I find Starcraft 2 to be fascinating. Well, to be more specific, I find the community surrounding Starcraft 2 to be fascinating. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the history of sport and the history of video games, and I find myself wondering to what extent these two areas converge in the modern world of “eSports.” Starcraft 2 is one of the most successful games, if not the most successful game, in the eSports arena despite the longevity of organized fighting games and the increasing profile of League of Legends. Organized competitive Starcraft play has been a significant business in Korea for years and with the arrival of Starcraft 2 in 2010, the audience for professional play has grown substantially. The English language community surrounding the game features a tier of celebrity populated by “shoutcasters” (commentators on games between high level players and tournament games), strategists, coaches and certain professional players. They communicate with their own fanbases within the wider community via video streams and youtube videos, going by Internet aliases like Artosis, Husky, Khaldor and Day9. The aliases are not intended to provide anonymity but rather contribute to each individual’s public persona. Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski frequently commentates on games alongside Nick “Tasteless” Plott, the two men occasionally referring to themselves as “Tastosis, the casting Archon.”
It’s an in-joke. It’s not a bad one, either. Not because the joke itself is all that funny but because it plays on the duo’s strengths. They’re funny, droll, they clearly love the game and feel comfortable feeding the hardcore but they are also quick to bring in cultural references and play off absurd humor. A recent cast featured a debate over which animals to see at the zoo while they killed time during the brief period of inactivity at the start of a Starcraft 2 match. The surprising accessibility to this complex game provided by talented commentators has been a major element in the expansion of Starcraft’s audience since 2010. “Tastosis” are in many ways the gold standard of Starcraft 2’s tier of celebrity. They are joined there by professional players and other high level casters and interviewers to form a coterie of high profile community figures. As such, they occupy an interesting space between the community and the pool of professional players, and are at the forefront of arguing for competitive play’s status as an “eSport” and not merely an odd capitalist offshoot of an extremely popular multiplayer video game.
This is where Starcraft 2 becomes interesting from an historical point of view. Typically speaking, modern popular sport emerged in England in the late eighteenth century and transitioned from elite pursuit to popular pastime in the aftermath of the industrial revolution. British imperial reach brought soccer, cricket and rugby union to the colonies. Baseball found its way to East Asia a little differently, though aspiration towards imperial status on the behalf of the Japanese played an important role. Over time, popular sporting communities coalesced around formal organizations that grew in scope leading to international competition and in particular large crowds of spectators attending organized play. Sporting communities are traditionally enervated by the experience of attending live fixtures. Although there are live in-person crowds in attendance at high profile Starcraft 2 events that occasionally reach sizeable levels, particularly in Korea, “eSports” as a spectacle exist mostly online. The Starcraft community interacts with each other online and “attend” events online. Unlike soccer, where online communities build up around the nucleus of local fanbases regularly attending games, the online Starcraft community is the Starcraft community. As a result, participation in the game itself among fans is virtually complete. There are millions of soccer fans that do not play the game regularly, and those that do of course rely on meeting with others to play regularly. Starcraft fans are moments away from playing a game. Blizzard’s matchmaking system makes it easy to play with strangers either in an informal game or on the “ladder”, ranked play divided by player ability. Unlike soccer and other traditional sports that have evolved in use of the Internet to organize various communities and fanbases, Starcraft has been defined by the Internet from the beginning.
This is both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of Starcraft as an “eSport.” First of all, there is the debate over the extent to which this activity can be seen as a sport at all, “e” prefix or no. Beyond that however, the centrality of the online experience to the evolution of the Starcraft community has created a social experience that is at once both open and insular. Within the English language speaking Starcraft community, prominent professional players and commentators engage in discussions on reddit just like other fans. They stream four-way conversations cum podcasts with significant audiences. They share stories about the new car they just bought or how difficult it can be to get used to California when you’ve had to move for work. Although major Starcraft figures maintain their privacy, they are nevertheless open to the broader community of fans in a way that simply isn’t currently possible for athletes and major media figures from professional sporting leagues such as the NFL. The Internet provides the lifeblood for this culture which thus enjoys a level of comfort with social media and online communication that occurs at a natural level; it is, effectively, impossible to “fake.”
It also brings considerable problems. Games of Starcraft have their own etiquette, with participants expected to type “gg” (good game) as a polite way of indicating a forfeit. Beyond this, manners vary according to personalities and are frequently congruent with Internet standards of politeness. Greg “Idra” Fields, a longtime professional Starcraft player, has long provided the gold standard in negative examples of this phenomenon. He is famously rude by the standards of the game, and has in recent years extended this to communications with his fanbase, discussing his dislike for the game and how his interest in playing has long since been reduced to the financial incentive provided by his career. This would not necessarily be an issue except for Fields’ remarkable use of profanity. He was dropped by his team this week as punishment for using profanity to deride his fans for taking an interest in his career, mostly because it was the final straw, the latest in a litany of incidents. My personal favorite was his statement that David Kim, Blizzard’s resident expert in charge of maintaining the game’s balance between playable races, should be “raped with a tire iron.”
