Imagine an auditorium filled with eager fans, many of them young women holding up signs and screaming themselves hoarse. Huge screens display images capturing different angles of the action as commentators attempt to analyze the performances and excite the crowd. Imagine two television stations broadcasting 24 hours a day, devoting themselves to this sport.
In Korea, this sport is StarCraft.
For about six months straight, I took many of my meals at my computer, logged into YouTube. After cooking my dinner (usually pasta or rice), I would load one of Klazart‘s, diggity‘s or moletrap‘s StarCraft videos. Here I was: tired after a long day, my room a mess, nursing a bowl of carbohydrates with Zerg versus Protoss on my computer screen. Weeks earlier, two Korean teenagers competed furiously in a televised match 7,000 miles away. An Indian-born Irishman and two Californians watched the raw video, ignored the Korean announcers and provided their own analysis of each game. For me, an English-speaking, American-born-Chinese spectator, it was fascinating.
Klazart, diggity and moletrap (among many others) take Korean professional StarCraft matches, record their own audio commentary tracks and overlay them onto the video. They are amateur commentators only in the sense that they have not been paid for their efforts. “Our first goal, which we have already met, was to have every single Korean pro-game of significance commentated,” diggity said.
The closest examples of this kind of cross-cultural niche community are the fan groups that provide anime and drama fansubs (short for “fan-subtitled”). But this community is about so much more than translation; they inject their own thoughts, emotions, and energies into this product. Commentators provide explanations of tactics, predictions of the outcome and post-match analysis. They make the video easier to process, more familiar and more approachable to the casual English-speaking viewer.
“I try to make it as accessible as possible, without being patronizing at the same time,” diggity said.
It’s not simply a fad, either. Worldwide, StarCraft has sold 9.5 million copies with 4.5 million of those being sold in Korea. On a given Saturday night, there are 50,000 players on Battle.net playing a game released 10 years ago. StarCraft has endured.
Klazart and diggity both gave three reasons for StarCraft‘s longevity. The first is that game is easy to understand, so much that “a complete neophyte could pick it up.” Klazart adds that you can enjoy StarCraft on multiple levels; depending on how much time a player devotes to the game, they will always be able to have fun with the single-player campaign or online on Battle.net. Secondly, it’s fun to watch and keeps your attention. Almost all of the action can be readily identified on screen – like watching a tug of war between two teams, a simple judgment call can be made about who is winning. Finally, it’s so well-balanced that there is an almost “unlimited depth of strategy.” There is always a new facet to the game and the meta-strategy is constantly changing as new players enter the fray and older players adapt and improve their game.
“StarCraft is the perfect strategy game. It encompasses every aspect of strategy. It has infinite variability within it and it’s perfectly balanced, ” said Klazart.
Both Klazart and diggity began as competitive Counter-Strike players before realizing that their preferred “event” was far less enjoyable to watch than Blizzard’s flagship RTS. “Even with the new overview modes and map modes [in Counter-Strike], you couldn’t ever get an encompassing tactical sense of the action,” Klazart said. “Watching it was crap.” Although many factors are responsible for StarCraft‘s dominance in Korea – like the high-technology culture, the availability of high-speed internet and even an economic ban on Japanese projects – some credit must go to the game’s innate capability to facilitate high-skill-level action that is captivating for players and spectators alike.
“In my attempts to actually watch Korean Warcraft matches, I started watching StarCraft and literally, it just took me one or two or three games to make the switch … quite simply because it was so much more fun and exciting to watch,” Klazart said.
It started for Klazart with an amateur commentary competition held by teamliquid.net (inspired by Tasteless). Soon after, Klazart began commentating almost full time, covering as many matches as possible. His YouTube popularity blossomed as he uploaded more and more videos. Unbeknownst to him, two of his biggest fans were Californians by the name of diggity and moletrap. When Klazart took a break from commenting to focus on his novel, moletrap and diggity decided to take up his mantle.
Now, after second generation of commentators have joined in, there are more than a dozen. Cholera, RainmanMP, Deus, and PsyonicReaver are just a few of the new recruits. Pooling their talents with writers, web administrators, forum moderators, fans and players, they have formed sc2gg.com, a user-created community for almost all things StarCraft with a focus on English commentary.
In November 2007, sc2gg started out as a for-profit business venture. In this early stage, all three of its forbearers felt a little apprehensive about supporting such a profit-minded endeavor. When one partner dropped out and the “profit” part was removed, moletrap and diggity put their full faith into the project. Along with Radivel, who financially supported this website, they decided to pursue a new vision.
“Radivel was like, ‘I’m just going to do this as a fan-community site and I want it to be as Web 2.0 as possible,'” diggity said.
Through his efforts, sc2gg was reborn. Today, it is a joint project between volunteer contributors. All the staff, including the writers and commentators, pursue projects for sc2gg because they believe in their work, their community and spreading the enjoyment of StarCraft. The site now hosts forums, a news section including write-ups on all the games and, of course, English commentaries for almost all Korean professional games, completely free. The site is home to 25 staff and 2,000 active forum members, and the numbers are steadily increasing.
One World, Our World
Looking at their community, I asked diggity and Klazart if there was one thing that they would change. Their answers were clear, straightforward and nearly identical. “I would try to bring a greater cohesiveness within the community,” Klazart said. For whatever reason, games like StarCraft with a hardcore fan base often develop an elitist culture that creates an imaginary schism between “elitists” and “noobs.”
“Not only is this attitude divisive but it’s counterproductive” he continued. “It serves no purpose beyond boosting egos and padding insecurities.”
diggity agreed. “I feel like e-sports have been stunted to a major degree because of these attitudes in the community. When casual players or spectators come across this type of treatment from the established players in whatever community, they tend to think that everyone here is a bunch of jerks and they just leave.”
On the subject of e-sports outside of Korea, both felt that over-commercialization is hurting their development. Currently, the goal of any televised e-sport is the marketing and sale of a new product, typically a recently released one. Klazart lamented that the industry is not really trying to build a strong fan base around a lasting game. “Who in their right minds is going to watch a tournament of some kids playing FIFA Football 2008? If I wanted to watch a football match, I would go and watch a real football match.”
For Klazart, StarCraft is an ambassador: a game that has not only withstood the test of time, but is also capable of bringing some flavor of Korean e-sports to the rest of the world. It has all the qualities of a strategy game like chess; the innumerable variations in strategy and execution make for a great game that can be played over and over. And just like chess, complex new strategies are developing all time.
In my lifetime, I have seen ESPN televise not only chess, but also Magic: the Gathering, numerous spelling bees and even Scrabble. Maybe soon, we’ll see StarCraft. I’m crossing my fingers.
Daeran Wang is an artist’s soul living in an engineer’s mind. He tempers his positronic brain by reading lots of David Mitchell and keeping his room messy.