An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Or, “A New Idea in College Sports”

In the last few weeks, 23 of North America’s top universities have signed up to join a brand-new competitive collegiate league. Students from McGill, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard have answered an irresistible call: the opportunity to introduce an entirely new game into the hallowed halls of college sports. Instead of pads and helmets, this sport merely requires a computer, keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection. These tools are standard for any college student, and travel costs are negligible, since the opposing teams can play each other online. The game is “StarCraft: Brood War,” and by starting the Collegiate StarCraft League, the Princeton gaming club, “SmashCraft Heroes,” might be setting a new precedent in North America. However, it follows a model that has been tested for years elsewhere in the world with incredible results.

In South Korea, professional video and computer gaming – also known as "electronic sports," or eSports – is an $81 million-per-year industry. The bedrock of this relatively recent phenomenon is the game StarCraft, published in 1997 by American company Blizzard Entertainment (now Activision Blizzard, a Viacom company). There are four major StarCraft tournaments that play three seasons per year, at around two months per season. The matches are recorded in front of a live studio audience (comprised mostly of high school age, female fans) in one of the three or four high-tech “eSports stadiums” sprinkled across Seoul. The footage is televised on one of the two cable channels or one Internet TV channel devoted exclusively to eSports content. In estimate, there are 18 million eSports fans in the country of 50 million people, which means that professional StarCraft and other games receive the second highest television ratings of any televised sports.

A top StarCraft player In Korea may not be perceived at the same level as Tom Brady or Manny Ramirez are here, but he or she is certainly well-known among the younger set and rakes in over $100,000 per year in salary. Professional StarCraft players in Korea – players with pro gaming licenses – are paid yearly salaries on an average of $20,000 per year just to compete in a computer game Top players, of course, earn more. Ever heard of Lim Yo-hwan, also known as “SlayerS.BoxeR”? Additionally known as “Terran Emperor,” this 28 year old was earning $300,000 per year in salary alone, not counting product endorsements, before he entered the Korean air force two years ago. His fan club includes more than 500,000 members. This does not even count the many international fans that stay up until 4:00 a.m. to watch his matches live over the Internet. In 2006, included him in their article “The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers of All Time” alongside the creators of the web-comic “Penny Arcade” and the folks who modified “Half-Life” to make a game called "Counter-Strike." But beyond his hall of fame status in the eSports scene, this competitor has all the hallmarks of a true blue, larger than life sports star.

There is no secret that the CSL derives most of its inspiration and organizational structure from Korean StarCraft – even its name is an adaptation of the names of two tournaments called the “OGN StarLeague” and the “MBCGame StarLeague”. But while this student-organized league aims to emulate its more established cousins across the pond, only time will tell whether the similarities will extend beyond a snappy acronym.

On February 7, the CSL had its inaugural match between Princeton and MIT. Two groups of college students occupied rooms hundreds of miles away from each other, and yet they and their audience (the matches were streamed live online) were very close in spirit. The Daily Princetonian covered the match in a Sports section article that will become a weekly feature. I recommend that The Harvard Crimson follow suit for when the Harvard team plays.

The video game industry is already predicted to grow – not shrink – during this economic recession, and as many competitive games reward high levels of skill and talent, it was inevitable that eSports would come into being. Despite the superficial differences between athletic sports such as football and competitive StarCraft, both activities have achieved great popularity and generated entire entertainment industries because they tap into the natural human desire to enjoy and identify with excellence. The CSL might not ever attract the same eSports following in North America that the OSL and MSL enjoy in Korea, but I will certainly be watching this historical league grow and mature. And besides, there’s nothing better than kicking back and watching a good game of StarCraft.