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In a recent video interview by Marcus “djWHEAT” Graham about the world of eSports, djWHEAT espouses his beliefs on how eSports can grow, and that in defiance to the doom and gloom that surrounds declining numbers in games such as Starcraft II there is steady growth in both the idea of video games as sport as well as streaming. One of the frequent criticisms I see from people towards djWHEAT’s philosophy is that for most people, eSports as a whole doesn’t matter, and that if their game is the one that’s doing worse, then little else matters because they are not going to jump ship to another game just because. However, I feel that this view is something of a shortsighted misunderstanding on djWHEAT’s viewpoint, and one that limits itself not only to an unfortunate a favored game vs. an evil usurper context, but to an ephemeral present too narrow in scope.
When I hear djWHEAT talk about how the growth of one game can benefit eSports as a whole, and that people leaving Starcraft II for League of Legends or other games is not such a bad thing, I do not interpret it as this idea that the games don’t matter, that they’re just interchangeable within this structure of the competitive gaming scene. Rather, it has more to do with increasing the presence of eSports as a concept to the point that it gets as close to a commonly understood idea as possible, not just among gamers but among non-gamers as well. While one can argue that there will always be economic limitations to how much eSports can grow, this does not mean that there is a limit on growth in terms of exposure and acceptance. The more people know about competitive gaming, whether that’s through friends or family, or seeing matches online, or through playing the games themselves, or even just from a random guy on the street, the greater the opportunity for eSports to never truly fade away.
The scene might wane. It might become a fraction of what it was. However, establishing a cultural foothold by just having enough people positively experience eSports through games—whether it’s Starcraft, Street Fighter, DOTA, Pokemon, or something else—creates a mental and emotional connection more difficult to take away than money and eyeballs. If we look at Japanese anime, for example, there are certain titles (again, such as Pokemon) which, regardless of how you judge their quality, made the idea of anime simply better known and more acceptable to a wider range of people than just an existing hardcore fanbase.
I find that djWHEAT’s vision is one for the future beyond the myopic squabbling we see now, one where the ground is more fertile for the potential growth of new eSports-capable video games in a way which does indeed benefit everyone. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Starcraft II is fated to die out in a year, that it is on a downward and unrecoverable spiral. In light of this scenario, I want to give two alternate realities where this could be happening: one is where Starcraft II is the only game in town, the only game people consider competitive in any way, and the other is where Starcraft II is but a fraction of a complex milieu of a society in which eSports is known and accepted.
In the first, when Starcraft II goes, so too does the notion of competitive gaming, and if ever some game developer wanted to make their own Starcraft, they would have to start from scratch in more ways than one. People would see Starcraft as an anomaly, something which fell with no viable alternatives, and the creators of this new game would have to convince people all over again that this was a worthwhile notion, that people enjoy spectating games just as much as they enjoy playing them, and that there are positives to creating a competitive video game for the benefit of viewers.
In the second, on the other hand, when Starcraft II dies out, the notion that competitive gaming is viable would still be part of the public consciousness. It may not have ended up working for this particular title due to some combination of reasons, but future game developers could look at it and ask, “Where did it go right, and where did it go wrong?” When they go to try and get funding and support, they can point to other games which have been successful, games which companies might even already know about as eSports, and say, “We know what mistakes Starcraft II made and we can adjust accordingly. And, as you well know, there are plenty of examples of this model working.”
In both cases, there is a chance for a new and better spiritual successor to appear and grab all of the fans who once supported that game, but where in the first reality a single company would have to struggle just to introduce the idea of competitive gaming, in the second reality the notion of eSports would be accepted enough that there wouldn’t just be one company trying to create the next Starcraft (or any game of your choice), but five or maybe even ten companies, all eager to re-capture and even improve upon the things that made it so widely viewed and adored in the first place. The potential would not only always be there, but it would be so visible that it would continuously inspire game creators, as well as players, casters, everyone, to seize that opportunity.