The last statement really gets to me. It’s exactly the kind of hateful bigoted crap that we all see on the Internet all the time. That trash is the reason few sane people choose to read youtube comments. Yet Fields has gotten away with this behavior for years. The argument can be made (and has been made) that he is simply abusing the fact that his popularity places him in a position of power. However, it’s more than this. Fields benefits from the fact that the community is essentially an insular one. He is close friends with many of those around whom the community congregates online. During the influential “State of the Game” podcast this week, the news of Fields being dropped by his team broke midway through the live stream. The podcast took a rare break to allow certain contributors a few moments to work through their emotions. The top circles in this community are very small indeed.
In the case of Fields’ behavior, the discussion quickly narrows down to the responsibilities of professional players within this community and the economic realities of the tournaments’ emergence and ongoing economic viability. Fields provides the scene with its own “enfant terrible” but his poor behavior is limited to in-game chats and forum discussions. When participating in live stream conversations he comes across as affable, intelligent and good natured though he does defend his statements as being hyperbolic and a product of anger apparently with the inference that they should not be considered offensive. Indeed, he very clearly refuses to express remorse for wishing cancer upon an infuriating opponent in in-game chat. To what extent, then, is Fields simply playing a character? Is this something that is now necessary in a modern sporting culture dominated by and reliant upon media coverage? It’s a far cry from the muscular Christianity and stress on moral purity of popular team sports’ arrival in the nineteenth century. In either case there is a clear need to appeal to the cultural assumptions of the day and it seems that in the twenty-first century, at least according to Fields’ supporters, attention is good for the community as a whole. Fields may well be a rather unpleasant person, or more accurately an infantilized individual with no incentive to correct his behavior, but his actions bring clicks and clicks mean dollars, and dollars mean growth.
Perhaps not all agree with this. He has been fired after all, and there are plenty of members of the Starcraft community who yearn for a more professional attitude among high-level players when interacting with fans. If Starcraft is to see success as a mainstream form of entertainment, it may be necessary to emulate the successes of other sporting industries. This too causes friction. Blizzard, the company that makes the game and that thus maintains an irremovable position at the center of the broader community, recently revealed a decision to overhaul their global championship, the World Championship Series (WCS). Various decisions, including the perceived neglect of communities in mainland China and Australasia and the introduction of high-level Korean players into European and American tournaments, have drawn criticism. Blizzard may be at the center of the community but their position is not an inviolable one in the eyes of many who are personally involved in organizing competitive play. Indeed the company is lambasted, and in the Internet decorum that we are apparently resigned to often viciously so. The latter issue, that of high-level Korean players being involved in European and American competition, causes particular concern for many.
Significantly, the English language Starcraft community is not home to the best players globally or the longest tradition of professional play supported by a popular audience. That distinction belongs to Korea. This has bred a certain aura of insecurity within the English language community and led to a fascinating (historically speaking) trend of Starcraft fans using the term “foreigner” to describe any player that is not Korean. Fans cheer on foreign players in Korean competition and in WCS games against Korean pros not out of any latent racism (one would hope in all cases) but in the hopes that victories over these superior players might indicate an increase of the overall standard of the game in the West. The introduction of high-level Korean players to North American organized competition has been received by many not as an opportunity for American players to face higher quality opposition regularly and thus improve but as a severe limiting factor on the opportunities for Starcraft to develop as a popular “eSport” outside of Korea.
This too is fascinating. The dynamic of developing a sport locally and facing off against the sport’s originator has a long history. Australia and England compete every two years over the Ashes, a symbolic representation of a famous Australian victory on English soil. The English national soccer team sometimes appears to have rivalries against almost every team on the planet by virtue of the role of Englishmen in spreading that game globally. Defeating the American national basketball team is an enormous achievement and a major motivating factor for players on other national teams. The traditional element in this dynamic, the notion of rejecting imperial control or the vestiges of post-colonial cultural hegemony, is missing. Americans, Australians, Europeans and Chinese hold no grudges against any kind of Korean historical dominance either military or cultural. Yet the community does not merely acknowledge the disparity between Korean play and foreign play but seeks to reduce it. In theory, the only significant remaining obstacle to Korean Starcraft games offering a comprehensive product to the Western market is time difference. Why is there a desire to see American and Australian players holding up trophies and receiving recognition as the world’s best?
