The Uptalk Menace

A week I attended a talk by Ellen Reeves, Senior Editor at Change.org.  She also happened to have studied irony and sarcasm at HGSE’s Project Zero and had trained with Second City, which did nothing but endear her to me with all my years attempting to create theatrical works of art with other clueless middle schoolers at various afterschool programs.  Her primary role at this event, though, was as author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, a guide to business networking presented through the immediately compelling lens of going after your first job.

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The NYT – Back on My Good Side

As anybody who follows me on twitter or Facebook or gchat or AIM or MSN (or talks to me in real life, but who does that if they can just talk to me on the internets?) could probably guess by now, I’m pretty pleased with the recent article in the New York Times on my favorite up-and-coming eSports phenomenon – the Collegiate StarLeague (CSL).  The CSL, which is the brainchild of Mona “Hazel” Zhang (recent second-place winner in the SC2GG Commentator Idol), a freshman at Princeton University, recently held a showmatch between the Princeton CSL team and a StarCraft team at Qinghua University in China.  Qinghua is a pretty big name – think of it as the Yale of China to Beijing University’s Harvard.  I’m not sure how they organized the showmatch, which was broadcast semi-live off of replays by Cholera on ustream, but I’m sure Hazel has friends there or something.

Anyway, the Princeton folks took it upon themselves to make the showmatch into a spectator event – they found space in a building on campus and had a projector showing the games on a screen with commentators sitting in front of the audience MSL-style.

 

The NY Times Knows Nothing (about eSports)

I saw this little gem of an article a few days ago (actually it was pointed out to me by several people), and I’m pretty irate about it.  Let’s go through the reasons why this is terrible reporting, shall we?  First the nitty-gritty, and then the more substantial philosophical bits.

First off, the title: “Virtual Leagues Fold, Forcing Gamers to Find Actual Jobs.”  This sounds like something out of The Onion.  “Actual jobs”?  Would they say that if the NFL folded suddenly and a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys had to work in an electronics factory to bring home the bacon?  Would they say that if the World Series of Poker folded and some mustachioed straight-faced card shark had to start selling Xerox machines for a living?  Why this implication that professional video game players create nothing of cultural or economic value when they ply their trade?  Are gamers somehow cheating the American people out of their hard-earned dollars by getting paid to do something they’re good at?

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The Greatest (Gamer) Generation

“The old gameboy Pokemon has made a comeback in our suite,” my friend Devon said over lunch.  I assumed for an ignorant moment that he meant he’d found an old gameboy and decided to fire up Red or Blue or Yellow or Crystal or Gold or Taupe again for nostalgia’s sake.  “We found a ROM and started playing on emulator.”

“And didn’t you figure out how to battle each other over wireless?” one of his (non-Pokemon playing) suitemates chimed in.

“Yeah,” Devon confirmed.  “We’re 90% there.  The computers are clearly connecting, but the game requires you to use in-game save before you do certain things, and since there’s no actual hardware to save to we’re trying to figure that out.”  He paused to recall more details of the process.  “We found an emulator that specifically allows for network connectivity and everything.”

His partner in crime in the Pokemon experiment added his two cents.  “Hey, do you think this only works over a network or could it happen over the internet?  Like if you know IP addresses?”

Devon paused again to consider.  “It could work.  Who’d be interested?  Maybe Ben … Chris …”

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Getting Your Game On, Offline

This past weekend I hung out at the G.I.M.P.E.D. 1 melee/brawl tournament at NYU Polytechnic in New York City, not as a competitor but as a photographer, journalist, and eSports scene analyst. While I’m very interested in the Smash scene, I’m primarily associated with the StarCraft community, and therefore it may not be surprising that the number of tournaments I’ve attended in person in the States is different for each game. What may be surprising is which number is higher: I’ve been to three live Smash tournaments so far and only two StarCraft ones. If I’m so obsessed with StarCraft and getting involved in the SC scene, why is this the case? There’s a lot of factors which influence the situation, and none more salient than the nature of the two platforms themselves, and how such fundamental differences affect the purposes of the live events they inspire.

