playing for a few hours, and never touching the game again. StarCraft II broke that cycle, but it also threatened to break me.
Hope in Husky
A young YouTuber named "HuskyStarCraft" finally made me love StarCraft as more than just-another-game-I-suck at. Husky starts off his videos yelling "Hello everyone! This is 'H-to-the-usky' Husky here." Seriously. Every time. It's intensely, intensely corny. The first video I ever watched was called "MASS QUEENS WINS AGAIN," in which he whines incessantly about how his completely ridiculous strategy of amassing base-centric Queen units deserves to win against the "cheaters" and "hackers" he's up against. It reconfirmed every stereotype of the online sore-loser, the sort of kid who ragequits when he knows he’s lost, the sort of child (or manchild) that can't understand how a defeat could possibly be their fault. But it turned out the entire narration, and, in fact, the entire game he was playing, was an elaborate joke. Husky and I had a common enemy, and with that I was welcomed into the fold.
What began as Husky goofing around with Queens turned into a channel of intensely competitive StarCraft II matches between truly incredible players. Each StarCraft battle can be saved as a replay, and then that replay can be observed by anybody else with a copy of StarCraft. "Casters" like Husky, who are typically former professionals or just mega-enthusiasts (Husky is the latter), take popular replays from high-level games, along with their own StarCraft shenanigans, and do a play-by-play announcement of the game, as if it were happening live.
Husky and I had a common enemy
Physical limitations fall away, and armies appear to be an extension of each player's mind
It took me a little while, but I started to understand a little bit of what was going on. Husky straddles the line between education and entertainment. His audience straddles the same line: they're watching a match on YouTube to be entertained, but they plan on using any strategies or knowledge gained in their own StarCraft II matches. Husky will explain a small feature of a map, or a little-used ability of a unit, or the strengths and weaknesses of a certain build order. As the battle heats up, so does Husky. In the mid-to-late game, Husky's casting style is one of constant near-hyperventilation. He often forgets to breathe during big battles, and sometimes I'm worried he's going to pass out during a particularly elongated exchange of aggression. The excitement is contagious.
I've been watching StarCraft II matches for over a year, and every day it gets better. In addition to the sheer eye-hand, speed-click athleticism of play, the depth of difficulty and strategy is on par with chess or Go. In fact, Go might be the better comparison; unlike chess, both Go and StarCraft are still too complicated for computers to master — the best players can roll over even the most powerful AI available. The game is still being figured out by humans, in fact. Players discover new strategies constantly that change the competitive landscape — in tension, or in tandem, with Blizzard’s ongoing tweaks to the game. And I don't just have to think of these strategies in abstract: I can watch them literally explode all over my screen, with Husky losing his voice in a casting-frenzy, and the 10-year-old inside of me weeping quietly for joy.
When two top players clash, something beautiful happens. There are little impossible moments, where the physical limitations of the computer interface fall away, and armies appear to be an extension of each player's mind. The battles’ tidal ebb and flow and scrappy tug-of-war over every inch of the map make a pixel vs. pixel war between aliens and humans suddenly seem like the most natural, vital thing in the world.
Back in the real world, at Legends, StarCraft fans continued to trickle in. We had the whole main floor to ourselves, and it finally started to fill up late in the afternoon, but "real" sports fans vastly outnumbered us for most of the day. Just after the soccer fans finally chilled out, some NY Giants fans congregated in the balcony and proceeded to be real jerks about it; one jersey-clad fan stood and pointed at us from above, as if we were a curiosity in a zoo. In a particularly tense moment, where the football fans started yelling irrationally at their own screens, StarCraft fans started chanting "MLG! MLG! MLG! MLG!," as if that would quiet the opposition.
Husky was among the rotating staff of casters from MLG blaring out match play-by-play over the bar’s speakers. While crowd noise muffled some of the caster voices, Husky’s exuberant tenor cut through the din as he related the game’s events next to fellow caster Day, a former pro. The casters transition surprisingly well from their bedrooms to the big stage: they wear the standard sports blazer-over-button-up and make eye contact with the camera like it’s their day job. At MLG Orlando, Day and Husky played a backup role to the primary practitioners of StarCraft casting, Tasteless and Artosis, who actually have a day job casting games from a TV studio in Korea, but we still caught a few DayHusky games throughout the day.
The next truly major match, at least as far as Legends was concerned, was IdrA (the Zerg American) vs. BoxeR (the Terran Korean). IdrA is sort of the "bad seed" of the StarCraft community, except that in StarCraft that means he quits games without saying "gg" sometimes (the equivalent of not shaking hands after a baseball game), and complains that Blizzard is stupid and Terran is overpowered on his live stream. In the bar, a million anecdotes were launched with "did you see the game where…," as we spread the legends of our sport through the ancient art of verbal storytelling, but the runaway favorite StarCraft II moment is "the game where" IdrA ragequit when he was actually winning against HuK at a previous MLG (half of HuK's army was "hallucinated," basically a mirage). Ironically, the two players are now teammates: HuK was recently acquired by IdrA's team, with a rumored six-figure salary.
