StarCraft – Where Geeks, Digital Media, and Sports Collide
On October 22, 2011, I found myself in a full capacity crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center in California. We eagerly awaited the appearance of two superstars. The stars, with aliases MVP and NesTea, were professional gamers--among the very best in the world. They have team coaches, impressive skills, and fans. About 10,000 fans attended, and 200,000 more watched from home. Most of the crowd was male, white or Asian, dressed in T-shirts and jeans, and short-haired; some sported goatee beards. I sat on the floor in the aisle; the seats were filled. We paid attention to the giant screens, awaiting the contest. The stars emerged, wearing jackets sporting embroidered logos of their commercial sponsors. The crowd cheered.
Welcome to eSports (electronic sports), where geek communities, digital media, and sports collide! The electronic sports scene consists of many video games that test players’ mental agility and skills. Its many genres include real-time strategy games, first-person shooters, and fighting games. I am researching StarCraft, a real-time strategy game in which players control armies to engage in inter-galactic warfare. A StarCraft match typically consists of two competing players. Each player controls one of the three available sci-fi armies, two of which are aliens and one is human. A battle scene in a StarCraft match is easy to imagine if you have seen the movie Starship Troopers. A StarCraft match demands that players mentally process a complex web of relationships between combat units like the Marines, production facilities, and map terrains in real-time. The pace of play is incredibly rapid, demanding that multiple strategic decisions be made simultaneously. Mona Zhang, founder of the college league (discussed below) expressed, “It’s complex and people can reach heights—you can never be a master of StarCraft.”
StarCraft players learn to be better gamers through peer support. Openly networked technologies are helping gamers from over 50 countries learn through Internet TV, video conferencing, and social media. Teamliquid.net is the largest StarCraft community site with 220,000 active members and 11 million forum posts. According to an informal survey conducted at Teamliquid.net, 98% of Teamliquid’s members were males, 60% aged between 18-24 years old, and 15% were 17 years old or younger. So far, I have interviewed 25 StarCraft players, most of whom were Teamliquid members. My interviewees include high school and college students and young adults. I asked questions that include: How do StarCraft players support each other to improve their gaming skills? And how do the home and school environments support, or exclude, certain types of people from pursuing eSports interests?
If you are a high school or college student in the U.S. and love StarCraft, there is a chance you can join your school team to participate in a national league game. The High School StarCraft League now consists of 144 high schools, and the Collegiate StarCraft League consists of 320 colleges. Mona Zhang, the founder of the college league, is a student from Princeton University. She manages the league with league administrator Tim Young from the University of California, Irvine, and graduate student and retired professional gamer Duran Parsi. Tim Young is entering graduate school this year. I found other traces of academic relevance in StarCraft participation when I spoke to high school league administrator Vincent Wong, a student from a high school in San Diego, California. Vincent told me that all of his friends in StarCraft are also participants in the Advanced Placement program. These high school students also share a constellation of interests, including Magic: The Gathering, Yu Gi Oh!, and robotics.
The college and high school leagues are nonprofit and volunteer driven. And most players play the game casually, without dreaming that they can possibly compete professionally. Yet, they share interest in, and in many ways contribute to, the growing eSports enterprise. In 2011, professional tournaments gave out a total of $2.5 million USD in prizes. Major League Gaming, a professional tournament organizer, received $46 million USD in capital investments to grow the market. Many youth participants are ecstatic. These high school and college students have done their part by developing their school-based eSports scenes. “In 10 years, I will be able to tell my kids, I was one of the people who helped start this,” said Duran.
In the StarCraft community, we found the opportunity to observe how youth-dominated interests like video games may align with academic outcomes. We have a chance to examine how schools, e.g., through club activities, and parents, can support youth interests. The fact that these youth work as peers to create an emerging eSports market is worth investigating.
“I think this is the right time for eSports to become mainstream,” Duran predicted, “It’s up to the community to make it happen.”
Some individual names have been changed to protect the identity of respondents. Real names have been used with permission.