So I wrote a piece for my English class last year, and I got a pretty good response to it. It got published on the now defunct Core Gaming website, back when we were trying to make an esports community with it.

Now I know it's about Starcraft II and not NS2, but both games are cut from the same competitive cloth. I hope you guys enjoy it

Joel Whalen

Carol Smith

EN 211E

September 11, 2013

What is a Sport?

The combatants enter the arena to the sound of thunderous applause, seats are overflowing with bodies, and half of them have to sit on the floor. They will do this because the stakes are high and this is the highest level of competition. These players have trained for years to get to this point, and there is 25,000 dollars on the line. No room for mistakes. Strength of will is the only quality that determines champions. As one measures the exact distance and angle of his keyboard to the monitor, the other takes the final encouraging words of his coach in a nervous haze. Commentators debate possible strategies and outcomes known about these two players specifically as the game timer starts. In a few seconds time the game is up on the projection screen. Their names and the teams they play for are announced consecutively, a familiar sound greeted by two enthusiastic roars from the spectators. The battle of the minds has begun.

There is an underground world of gaming that has been around for the past decade, and no one has yet to notice in the West. As unknown it might be to the general population, to competitive players (and their fans like myself), this is their livelihood. They are paid large sums of money in both team salaries and tournaments to accomplish one thing: win games. Thousands of people watch their every move. This may sound like outright fantasy, but it is oh-so real.

Like chess, Starcraft II is a strategy game played by two people at a time, one against the other. The games are similar in both depth and ability, and the goal is simple: kill your opponent using superior strategy and mechanics. Visually, each player starts at two ends of a map with resources scattered throughout it. You are given a commander’s “bird’s eye view” of the battlefield, and start with merely one building and six workers. These resources are what allows you to build more buildings, bases, and army units to destroy each other with. More workers means more resources, which then turns into a more powerful army. A common strategy is to harass the enemy’s worker line to deny his income, and thus they must be protected accordingly as he could do the same to you. Oh, and as you build more structures to compete for resources, you must deny your opponent from doing the same thing, adding on layers of complexity that actually take years to master.

There are only three real differences between chess and Starcraft. One is that Starcraft is played at a faster pace, because both players make “moves” at the same time instead of taking turns. Another is your “pieces” are not identical to your opponent’s, you can choose between three races to play: the scrappy humans named Terrans; the blue, humanoid alien Protoss; or the insect-like hive mind known as the Zerg. Each race brings completely different units and strategies to the game, and professionals are only able to master one race at a time. There is no such thing as a pro who can practice playing two or more races at once, it is actually impossible. The third is that neither player can see what the other is doing at any given time, they must “scout” their opponent through the fog of war before they can make a read (educated guess) as to what strategy they might be going for, and then counter it with their own accordingly. Since every army unit’s abilities are wildly different, choosing the correct composition of units in your army is critical. You get this information by looking at what the enemy has in his base (if you’re lucky enough to even get a glimpse of it) and again, guessing what he might be up to. Pick the wrong units, and the other guy will roll over you with no contest. As a spectator, this is exciting because you can see what both players are doing, while their moves are hidden from each other, which creates tension. These are just the basics, as they do not convey the absurd amount of power these professional athletes have attained or the sacrifices a person must make to even come close to that skill level.

“Well, it can’t be that hard? It’s just a video game!” I know this is what most people would think or say to that, but let me illustrate just what a feat it is to reach the top of the chain in this world. Let’s say I adhered to a rigid practice schedule, and played this game for maybe four or five hours per day, every day for a year. That is a lot of dedication, mainly because Starcraft in particular drains your cognitive functions unlike any other game in its class. Most video games require you to just sit there on your couch and passively enjoy the experience. To be competitive in Starcraft, one must put down all distractions and focus for hours at a time, and the feeling is comparable to how your brain swells after taking a three hour ACT or final exam. Doing this every day for a year is no small task. Realistically, after this year of playing that much, I would be somewhat good at the game. That’s it. Somewhat good. I would be able to defeat most people chosen at random, but against someone who does this for a living, I would still stand no chance.
The professionals who get paid salaries live in team houses, complete with people who clean, cook, and train them both in the game and physically as well. Did I mention that most team houses have a gym? Your mind cannot be in top form if your body isn’t as well, both affect the other’s performance. These teams have paid sponsors who have no problem paying up for all of this, because if it helps them bring tournament results and brand recognition among thousands of fans, it will have been worth the investment. Short of giving up school and a social life, I could never get to this level of skill. So I, like many others, tune into watching the real pros play live.

Watching the stories of the pros interweave with one another as they compete in tournaments is just as interesting, and not unlike following a football star athlete like Brett Favre. I know most of the top players by name and the play styles for which they are known. Scarlett is a Canadian Zerg player known for her strategies that rely on masses of lower-tier units (in terms of unit capabilities) to win. Thorzain is a Swedish player nicknamed “the spoon Terran” by his Korean counterparts because of the way he methodically rips his opponents apart over long games. And how could I talk about pro players without mentioning the Terran player Flash? He is a Korean who has dominated the Starcraft scene for so long and so convincingly, he is referred to as “bonjwa”, which is the term Koreans use to describe someone who dominates an era of Starcraft and has single-handedly affected the evolution of the game itself.

Understanding the sacrifices made to get to that level is half of what makes it exciting to watch. You are seeing people who have, for the past five to ten years, dedicated their lives to getting better at this sport. And I am calling it a sport because Starcraft has transcended traditional definitions of what we do for fun versus what we compete in. This is real, and real people’s lives are affected by it. This is only the beginning of this new world of e-sports, and by writing pieces like this I can only hope that it will continue growing exponentially.