What’s in a game?

In South Korea, American PC games like Starcraft are a spectator sport. Will North America ever see such a phenomenon?

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Imagine: sitting in a sold-out stadium with thousands of screaming fans and detailed live commentary. You’re not watching a soccer game, you’re watching a Starcraft tournament where players compete for sponsored teams, train twelve hours a day six days a week and earn salaries in the hundreds of thousands.

Today, Starcraft is a phenomenon permeating all levels of Korean society.

“It’s the exact same thing as sports teams because you get these fangirls and they do their cheers … it’s really funny, actually,” said Peter Kani, Sci ’12 and president of the Queen’s Collegiate Starleague Team.

The team, whose membership has grown to almost 20 players, participates in weekly Starcraft tournaments with 144 other University and College teams accross North America.

Unlike the large stadiums in South Korea, their tournaments are mostly observed online, Kani said.

“My friend showed me the Korean pro league scene ... I thought it was really interesting that a country would be so enthusiastic about e-sports,” he said. “You will not see a pro game that is out of shape. They all have rigorous training schedules.”

He said many of the players are admired as celebrities.

“It’s really kind of a backwards nerd fantasy world.”

There is a gaming scene in North America, Kani said, but it’s nowhere near South Korea’s level of popularity.

“Everybody’s way behind in skill level,” he said. “[We] don’t have pro teams like they do in South Korea, sponsored by major corporations. I feel like the culture here is … really different. There is a big scene but I don’t know if it will ever be broadcast on TV.”

Starcraft is popular in South Korea due in part to the fact that as an American PC game, it was one of the few games available before to 1998 when the South Korean government lifted its post-WWII ban on Japanese cultural content. What this means is that since Korean youth couldn’t get their hands on Japanese gaming consoles like Super Nintendo and Sony Playstation, they latched on hardcore to Starcraft.

Graham Thompson, Comm ’10, authored a competitive gaming and business blog for two years.

He said part of the reason Starcraft has done so well is that it’s one of very few competitive games.

“A competitive game would be the type of game where the better player should win consistently. That doesn’t mean a worse player can’t occasionally beat that person,” he said, “but it’s always through better play, more intelligent play, or tricks that catch the other player off guard.”

Most video games simply aren’t challenging enough to merit popular attention, he said. Casual games, like Nintendo’s Mario Party, depend too heavily on the element of chance to be a reliable barometer of the more skilled player.

Well-crafted multiplayer games like Starcraft work within the paradigm of intellectual games like chess, but pick up the pace, requiring players to consider hundreds of alternative actions every second.

“Sometimes you just watch what these people are able to calculate in their minds and carry out, and it’s phenomenal,” Thompson said. “People like to think, ‘If I played video games that much, I could be that good.’ And that is just blatantly false. It’s the exact same way that you could practice playing hockey all you wanted, all the time, and you’re not necessarily going to be Wayne Gretzky. What happened in Wayne Gretzky’s case was that he was Wayne Gretzky, and he practiced all the time.”

Of course, it’s hard for a spectator to appreciate the skill involved in a game if he or she doesn’t know what’s going on.

“When you watch someone run and jump really high, you can see a physical result,” he said. “You know it’s hard, and you know it’s impressive.”  

Watching a game of Starcraft, by contrast, can be like reading a novel in a foreign language.

Although North America has been exposed to games like Starcraft, none have become mainstream.

Thomspson said North Americans seem to prefer games they have an easier time getting a grasp of.

The more the winner of a game is decided by skill, the more likely new players are to be defeated by experienced ones.

Without the thrill of winning matches, newcomers lose patience and turn to more entertaining casual games. This creates an incentive for game developers to build in randomizing features that help less experienced players win.

At the same time, too much unpredictability turns pro gamers off, Thompson said.

“No one wants to work hard at something to improve at it, if there are random elements that are going to keep them from benefiting from all that hard work.”

Consider, for example, the latest in Nintendo’s Smash Bros franchise, Super Smash Bros Brawl. Thompson said many pro gamers believe that the game has less competitive value than the previous title in the franchise, Super Smash Bros Melee, which is regarded as one of the best fighters Nintendo has produced.

Mike Prime, ArtSci ’11 and vice-president of the Queen’s Smash Bros. Club, played Melee for Team Ontario and was ranked eighth in Eastern Canada.

“What makes Melee more competitive is that you have options all the time. You have absolute freedom with your character,” Prime said. “An individual who’s going to be good at a game that has lots of options must be able to consider all of those options in a very rapid manner ... They need to be able to identify situations and evaluate risk versus reward.” 

By introducing random events (such as tripping and smash balls), which often have a major impact on deciding the winner, Prime said Nintendo has shifted the game’s emphasis from skill to chance, making it accessible to a wider audience.

Jake Collins, the resident gaming expert at Kingston’s local gaming hub 4 Colour 8 Bit, has a more optimistic perspective on games like Brawl.

“I always say that Nintendo is the most successful video game company out there,” Collins said. “They make their games fun—whether you’re six or 60 you can play and enjoy it, and generally you get a good understanding as soon as you start playing.”

He said Starcraft has experienced success in Korea because the developer, Blizzard Entertainment, has a unique attitude towards its games. To make its games appeal to new players, Blizzard developed challenging single player modes and a complex laddering system that ensures players are matched against opponents of similar skill.

The strategy has worked: According to Edge, a popular gaming magazine, over 11 million copies of Starcraft worldwide have sold since its 1998 release, making it the fourth bestselling PC game of all time.

Collins said Blizzard Blizzard has so much success partially because of the freedom they get by self-publishing games.

“Publishers want to spend the least amount of money and get it out as quickly as they can, but of course that’s going to be at the cost of the game,” Collins said.

“The two most beloved companies out there are Blizzard and Valve, and neither of them have ever had pressure from publishers to get games out quickly. It really shows in the quality of their products, and how people adore and love them for that.”

What’s more, Blizzard doesn’t leave its games to fate once they’ve been released. The company invests large sums of money in fostering the pro scene: Monthly Blizzard-sponsored Global Starcraft League tournaments in Seoul have a prize pool of about $170,000. Blizzard also hosts its own annual tournaments at Blizzcon in Anaheim.

With files from Kelly Loeper

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