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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Is it “Sports”?

According to the London Review of Books, 2008 was the first year in which "video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK."  The author of this article claims that this represents an economic milestone in the entertainment industry, and I fully agree with him.  As much as Hollywood, Bollywood, and the RIAA would like to think otherwise, people are gravitating away from the traditional "sit down in front of the tube" passive method of being entertained and towards a new model of interactive fun: video games. 

The London Review article poses the question of whether video games are art, which is certainly a good question with its own interesting consequences.  One thing that everyone can agree on is that video games are entertainment, but as the genre becomes more refined in terms of content and player participation, the classification of certain stand-out examples becomes a little more dicey.  Just as the Review wonders whether or not a game like Spore can be considered art, many people (including myself) wonder whether competitive gaming can be considered sports.  The answer to this question has significant value, since "sports" as we know them constitute a multi-billion dollar international industry with a mostly positive reputation which would benefit gaming by association.  If competitive gaming were accepted as "sports," or at least "eSports," there would be many more opportunities for competitive gaming to attract media attention, sponsorship deals, and talented people to work in the industry.  This change would not come without its downsides, and die-hard gaming fans might object to the way competitive gaming would be forced to adapt, but there’s no doubt that the scene would grow and thrive because of it.

So can eSports be considered "sports"?  It’s a tough question because the concept of a sport is linked so closely to a misty-eyed image of wholesome young men and women running around in the fresh air improving their physical fitness and learning life lessons all at once.  The sports ideal can’t be separated from the idea that competitions of physical skill are the only competitions worth elevating to the coveted status of a "sport."  However, there are loopholes in this ideal.  There’s a difference between our images of "pure sports" and the focus of big budget sports-as-entertainment sports.  Basketball is a sport, but when we think of basketball-as-entertainment we think of the NBA, which is a business.  Spectators aren’t interested in paying to watch nameless youth run around a dirt field without jerseys and logos and team rivalries and the context of a high-stakes national/international tournament.  To illustrate further, when people think of basketball-as-entertainment, especially in countries where basketball isn’t very well-known, they think of Michael Jordan.  Michael Jordan is exceptionally talented, but he would not represent basketball in the way that he does in the minds of so many millions without the help of factors that have little or nothing to do with physical prowess per se.  If not for the international growth of the NBA and especially for his sponsorship of Nike products, Michael Jordan wouldn’t be a star.  In the grand scheme of things, sneakers and logos don’t contribute anything to how basketball is played, but they do drastically influence the way it is perceived by the public – that is, its entertainment value.  In the entertainment world, presentation matters as much as content, which is what the CGS was banking on in its showbusinessy efforts to bring eSports to mainstream television.  Sadly, the CGS folded after its second year due more to bureaucratic politics than ratings, but I’m willing to bet that the television networks involved in it will want to try something like that again in the future.

So, competitive gaming may end up slipping under the sports umbrella through sports-as-entertainment if the industry’s economic potential seems to outweigh the incredulity factor ("that’s a sport?!").  There’s an argument to be made that eSports only differs from sports in that the "mind game" prevails over the physical aspect of competition, but it’s a difficult argument to justify to most sports fans.  eSports certainly has compelling content and a large potential audience, and in Korea it’s already been catapulted to the glamor of the "sports" label.  We’ll see if eSports in the West can similarly live up to its ambitious name.

 

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What’s an eSports Professional?

In a messageboard conversation with other people working in various areas of the eSports industry, the question arose: what is an eSports professional?  What defines a professional eSports organization? 

The question is not an insignificant one, mostly because it’s such a contentious issue.  Partly because eSports is still an up-and-coming phenomenon, the line between professional and amateur is much fuzzier than in other entertainment industries.  Many respected writers, team managers, players, and other key people in the various worldwide eSports communities don’t look like canonical "professionals" on paper.  They’re often in school or have fulltime jobs completely unrelated to their eSports work.  This is the case particularly in the StarCraft-as-eSport scene, and yet paradoxically nowhere does the difference between the passionate, unpaid amateur and the disaffected, salaried professional create such an enormous gap.  The gap looms large between Korea and the rest of the world.