The casters transition surprisingly well from their bedrooms to the big stage
My sister arrived at the bar around 1PM, her curiosity piqued by my irrational, Diet Coke-fueled tweets, and I explained all this drama to her. She decided IdrA was worth her vote. The rest of the bar put aside its own prejudice as well, because there's a larger story here.
In the early days (like, a year ago), StarCraft II was a true wild west. Over a decade old, the original game had become rather set in its ways. Due to professional leagues in the country, South Korea's dominance in StarCraft became so entrenched that any non-Korean attempting to compete is labelled a "foreigner." StarCraft II however, was uncharted territory, and new players flocked from all over. Gamers like HuK and IdrA, who had excelled at the original StarCraft, but toiled in obscurity compared to their Korean competition, were suddenly the shining lights of the StarCraft II community. But, of course, it couldn't last.
IdrA was this bar's great American hope
In July, the Koreans descended on StarCraft II. There had been a natural buffer: as a pro gamer, where margins are slim as it is, you have to follow the money. Until relatively recently, the money was in the Korean StarCraft leagues. But StarCraft II's huge international following has made tournaments outside of Korea more lucrative, and Major League Gaming pulled a major coup at its Anaheim tournament, with nine Korean professionals in attendance. They destroyed the foreigners.
Ever since then, foreigners haven't been winning. IdrA was this bar's great American hope against the cold, calculating machinations of BoxeR. Even BoxeR's play-style, something he's been honing for a decade, is the epitome of heartless brute force. Sure, he's the nicest guy ever, and a true ambassador for his sport, but for the next hour I hated him. We started a new chant: "USA! USA! USA!," and finally this was something that the upstairs patrons could agree with.
When IdrA beat BoxeR 4-3 in a nail-biting best of 7 matchup, the bar exploded. "USA! USA! USA!" we chanted again. You'd think we'd just beat the Soviets at the Olympics. Not everybody was converted, however. On her way out, after about as much StarCraft education she could take, my sister overheard some discontents: "Why is this stupid video game playing at Legends?"
StarCraft heaven turned out to be across the street from a faux-European salad bar in Midtown
As the finals neared, the bar filled to near bursting. We witnessed so many amazing games! But just as good as the tournament on the screen was the camaraderie. I chatted with a math / economics wonk, who mostly just watched StarCraft for the high-level "macro" strategy. My Diamond-level table mate was building a Diablo clone with StarCraft II's modding tools in her free time. Even before the final match aired, a couple of nearby patrons were discussing a road trip to Providence, RI, where MLG will be hosting the year-end championships, with a $50,000 grand prize. People shouted suggestions at the screen, like "Get Dark Templar!" or "Focus fire the Ghosts!" Gamers filtered in from Comic Con and from an Intel-sponsored StarCraft tournament. Professionals were sighted, wearing logo-covered jerseys to represent their sponsors.
I chatted with people I'd never met before about the delicate balance between the races, about things like "Warp Prism harass" and "Ghost snipes," about other video games, even. I'm not exactly a talk-to-strangers person, not even with a few Diet Cokes in me. Even when it comes to my job, where I regularly interact with colleagues and readers, I'd rather hide in a corner: I find myself at a loss for anything intelligent to say in casual conversation — yeah, the iPhone is pretty good, I guess. But here I was at a bar and I was overflowing with all this pent-up useless knowledge I'd been amassing in a secret YouTube tryst with Husky. And the best part was that I knew about a tenth as much as pretty much every other fan there, and they all wanted to share, too. I was in StarCraft heaven, which turned out to be across the street from a faux-European salad bar in Midtown.
Disappointment and frustration turned into patriotic bedlam
IdrA went up against another Korean Terran, Bomber, and the internet failed. It had been spotty all day, but now it was down for the count. Luckily, a guy with a MacBook near us managed to get a stream during the bar’s downtime, so twenty or so nerds gathered around his table, craning necks to get a glimpse of the action, and relaying the action for those who couldn’t see. The main stream was out for almost twenty minutes, but the first game turned out to be an epic match, and the bar TVs kicked back to life just as IdrA was launching a huge "Fungal Growth" attack on Bomber’s units, which we cheered wildly. A little cheer-drunk at this point (or maybe just drunk), we cheered IdrA again when he expanded to a new base at the 35 minute mark, in what turned out to be a needless economic flourish. Soon after, he destroyed Bomber’s army. Our disappointment and frustration from minutes before quickly turned into patriotic bedlam.