Essentially, what djWHEAT is advocating when he says that the growth of one eSport is beneficial to all is not simply the product of a “let’s all get along” mentality. Instead, it is based on the idea that the more “eSports” becomes a solid concept in people’s minds through exposure, the better chance future games and gamers will have of fostering and being fostered by that positive environment, an environment which benefits all competitive games past, present, and future, whether a game’s life span is 50 days or 50 years.
As an avid watcher of professional Starcraft I constantly hear of all the strengths and weaknesses of various video games as spectator sports. Starcraft, for instance, has tons of strategic depth and is also visually clear in many ways, but often times the complexity of a given player’s battle plan requires a commentator to explain it in detail, and differentiations in individual army units can be confusing for someone who’s never had experience with similar games. Compare this with soccer, where “kick ball into goal” is clear as day, or even fighting games, where life bars and graphical depictions of punches and kicks tell the story. So with all eSports, one issue is always, how far removed is the game from reality? If it’s too abstracted then it becomes a game mainly for the devoted or hardcore, which is fine, but spectatorship is the question here.
This got me to thinking, what about Pokemon? While Pokemon is pretty far-removed both in terms of its menu-based gameplay and the sheer number of Pokemon and attacks and the complex rock-paper-scissors chart that makes up the 17 types, I wonder if Pokemon can get around all of this by just being so internationally famous that a possible majority of people under a certain age have had some experience with Pokemon, be it through the video games or the anime or their friends/relatives telling them about how Rock beats Flying. If it’s a common-enough experience, then maybe there’s not as much immediate need for realism or explanation.
On top of that, Pokemon has always been quite robust when it comes to strategy, to the extent that not only have there been multiple tournaments over the years (see the recent Pokemon Video Game Championships for example), but there have been a number of sites dedicated to exploring strategy and tactics in Pokemon, whether that’s Smogon or predecessors such as Azure Heights. These forums manage to bring together the very young up to people well into their adulthoods.
Granted, there are a number of drawbacks and setback that could stifle Pokemon as eSport despite its popularity and penetration. The first is that it’s likely Nintendo would never entirely support a competitive Pokemon scene which fuels people’s salaries, especially because part of the appeal and atmosphere in Pokemon has to do with empowering players to feel strong and special and to bond with the Pokemon they catch and train. Ideally, a competitive version would just allow you to customize your Pokemon (and there have been online simulators over the years which allow this), but I doubt Nintendo would ever approve of such a thing themselves. The second problem is that Pokemon’s strategy and difficulty is purely in the mind, whether that’s coming up with ideas on the fly or memorizing statistics, and while plenty of games have those elements the fact that Pokemon is turn-based means there is no physical rigor involved. No one will mention someone’s fabulous micromanagement. No one will be impressed by 400 APM (actions per minute) when the game really only takes 1 APM.
In any case, while I’m not terribly optimistic of Pokemon Battling becoming a career, I still would like to think that some day there may be a game that is so commonly known that it’s a matter of course for it to enter a competitive realm accepted by many. I mean, more than League of Legends even.
I guess the only thing to leave you is an actual competition video of Pokemon, to see what people think.
In a recent conversation, I was presented an interesting question: why is that moe seems to engender the type of fandom which seems on some level staunchly devoted to it and has fans who can take attacks on moe personally? After some consideration, I thought of two reasons.
The first reason is that on some level, whether it be deep or shallow, I think moe fosters a very individual, perhaps even private connection. Regardless of the specifics and any sort of moral/aesthetic tastes, the idea (nebulous as it may be) begins to resonate with concepts such as catharsis, fantasy, sexual desire and identity, self-reflection, stress, and so on.
The second reason, and the one I’m more interested in for this post, has to do with the ease by which one can become a fan of moe. In a recent interview concerning Starcraft 2 fandom, commentator and personality Sean “Day” Plott was asked why so many SC2 fans have a tendency to identify themselves as “Starcraft fans” and to put down other games as inferior products, to which he responded:
There’s a lot of people who are into Starcraft and it’s just become their identity because, honestly, there’s so much Starcraft content that you can watch it all day, every day, just like you can be into football or baseball. And so, rather than just say, “I like this,” they look down on other things.