Blizzard have been able to create international competition much more swiftly than has been seen in other traditional sports. The first soccer World Cup famously suffered from poor participation rates because European teams did not wish to travel to Uruguay. England continued to boycott the tournament on principle, upset at the world governing body FIFA’s refusal to recognize their unrivalled prominence in the history of soccer as an organize sport. Other sports such as rugby union and baseball have suffered from uneven distribution of significant popularity. Starcraft tournaments can ignore most of these concerns. The game became professionalized in Korea but is an American product, the characters and avatars of its visual representations examples of the American cultural hegemony that remains dominant in video game culture globally. Travelling for a tournament is no longer necessary in all cases. WCS games are being played online and not over LAN connections in person. Lag and latency present one of the last practical obstacles.
Starcraft has thus come together as an international “eSport” at a bewilderingly rapid pace. So far, so good. However, the community faces many challenges. Growth has come rapidly but the scene remains remarkably niche, allowing for the continued insularity of the community that in many ways serves it so well. It is not yet clear what kind of economic base the game can realistically rely upon longer term. Starcraft participants are young, with many professional players “past it” by their late 20s. Greg “Idra” Fields has enjoyed a lengthy career and would be considered an elder statesman of the game. He is 23. It’s unclear as to whether there is any audience for Starcraft as an exhibition “eSport” among people who do not play the game itself. Blizzard games tend to sell well but even sales of 4-5 million copies of a game place a significant ceiling on the possible growth of a sporting culture. In this respect, Starcraft diverges sharply from other historical examples of sporting communities. Soccer’s popularity owes no small amount to its accessibility: children in poor communities can grab some newspaper and roll it up into a ball, or save up to buy a ball together. Items of clothing or rocks provide markings for the goal itself. Jumpers for goalposts, as they say. Starcraft necessitates a copy of the game (now US$40 for the base, though $60 on release, and $40 for the recent expansion) and a computer to run it. There are other subscription models available in East Asia, but these options still require the cash to afford hours at a time spent in Internet gaming cafes.
The Starcraft player base and community base is highly skewed towards the middle class and higher, and further towards young men (though young women also play at the highest level). Young white men dominate outside of Korea, China and Taiwan. Logistic barriers make it extremely unlikely that “eSports” will gain a foothold in disadvantaged communities any time soon. Traditional popular sports have discovered some of their most successful players in such communities for decades. The possibility of further growth for Starcraft as a sporting community seems extremely limited.
Nevertheless, I find it genuinely intriguing. The clash between concepts of the game as a form of entertainment and a capitalist enterprise echo similar issues in mainstream traditional sports. Starcraft fans clamor for continued influence in the administration of organized play at the highest level, a battle long since lost by fans of basketball, soccer and baseball. It also begs the question of how new sporting communities might arise as conceptions of valid use of free time has evolved in the developed world. I’m not sure we’ll ever get to The Running Man or the type of goofy future-touchdown representations of sport typical of Starship Troopers but I’m starting to wonder if we’re getting to a point where watching an entire season of an HBO show over a single weekend might become competitive at some point. The limitations of Starcraft’s potential to grow as a popular sport also help to sustain the community as an isolated example of sporting culture development, a test case that is unlikely to develop into the full phenomenon. Is professional Starcraft a sport or a fascinating cultural anomaly, a community that has taken on the trappings of modern sport-driven media as a way to navigate its own growth? Is it a sign of the next evolution of popular sport? Physical sport played on fields and ice and indoor and outdoor courts evolved over time from cultural importance assigned to physical movement and play. This included the desire to increase the physical strength or manhood of the nation through testing its young men against each other, displaying appropriate recognition of society’s stratification through a public aesthetic and honoring gods and ancestors through symbolic re-enactment of mythological events. “eSports” have grown out of present day sporting culture, a social reality that has for the most part abandoned such specific cultural origins and is instead driven by economic goals and vague ideological identities focused on the history of the sport itself and expected behavior from athletes. “eSports” is thus something entirely new, not merely by dint of the necessity of the Internet in its growth. Nobody ever played a game of Starcraft to pay homage to the rising of the sun and good harvests. However, there are champions. There are professional tournaments and amateur tournaments. There are celebrities. There are heroes and there are villains, and there is debate on the extent of this villainy. Investment in this game and its personalities equal to anything in traditional sports is played out daily over twitter, TwitchTV and youtube, with a degree of investment of which Major League Baseball clubs and major soccer clubs continue to dream. So perhaps Starcraft 2 isn’t the future of sport, but the future of how sport will maintain its relevance.
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State of the Game Episode 93