The scene at GIMPED was, I think, pretty common for a tournament of its kind. There were lots of people milling around, almost entirely male and between the ages of 15 and 25, controllers in hand. TVs were set up in rows and on tables – about 15, I’d say – and players sat in front of them while spectators mostly stood behind. KnightMare, the head organizer, walked around with a piece of paper and a microphone calling out matchups while the folks behind the registration desks looked on. It was almost impossible to distinguish between “friendlies” and actual tournament matches. Although there were some very well-known players at the event, the distribution of spectators for their games and for others’ games wasn’t that imbalanced. It was a very friendly, low key atmosphere, with people joking and trash talking and occasionally yelling “WOMBO COMBO!”

The most striking thing to me, though, was the fact that the tournament wasn’t really about having a tournament. Sure, there was money and glory on the line, but it was obvious that the primary purpose of the tournament was to serve as a social gathering. People went there to hang out with their friends and play each other in Smash – to spend an afternoon away from the daily grind of work and school and immerse themselves in a social world centered around playing a game. There was no distinction between players and spectators, except possibly for me, since I was one of the only people (if not the only person) who didn’t play at all during the four or so hours I was there. Calling it a “tournament” seemed like a misnomer or a clever cover-up for something much more genial and community-oriented than competitive. The “stars” who were there were not treated differently from other people from a social perspective, although they were somewhat limited in the people they chose to play friendlies with (due to playing ability, I’d guess).

This is not the case at all for major StarCraft tournaments (except for those in Southern California), and to a lesser extent for PC game tournaments in general. Although it’s possible to play Brawl online, there’s always the issue of lag and the impossibility of playing Melee online which encourage the live tournament scene. In StarCraft and other competitive PC games that aren’t heavily team-based, 90% of the tournaments that happen occur online. This means that there tend to be very few offline tournaments, since the hassles of bringing equipment or finding a computer lab and other hardware problems make organizing a live tournament rather unappetizing. It’s so easy to figure out brackets on iCCup and have a tournament online in one afternoon – as long as everyone shows up – that calling for an offline tournament has to offer other advantages than just being able to compete. If you’re just trying to find out who’ll get the money and the glory, why not choose a venue where the setup costs are minimal to none and participation is open to people around the world instead of just those within a 50 mile radius? It certainly makes for a higher level of play, overall, and with YouTube and live streaming anybody can see the games as they are happening or afterwards (not that this doesn’t also happen with Smash, although I think to a lesser extent).

Additionally, there’s the money issue. People in Smash are used to paying a small fee upfront to participate in a tournament, and that money is used for both venue fees and prizes. The same is not true for StarCraft tournaments unless the potential for fame and prize money is huge. After all, it’s free to play online and tournament administration online is usually the same or even better than administration at live events. Essentially, StarCraft live (or “offline”) tournaments in the States fall into two categories: small events on college campuses or large, expensive events with potential for national exposure (not the Janet Jackson Superbowl kind). Inevitably, only the latter tend to involve cash prizes.

So what happens at a big StarCraft tournament where the stakes are higher and the trappings are glitzier? Well, in comparison to the way Smash tournaments seem to blur the line between competitors and spectators during competition, at SC tournaments there’s a very clear separation. There is tension in the air and there is silence during tournament matches. People often come just to watch. The socializing largely happens at times and places separated from the tournament itself.

What sort of consequences do these differences create for the larger online community? Well, it certainly means that “amateurs” are more likely to compete in live events alongside those at a “pro” skill level in Smash. It seems the Smash scene is separated more along geographic lines than skill lines for reasons of practicality – it’s hard to get across the country or the world to play melee friendlies. High-level StarCraft players, on the other hand, compete against similarly-minded folks from any number of different countries or regions. International Smash tournaments are fairly rare, but for StarCraft it’s practically normal. It also means that Smash players have more opportunities to bond in-person with other players and become “real life” friends. I haven’t researched the language on Smashboard posts extensively, but it’s probably the case that Smash people are nicer to each other than StarCraft people because they often actually encounter each other face to face. The anonymity of online play and interaction often encourages pretty offensive behavior from StarCraft enthusiasts above and beyond your friendly trash-talk. However, the regionalism of Smash is a double-edged sword – it promotes an enormous amount of community, but if you happen to live in an area without many Smashers around you have little opportunity to hone your skills to a highly-competitive level.