I think these words can apply to moe as well, in the sense that not only is there so much of it currently available that you can watch and read nothing but moe genre titles and have your entire day filled, but that the system behind it actively promotes and encourages this sort of obsession. On the fiction-production side, you have this tendency towards characters who each possess easily expressed individuality, and so make it easy to define a favorite, and it’s a process that can be renewed with the next show and the show after that. On the merchandise side, you have figures, posters, limited edition DVD boxes, fan clubs, official events, and so on. If you’re into some show, there’s a good chance you can buy something related to it, and though there’s a lot of talk these days about how fandom is moving beyond expressing itself through simple consumption, it can’t be denied that it is still in its own way an expression of one’s self.
Obviously this model doesn’t only apply to moe or even just anime/manga, nor does every single fan of moe do this (and I want to make the point clear that I’m not characterizing an entire fanbase as having a singular mindset). However, when combined with that very personal connection which moe fosters, I think it creates a particular kind of devotion, which, while not entirely unique, more easily manifests itself as something just that personal.
Though I don’t talk about it often here, I enjoy watching Starcraft, be it Brood War or the current Starcraft 2. Currently, competitive Starcraft 2 is enjoying something of a boom, with tournaments and teams popping up all over the world, from Korea to Ukraine to Las Vegas. This past weekend, one organization tried their hand at a new tournament broadcast format: pay per view.
Typically, Starcraft 2 tournaments are free to view online in some capacity, with additional content available at a cost, such as higher quality video, additional video streams, or recorded match videos you can watch after the live event is over. Major League Gaming, known as having the most exciting Starcraft 2 tournaments in North America, decided that they would have a supplemental event called the “MLG Winter Arena” and that it would require $20 to view live. This barrier to entry in turn caused a large amount of discussion, whether or not $20 was simply too much, business models for eSports organizations, etc. I personally did not pay to watch MLG Winter Arena, especially given that there was a second big tournament going on at the time.
One comment I saw cropping up repeatedly had to do with being a “real fan.” The idea was that if Starcraft 2 tournaments were so important to you, why wouldn’t you prioritize them? For those who can’t afford it at all, there’s no choice, but for those who can, isn’t the product worth its value (tons of big names, very good production values, promises of extremely intense competition). I had the money, but I didn’t use it. For me, as much as I love spectating, Starcraft is not my primary passion or hobby, and if given a choice between spending money on something anime/manga-related and spending money on SC2, I’ll typically lean towards the Japanese comics.
That’s not to say I’m not willing to spend money on Starcraft at all. I felt that the convenience of being able to watch matches any time instead of adhering myself to the Korean time zone was reason enough for me to subscribe to GOMTV’s Global Starcraft 2 League. But I didn’t get the premium package, I got the light one. All of those nice perks offered for the extra money weren’t worth it for me, and I’m glad they gave me the choice. That’s one thing that GOMTV correctly recognized that seemed to get lost in this flurry of discussion: Starcraft fandom (or any fandom in general) does not exist in a binary setting where it’s either one or the other. People can like something, but there may be a limit to how much they like it, especially if money is involved.
Over the past few years, there has been an upswing in video games geared for competition (or at least modified to be competitive). Starcraft 2, Street Fighter IV, the new Mortal Kombat, the concept of “eSports” is managing to achieve more success around the world than had been seen previously, with the notable exception of South Korea where Starcraft competition already managed to achieve a good deal of competitive success.
Many of these new games are sequels, and they emerge in a gaming environment far different from their predecessors. In some cases, as with Starcraft and Marvel vs. Capcom, it’s been over a decade since their most immediate ancestors. Online play has filled the long void that was left by the death of arcades. Facebook games and other bits of entertainment which fall under the heading of “casual” have made video games a common part of many people’s lives. There are now more people playing video games than in previous decades, but many of them do not devote themselves to games, particularly ones that foster competition. One of the results of this has been a move towards easier controls, reducing the number of things to do, simplifying actions, increasing the influence of random chance, and just making games where people can more easily feel like they’re accomplishing something.
