“Jack! Jack!” Ashley’s sudden cries woke me up – at the wheel.
When I opened my eyes, I found I was drifting across the lanes of the highway. I jerked the steering wheel to the right, causing the car to spin violently off the road. For a few seconds, I didn’t know if we were going to live or die. Thankfully, we skidded safely into a ditch with no harm done to either us or the car.
After a tow truck hauled my mom’s 1992 Mercury back onto the road, we returned home. I felt like shit, ridden with guilt at endangering the lives of my friends. All three of us – Ashley, her boyfriend Sebastian and I – hadn’t gotten much sleep the night before. Actually, Sebastian and I hadn’t slept at all. We were too busy playing StarCraft.
This probably sounds an awful lot like an after school special about The Dangers of Videogame Addiction, but it’s more complicated than that. You see, the day of my first and only car accident was also the day I started playing Blizzard’s seminal RTS. It was an inauspicious start to a new hobby, setting a dismal tone for my entire StarCraft career. Even after months of constant practice, I couldn’t Zerg rush my way out of a paper bag.
Sebastian, an old StarCraft veteran, introduced me to the game and taught me how to play. Being a fine judge of character, he suggested that I try the bestial Zerg faction. They were perfect. I delighted in controlling my adorable little murder-beasts across the battlefield, relishing every deliciously evil sound bite, from the cackling Zerglings to the woofing Guardians (or, as I liked to call them, “space crabs”). I made the standard rookie mistakes – over-investing in my defenses and hoarding units within my base, just begging to get nuked by Sebastian’s Terran forces – but playing with my real-life friends was always fun, even when I lost. The trouble started once my ambitions turned toward the competitive arena.
Starting to play any game competitively is exciting in its own right. You convince yourself that, with hard work and determination, you’ll make the transition from underdog to pro. You envision yourself in a sweaty training montage set to cheesy ’80s pop music before facing off against your rival to claim victory and “be the very best, like no one ever was,” etc. But the reality is far more daunting.
StarCraft at the competitive level hardly resembles the RTS that I started playing with Sebastian. It’s like simultaneously playing chess, monitoring a wall of closed-circuit security cameras and clicking the “close” icon on thousands of spontaneously generating porno pop-up ads. The game demands encyclopedic knowledge of established strategies, dizzying multi-tasking and frantic finger-work. And because it has such a vast, entrenched player base, newcomers have a lot of catching up to do. As StarCraft commentator Nick “Tasteless” Plott says, it’s the hardest competitive videogame of them all.
With starry-eyed optimism, I began playing on a Hamachi LAN network my friends on a forum had started. I devoured dozens of pages of Zerg strategy from sites like Team Liquid and GosuGamers and watched countless videos of professional Korean StarCraft tournaments on GOM-TV. I began using “builds,” pre-determined strategies akin to chess openings and gambits, with obscure-sounding names like “9 pool speed” and “2 hatch lurker drop.” I downloaded a program that tracked my “actions per minute” in game, prompting me to strive for freakish levels of twitchiness. (Korean pros frequently clock in at 300 to 400 APM.) Most importantly, I spent hour upon hour engaging in virtual battle, sending my grotesque alien hordes of Hydralisks and Mutalisks into the maw of certain doom.
My gaming community’s most cherished ritual was watching live Korean StarCraft tournaments together, which were aired at the inconvenient time of five a.m. in my time zone. If you weren’t aware, pro StarCraft is a big deal in Korea. They treat the game like Americans treat football, hosting the events in huge auditoriums complete with blaring music, ecstatic fans and excitable commentators. In our own nerdy way, we were equally enthused, filling our IRC chat window with a barrage of capital letters:
“OH HE JUST WENT THERE, HE JUST DID THAT.”
“DID SOMEBODY SCREEN CAP THAT?”
Tasteless’ commentary further added to the drama of the games, with his emotional reactions and oddball humor. (“Two dropships coming in here, probably full of tanks right now, I’m not sure, I could be wrong, but that would make sense … God, I’m good, they were full of tanks.”) In a way, I enjoyed watching the game more than playing it.
When I did play, I couldn’t even tell if I was getting better or not, because I lost nearly every match. Sometimes my fellow players would lend me a word or two of advice, but most snubbed me when I disappointed them with my substandard skills. Maybe my community was less generous than most. Yet even with others coaching me, it seemed like I would never improve.
As much as I rehearsed my builds, I was just a little too slow in executing them, and that left me with inferior forces. I sent out scouts as soon as possible, but I never found my opponent’s base in time to figure out what moves he would make. As soon as I built a second base, it would get trampled instantly, destroying my initial investment and sending me scrambling to fortify my stronghold. Every game, I had some kind of shortcoming: not fast enough, not smart enough, not vigilant enough. Instead of enjoying the game, I became obsessed with winning – after all, that seemed to be the only thing the other players cared about.
Some games seemed to drag on forever. No matter how fast I moved, there were always more upgrades to administer, more resources to harvest, more Overlords to spawn. What was once a “game” dissolved into a joyless frenzy of scrolling and clicking. As I realized the game would never end, a sense of dread slowly began to overtake me.
I played StarCraft so much that my matches continued even while I was asleep. There, they took on a warped, Kafka-esque quality where my opponent knew my every move, Dark Templars lurked behind every corner and the Overmind always required more minerals. These nightmare matches only added to my growing feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. I was no longer playing the game; the game was playing me.
And then it hit me: Those horrible visions were an accurate reflection of my waking life. I had convinced myself that playing StarCraft was enjoyable, even though the experience was consistently draining and nerve-wracking. If I felt this way when I was still a noob, how much more suffering would I have to endure before I could consider myself halfway decent? How many more months (or, at my rate, years) would it take for me to actually be competitive? Would the struggle be worth it?
In the end, I realized that I was playing competitive StarCraft not because I wanted to have fun, but because I craved recognition and acceptance. I wanted to prove myself, to gain a sense of belonging and community. I was using the game as a substitute for an actual social life, and we all know how well that works. And when I finally uninstalled it, I had nothing to show for all my efforts.
So perhaps this is a cautionary tale after all, not to insomniac drivers but would-be competitive gamers. Anyone with aspirations of “pro-player” status should ask themselves the following questions: Why do you want to make it to the top? Does playing the game actually make you happy? And are you prepared to devote years of your life to achieving mastery of a single skill that has no practical value outside of the game? Playing a game competitively requires making a sacrifice. In my case, the sacrifice was very nearly my sanity.
Jack Porter is a media scholar and freelance writer who will move to Los Angeles this Fall to begin his Master’s program.