IdrA says his only chance against MC is a 'balance patch'
Meanwhile, a new Korean threat was brewing, named MC. Battling up through the loser’s bracket, MC eliminated the much-beloved MarineKing after HuK knocked him off a legendary, incredibly entertaining tournament run and into MC's path.
And so IdrA found himself up against another formidable opponent, and it’s his least favorite matchup: Protoss. While IdrA / HuK might be the most famous feud on the scene currently, the MC / IdrA rivalry is no less vitriolic. At MLG Columbus in February, MC beat IdrA in what turned out to be a fight for third place, jumped down to the crowd, high-fived his fans, and then pointed at IdrA in an age-old taunt. IdrA flipped him off. At Orlando, arm chair psychologists had MC winning the match before it even started, and he did just that, beating IdrA 2-1. For the upcoming MLG Providence event, IdrA is on record saying his only chance against MC is a "balance patch."
At Legends, all two hundred of us turned our loyalties over to HuK, who remained above the fray in the winner's bracket for most of the day. Since HuK is Canadian, our USA chant wouldn’t work, and "North America! North America!" is a little syllable-heavy, so we resorted to a rapidly repeated "HuK! HuK! HuK!" Dimitar's soccer-fan prowess helped the crowd refine the chant, starting out slow and then speeding up into a frenzy, exploding into cheers at some spontaneous moment that I could never quite sync up with. HuK went against TheStc, who had been undefeated in the tournament up until then, and won. Next it was MC’s turn against TheStc, and MC won that match as well. Suddenly, we had two Protoss in the finals.
Games played previously in the tournament carry over, so HuK went into the best of seven matchup already up 2-1.
Korea vs. The World
HuK won the first game with the oldest Protoss build in the book, a "Four Gate." That means four Gateways, the basic unit-producing building for Protoss. Gateways pump out the speedy ranged-fire Stalkers and the slower, melee Zealots. The game was over almost before it began, with impressive HuK micro wringing every ounce of damage out of his few early Stalkers. Part of HuK’s unique style has nothing to do with micro or macro: he’s just as good at early game trash talk. It’s hard to call it trash talk, really, more like a very special brand of trolling.
HuK's unique style includes a very special brand of trolling
HuK is actually roommates with MC in Korea, where they both compete in the GSL (currently the most competitive StarCraft II league in the world), with HuK being one of the few viable foreigners on the scene. He started out the first game by calling MC his "son," and then the two of them proceeded to taunt Zerg and Terran for failing to make it to the finals, joking about the inevitable Protoss "nerf" that will result (the balance patch IdrA has been dreaming of). In adorable broken english, MC threatened to kill David Kim, Blizzard’s game balance designer for StarCraft II if he nerfs Protoss. HuK agreed to help.
The second game was even more one-sided. With the match at 4-1 in HuK’s favor, neither player was as cavalier with the banter. In a desperate maneuver, MC went with the classic Protoss "cheese" (a non-traditional strategy, more dependent on trickery than honest skill): a cannon rush, which involves building turrets in or near your opponent's base, in lieu of a more honorable army to do the job. HuK spotted the attempt and blocked it beautifully, leaving MC behind on economy for the rest of the game. MC tried to remain aggressive, but HuK continued to rebuff, and launched a crippling attack of his own. MC’s last-ditch battle with HuK just wasn’t enough to match HuK’s overwhelming economic lead, and as the last of MC’s Stalkers melted away, he typed "TT," the Korean emoticon for crying eyes. HuK said "sorry son," and MC handed over the "gg," forfeiting the game and crowning HuK the champion of MLG Orlando. Non-Koreans the world over celebrated. There was many a TT-of-joy shed at Legends. "HuK! HuK! HuK! HuK!" we cried.
It wasn’t just about triumph over the Koreans; some vague continental patriotism. Like Husky and colleagues, we’d finally brought StarCraft out of our bedrooms, off of YouTube channels and Twitch.tv streams. The game was more than digital, now, more than a meme, more than a blog post, or a forum thread. It was even more than Battle.net, or the few gigabytes of starcraft2.exe on our hard drives. It was real, said our hoarse voices, tired feet, and soap-tinged bar glasses. And, just as importantly, we were ready.
After saying my goodbyes to Dimitar and a couple other of my new StarCraft friends, I biked home through the late Sunday traffic. My Diet Coke buzz had yet to subside, and the sound of chants was still ringing in my ears. I thought about playing StarCraft, in my silly little Bronze league. "Foreigners can be good at video games too," I reassured myself. I play Protoss, after all, so I've already got a leg up on the competition. "Maybe I’ll get better." When I got home I fired up YouTube, and watched some more StarCraft.
Looking for BarCraft in your area? Blizzard has a handy tool! MLG Providence starts at 5PM today (Friday, November 18th) and runs through the weekend, with most BarCrafts happening on Sunday. You can also watch live streams at MLG's site.