In doing so however, there is a backlash created among those communities, because what this means is that, compared to those older games, they seem a little…softer. More forgiving. This in turn can be interpreted as an affront to the competitive spirit, especially for those games which dare to call themselves competitive, because it is giving a break to the weaker players. Many times, criticism will come in the form of questioning a game’s “skill ceiling.” The argument goes that if a game is less demanding on a fundamental level, it will result in a game where the best of the best will be unable to distinguish themselves from the masses more commonly known as “the rest.” Certainly this scenario is not out of the question, but what I’d argue is that those critical of these games’ skill ceilings often misuse the term and that they’re arguing against something quite different. For if the “skill ceiling” is the absolute limits of competitive skill, and the “skill floor” is the bare minimum to even understanding the game, then what those people are really arguing against is the lowering of a kind of “skill mezzanine,” the first space up from the skill floor and the minimum amount of skill needed to compete and win matches against others who are also trying to do the same.
“One guy was clearly making more mistakes than the other but he still won. This game is awful.” Putting aside the fact that weaker competitors are often capable of beating stronger ones simply because of how “skill” is nebulous and but one of many factors in competition (mental state being an arguably more important one), such an argument can be summarized by the idea that the game is too forgiving of mistakes, and that because a weaker player is more prone to errors, it rewards them unfairly. But a game that punishes mistakes less is not the sign of a lowered skill ceiling so much as it is evidence of a lowered skill mezzanine, and this is because even if the best players are the ones who are closest to touching the ceiling, the players worse than them do not have to aim for that ceiling as well. Their goal could simply be to touch the feet of those better players, and a more forgiving game means that they can accomplish such a task more easily, no matter how high the ceiling may be.
The higher the skill mezzanine however, the tougher it is for people to reach basic competitive competency, which has the effect of weeding out less devoted players. What remains, if numbers are sufficient (and there is always the danger of that not happening for a game), is that the only people left are the ones who have been able to overcome some very unforgiving limitations.
One of the consequences of mistaking the skill mezzanine for the skill ceiling is that people conflate the concept of game limitations that were overcome through skill with the idea that game limitations necessarily generate skill. Veteran Starcraft competitor and commentator Sean “Day 9″ Plott often emphasizes that imposing restrictions can be a useful method for improving one’s gameplay. In that sense, the rules of a particular game can be seen as a forced limitation rather than a self-imposed one. But it is also a mistake to believe that those specific limitations should be the standard by which all other games are judged, to confuse the concept of limitation with the particulars of execution. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, and is praised for the amount of mental and physical skill required to play it at a high level. One of the most basic rules, the one that gives soccer its internationally more popular name of “football,” is that a player is normally not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. This simple yet profound limitation (hands being vitally important to the survival of humankind) encouraged people to find ways to move the ball with the rest of their body, and as the game has developed over the course of generations, soccer players discover new methods and refine them. But one cannot say that, because soccer developed into “the beautiful game” in part due to the limitations on hands, that all other ball sports should also ban the use of hands.
There is nothing inherently wrong with criticizing a game’s capacity for competition, because there are games that are objectively more competitive than others. Chess is far more complex than tic-tac-toe. One game can indeed have a lower skill ceiling than the other. But I think it is important for people critical of a game’s skill ceiling to be able to distinguish between it and the skill mezzanine in order to discuss a game’s competitiveness.
(Don’t worry, this is from last season so it isn’t a spoiler.)
I am, perhaps by nature, not the most competitive person around. I like to win for sure, and I like to improve my chances of winning when in competition, but I have never had that win-at-all-costs attitude which defines the most successful players in any game or activity. Still, I have spent time in and observing many communities, particularly in the area of video games, and I’ve come to notice a number of trends which all seem to stem from the same fountain of human behavior and irrationality.