In the end, both scenes have their advantages and disadvantages. Smash players may get to play in more tournaments and win more money overall, but StarCraft players can practice at a high level much more frequently even if the matches aren’t of very much consequence in terms of “rankings” (iCCup aside). The StarCraft community is cohesive across geographic boundaries of state and country, but the Smash community is more likely to produce friendly interaction unrelated to the game itself and/or face-to-face. Smash’s vibrant offline culture is a fascinating counterpoint to StarCraft’s intense online fan-based culture. I consider myself very lucky in that I get to experience both worlds although I don’t play competitively (that is, in tournaments) in either game. The moral of the story is that gaming communities are not all alike and cannot be considered as such when talking about building or expanding a competitive scene. People also shouldn’t judge other gaming communities as better or worse than their own without understanding the whole story and why the community dynamics are the way they are. At heart, we’re all gamers, but everything else is up for debate – and I find that kind of diversity beautiful.

Thanks for reading, and please leave some feedback!

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The PeaPod – Episode 2

Hi all, Peanut here with another installment of the PeaPod, my podcast! In this episode I let loose with some of the stuff that simmers in my head whenever I think about StarCraft, and I hope you find the results interesting and informative. The mp3 version is here.

 

 

Thanks for listening, and please give me feedback! The discussion thread is here.

Terminal Eclipse for WC3

Shockwaves ran through the eSports world today as MYM announced it would cut its superstar-laden Warcraft III and StarCraft teams. The StarCraft team – featuring ace foreign players DinOt, IefNaij, and recent ESL finalist White-Ra, among others – will certainly be missed, as its stellar lineup was one of the best sources for top StarCraft play outside of Korea.

The folks at influential StarCraft fansite TeamLiquid will definitely mourn this team’s passing, as IefNaij was a frequent victor in the site’s popular Liquibition series which features top foreign players duking it out in best-of-seven 1v1s every week with live casting. It’s not a complete shock that MYM would cut its SC team, as it’s proved very difficult to maintain profitability in StarCraft outside of Korea.

It is the loss of the WarCraft III team, however, which truly resonates throughout the eSports scene – particularly the non-Korean RTS scene – because of the pure shock of seeing two of WC3’s biggest names stripped of their prestigious tag. Grubby and Moon, listed as #10 and #2 on GosuGamers’ WC3 rankings respectively, are tremendous players with genre-crossing name recognition and star power. The consequences of this seemingly abrupt decision by MYM’s parent company ESNation couldn’t be more disparate between the two, however.

Dutch Orc player Grubby, 22 years old, is second worldwide among WC3 players when it comes to the amount of prize money he’s earned during his career (almost $165,000 from 2004-2009, according to SK Gaming). According to girlfriend Cassandra’s blog, the news that the entire WC3 squad would be cut was a complete surprise to Grubby and it seems he is currently considering retiring from WC3 altogether. Moon, on the other hand, is rumored to be moving to well-known Korean StarCraft team Wemade Fox, home to the much-beloved SC pro NaDa, perhaps to prepare for a career as a pro StarCraft II player. This switch would not be completely unexpected, since it was reported a year ago at SK that Korean SC teams were already "courting" Moon after finding out that "he won more money in 2007 than any of the StarCraft pros" that year.

What’s a WarCraft III pro to do? Gravitas Gaming unexpectedly cut its WC3 division a little over a month ago even though top players ToD and HoT had brought the organization new growth and popularity in Europe, but also at that time the WC3L announced new tournament rules that many predicted would breathe new life into the league and the WC3 scene in general. The outlook seemed, on balance, cautiously positive. But if Moon and Grubby aren’t safe from the new hack-and-slash approach in vogue among teams boasting top WC3 players, who is? And with Grubby and other top WC3 pros now rumored to be seriously considering retirement while still arguably in their prime, the short list of international fan favorites will only dwindle further. If the disbanding of the legendary 4K WC3 team heralded the beginning of the end of pro WC3’s golden age, the news from MYM seems to sound its death knell.

There is certainly no shortage of up-and-coming players to fill the rosters of eSports teams, but it takes time for great players to become stars, especially with the kind of poster-child pull Moon and Grubby developed. What other European eSports stars get mobbed on the street outside high schools in China? MYM’s decision may have been fiscally responsible, as the WC3 team’s expenses were astronomical, but the lack of warning and the shock to the WC3 community may be far worse in the long run.

The RTS crowd has one more disappointing reason to just hunker down and wait for the arrival of StarCraft II.

Pictures in courtesy of GGL.com

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