It may seem strange to many that there are people who have well-paid, fulltime, high-profile jobs in the pro StarCraft industry who aren’t passionate about what they do.  An example is Chen Yongjun, lead eSports commentator for Korean television channel MBCGame, producer of the renowned MBCGame StarLeague (MSL) and owner of the team MBC Heros.  He sits in the Yongsan I’Park mall eSports stadium almost every day on the stage right between the player booths, only a few steps away from the likes of Boxer and NaDa, and millions of people in Korea and around the world watch him describe the intricate goings-on of StarCraft games on TV and online.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Chen on several occasions in Korea, and what I learned about his outlook surprised me.  At that point I was still convinced I was going to become an SC commentator, and so I enthusiastically sought him out for information and advice.  This well-dressed, handsome man in his mid-thirties looked me seriously in the face and told me not to try to pursue SC commentary as a fulltime job.  "Perhaps part-time or as a hobby," he said, "but that’s it."  Despite the fact that there are people around the world who would kill for the chance to be in his shoes for just a day, he sees his job as just that – a job.  "It provides food for my family," he explained. He already considered himself fortunate in life because of his family and financial stability, but from his perspective, his line of work only enabled that fortune and didn’t add to it.  He thought I would be better off becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

In stark contrast to Mr. Chen’s point of view, the young diehards in their teens, twenties, and early thirties who populate the staff forums of community sites such as TeamLiquid, GosuGamers, and SC2GG are fiercely passionate … and largely unpaid.  These students, engineers, computer technicians, teachers, writers, and paralegals in the States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere all set aside significant amounts of time during their busy lives to contribute to the online StarCraft community in some fashion.  The fascinating capability of the internet to provide niches for specialized communities – along with the allure of building a new identity from scratch with a non-arbitrary name and personality – ensures that as long as fascinating video footage of pro StarCraft players in Korea keeps being leaked to YouTube, there will be something to capture Joe Browser’s imagination and lead him down the rabbit hole.  The uniqueness of Korean StarCraft inspires interaction, analysis, reaction, and organization.  But, to return to the original question, at what point does ordinary fandom turn into hobby, into personal obsession, into a career path?  If a 19-year-old writes 700-word news articles for TeamLiquid which are read regularly by people at Blizzard and WCG, does that make TL a professional eSports organization?  If ICCup -operating outside the battlenet fold and presumably not making much of a profit – is an international standard for StarCraft skill and a better-run ladder than Blizzard ever came up with, does that make the unpaid admins "professionals" or just experienced, capable hobbyists?

The fundamental dilemma is whether or not the definition of a "professional" rests on attitude and intention (aka "professionalism") or getting paid for what you do.  Ideally a high level of professionalism should correspond to getting a salary or some kind of financial compensation, no matter what the field is, but there’s still a huge discrepancy between the two when it comes to eSports.  Eventually, as eSports grows and becomes recognized for the huge marketing potential it offers for sponsors and perhaps even the tourism dollars that live events bring to local economies, the people who are talented and hardworking will be recognized for their contributions in the lingua franca of the business world – cash, and lots of it.  Until then, people who have made it to the top of eSports and are getting paid well should cut the rest of us some slack.  Until we reach the day when sponsors and entertainment media give eSports its due, an eSports "professional" should be defined as someone who works hard to expand whatever branch of eSports he or she is in and who other eSports people rely on to a great extent to get things done, whether or not that person receives money for their efforts.

 

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The Collegiate StarLeague: MIT

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is right across the river from me.  That being said, the MIT CSL team’s side of the match didn’t take place on campus.  Instead, my trusty photographer assistant Michael and I headed over to Brookline – a nearby town that also happens to be my hometown – to the ZBT fraternity house on a quiet residential street. 

Unlike the Princeton side, this match was not open to the public.  It was a quiet, homey setup, with the six players and an extra girlfriend gathered around a couple long white tables in a dining area.  The MIT captain, Yang (aka Sedraxis), was very hospitable and offered us access to the wealth of food in the kitchen as well as a tour of the house’s facilities.  Michael and I arrived at 8 with a half hour to spare before the match was set to begin. 

I guess Yang hadn’t had dinner …

 

Setting up the hardware and software before the match

 

Testing headsets, reviewing strategies

 

Bubble tea: drink of champions

 

One of the players also had commentating aspirations, so he sat in a comfy chair in the next room and prepared to live-cast the games.

Puffy jacket required

 

Then, even though the MIT team had taken the time earlier in the day to test out the streaming system, technical difficulties struck.  Yang was a man of action, running around with frantic energy and not hesitating for an instant to call Hazel up with questions about iCCup launcher.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

 

Yang had the brilliant idea of setting up a webcam so that his laptop could record player reactions during the games.  Maybe he’d catch a look of shock during an unexpected drop?