When it comes to “professional gaming,” there is no example more prominent than the Korean Starcraft scene. It is by far the most refined and successful example of video game as competition. Finally however, Starcraft 2 is right on the horizon, with a beta version out. I have not had the fortune of playing this game, and in fact I have not played the original Starcraft in well over six years. But as much as I am inexperienced in the scene itself, I am still fascinated by its growth. To that end, I have been listening to podcasts about the SC2 beta, particularly the “Team Liquid Beta Podcast,” recorded by Sean “Day” Plott and his friend Tristan. Sean Plott is a very famous American player who is known not only for his skills behind a keyboard, but his incredibly analytical mind. In episode 3 of the podcast, he addresses an idea which has been floating around, the idea that Starcraft 2 is less suited for competition than its predecessor, and makes too many concessions to neophytes. And it very well might, but as Sean points out, it’s rather curious that people would be so quick to jump to conclusions on a game which isn’t even officially out yet, a prototype which can very well experience drastic changes. Herein lies the logical irrationality I spoke of.
Through the hours of effort put into it by players in Korea as well as in every other country which houses competitive spirit for Starcraft, many discoveries have been made over a decade that have pushed the game to points that would seem unbelievable to fans of the past. It took time and effort and I think everybody who likes this game is likely grateful for a number of these progressions, if not all of them. But the mistake that the players of the beta make here, and it’s a mistake I can point out despite never having played the game, is sheer impatience. The error of reasoning in this situation is the idea that just because the community is so experienced with its predecessor and the process of discovering concepts and techniques to foster and push competition, that the same progress not only could happen in the sequel at an accelerated rate, but that it should happen.
This is not the only time I have seen this impatience in action. For years I was and still am a big fan of the Super Smash Bros. series, and have played every incarnation of the game. I pride myself on being fairly good at Smash, albeit not at the highest levels of competition, but I have a keen understanding of the whole deal.
While the original Nintendo 64 Super Smash Bros. did well enough, it was with its Gamecube sequel, Super Smash Bros. Melee, that a competitive community truly began to form. Like Starcraft, the players, full of desire to win, created and discovered new techniques which pushed the game to unforeseeable levels. And just like Starcraft, when a sequel in the form of Super Smash Bros. Brawl appeared, people were quick to compare it to its predecessor (as one could only expect), and just as quickly pass judgment on it, decrying it as lacking the “advanced techniques” and overall suitability for a competitive game, and making big and bold declarations after the game had only been out mere weeks. Again, the same flawed reasoning appeared. “With all of our experience in Melee, advanced techniques should be getting discovered at a fraction of the time it took originally! We have more people and we don’t have that period where people were just messing around!” In addition, players were quick to establish a set of “tournament rules” at blinding speed, stifling the idea of discovery for discovery’s sake with the desire to simply win at “legitimate” competitive venues.
Why is there such impatience when it comes to competitive sequels? I understand well the idea that a follow-up to a popular competitive game will be compared to the original. It’s all but inevitable. And I also understand that people want to make sure their skills translate from one game to the next. But still, I can’t help but feel that this impatience can only hurt a competitive scene. Discovery happens not only when you cut away the fat, but also when you expand and explore, and such things take time, even if you have years and years of experience.
There is actually a game in which I have devoted myself to competition before, and that is Pokemon. I have played Pokemon more than perhaps any other game series, participating in tournaments and discussions and spending days and nights thinking of possible teams and avenues of victory. And though my main focus is on exploration and discovery and trying to find holes in the “metagame,” I have seen the state of competition as it applies to the Pokemon series, from the early days of Red and Blue all the way up to the recent generation starting with Diamond and Pearl, and two things are always clearly inevitable as the scene transitions from one version of the game to the next. First, we bring with us all of our old ideas about what makes a team strong, and what we predict will be the vanguards of victory and competition. Second, those theories are smashed and obliterated as we realize that, as similar as the games are to each other, subtle differences can have wide-reaching effects in the most unpredictable of ways. And it’s going to happen again and again and again.
There is no specific point at which you can officially decide if a game is worthwhile for competition or not, and it is very possible that initial reactions will be validated. Still, impatience brought on by the “pride of experience” is an incredibly dangerous thing to any competitive scene, and the sooner people realize this, the better.