 

Last-minute warmups while technical difficulties were holding things up

 

Apparently fleece hoodies and pullovers were the uniform of choice.  Northface, this is a great sponsorship opportunity!

 

Things were looking grim on the technical side, but we all knew the issues would get resolved in the end.  The only question was whether there’d be an audience left …

 

The shirt naturally requires a fistpump.  Yes!

 

Yep, that’s the first four zerglings after a nine-pool.  Oh, and Peanut in the background.

 

It’s all about teamwork.  Even the 1v1s (scrimmage games!).

 

No fancy-pants Macs for this team.  SC runs better on a sleek black Toshiba.

 

“Someone stole the cookies?  Who would do such a thing?!!”

 

This is no mere college student.  This, my friends, is a WARRIOR!

 

Can you handle this?!

I had to leave before the third game, unfortunately, but it was really great meeting the MIT team and witnessing this historic event.  I did a few interviews with the captain and players – you can check them out on my youtube page.  They have really interesting things to say!  Here’s one to whet your appetite:

 

And finally, here’s a message from the MIT team to all you would-be challengers:

 

Yeah, that’s right.  Peanut out!

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In Defense of Color Commentary

As I said in an earlier post, I’m a permanent judge on SC2GG Commentator Idol, presented in association with Voice of eSports.  My main focus in judging the contestants’ submissions is what’s known as “color” in commentary – this means essentially things the commentator says that distinguish him or her from a person or computer who’s only analyzing the technical and strategic aspects of the game.  This includes, but is not limited to, analogies comparing what’s going on in the game to situations in real life, fiction, etc. and expressions the commentator uses to convey the excitement of the game.  This approach has generated some controversy over the importance of these aspects in StarCraft commentary, and, to that end, below is an explanation for why I think color is a valid judging criterion for Commentator Idol.
Technical knowledge is an extremely important factor when it comes to commentary, but if it were the only factor then anybody with sufficient technical knowledge would be a great commentator. This is not the case. Commentary adds entertainment value to a game, and although StarCraft is more entertaining automatically if you can understand what’s going on from a strategic perspective, there are other ways to increase entertainment value that affect the final product.
I’m a person who doesn’t care all that much about the commentator’s technical knowledge beyond a certain point … if the commentator says the player is going for a 3-hatch build instead of a 9-pool, that’s one thing, but if he says the mutalisk micro was slightly off when really it was that the terran had brilliant turret placement during one particular harass, it doesn’t really matter to me. The commentator can have the best technical knowledge in the world, but if he or she is boring or annoying to listen to, I’m not going to listen.
Color is about being able to make the commentary interesting beyond just saying what’s going on and why in a StarCraft context. There is a world that exists outside of StarCraft, and the two, in my opinion, should not be kept separate. Fundamentally, if you want StarCraft to appeal to a more general audience than just the people who play on ICCup, you have to be able to make StarCraft relevant to the real world – the world of people who have other interests and values that don’t relate to one particular game, and the world of people who want to be entertained. Good color commentary makes the outside world relevant to StarCraft, and in return, makes StarCraft relevant to the outside world.
There are many cases where people use sports metaphors for non-sports phenomena without a second thought. Kissing is “getting to first base” and the working world is called the “rat race.” People are often told to “go for the gold” or “keep your eye on the ball” by motivational speakers. It’s firmly established that sports are relevant to life, and part of the reason why that happens is that sports are enjoyed by a large population of people, many or most of whom don’t understand or care about the higher-level technical details of a particular game. If someone who doesn’t understand StarCraft that well watches a commentary and doesn’t understand that a particular skirmish is key to the outcome of the game, he or she won’t understand that fact any better if the commentator just describes it technically. If, however, the commentator says that this particular timing push is like Napoleon going into Russia or like trying to bake a cake without flour, the significance becomes much clearer.
The bottom line is that Commentator Idol is not looking for a commentator who appeals only to diehard StarCraft fans or players. A good commentary should be very technically accurate, but it should also be exciting and leave a first-time viewer wanting to see more, even if they don’t understand exactly what’s going on. Color helps bridge that gap and make sure StarCraft appeals to a greater population and not just those who are D+ or higher on ICCup. Is competitive StarCraft just a niche novelty or can it also be a general spectator sport? Color commentary is a lot of what lets StarCraft make that transition

Published on Starfeeder.com.