I’ve never been one to really watch or follow sports. Outside of my own college’s football program, and every so often when a Detroit team would be in the finals of some major tournament, I could never really be bothered to care.
It just seemed like such a time commitment, watching all the games (most of which are three hours plus) and learning all the intricacies of the league and the players in order to keep up in conversation. My current job was born out of my interests, movies, TV shows and video games. Those were the pastimes I’ve devoted my free time to growing up.
I never really thought that these two things would combine in any sort of meaningful way. “eSports” is sort of a laughable term when you first hear it, as could it ever possibly be entertaining to watch someone else play a video game?
Over the last year, I’ve learned the answer to that: Yes.
I’m not sure how I first discovered Starcraft as an eSport. I think it was a random YouTube link of a professional Starcraft BroodWar match between Korean pros. It wasn’t even in English, but the excitement of the announcers and the frenzied roar of the crowd seemed to rival any “real” sporting event I’d seen broadcasted, and I was intrigued. The next few hours were spent sorting through pages and pages of similar videos, and I got to see pros play at the top level of a game that I was an avid fan of myself with throngs of screaming girls cheering them on.
The arrival of Starcraft II blew this scene wide open in North America. I discovered English language commentators like HDStarcraft and Husky who would enthusiastically cast games between players I hadn’t heard of, but were clearly playing at a high level of skill. Over time, I began to recognize the names, and even their playstyles. Idra, the foul-mouthed, macro Zerg, TLO the fun-loving, creative Terran, White-Ra, the special tactics Protoss. These names stuck with me and my knowledge of the sport expanded exponentially as I watched pro games in conjunction with playing myself.
But I wasn’t alone in this. Even though Starcraft is traditionally a Korean eSport, many Americans and Europeans began to watch these sorts of commentaries and become invested in the scene themselves. This enthusiasm was harnessed by people who recognized the growing popularity of Starcraftas an eSport outside of Korea, and so tournaments and leagues started sprouting up worldwide.
Dreamhack, IEM, IPL, NASL, MLG, all recruited top tier players from all over the world to compete against each other. They started small, but continued to grow until some became massive. MLG is perhaps the most prominent example of how the eSports scene has exploded in America over the past year, as it’s grown from a limited number of attendees and players to a huge event with main stages, teams of commentators, legions of top tier gamers and hundreds of thousands of viewers watching streams online.
As a fan who holds this job, I’ve gotten the chance to talk to a lot of people involved with the Starcraft II scene. I’ve spoken with Sundance DiGiovanni, the co- founder of MLG who told me what it takes to put on an event like that, and how much he’s seen eSports grow recently. I talked with pro player Destiny, who told me what it’s like to live as a full-time gamer, and make a living by entertaining fans and winning games. Most recently I got to speak with commentator Day ,the de facto face and voice of professional Starcraft II and a community icon who had this to say about what it means to be a “nerd” in today’s day and age, something that really stuck with me:
“Nerd” was a label given to people with intelligence and technological prowess, and it was only a matter of time until those people grew up. They’re now adults with disposable income and a great deal of influence in society and culture.”
And it’s true, the Starcraft community now has as much pride as any die hard sports fanbase out there, and I count myself among them. As someone who never cared for professional sports, I now know what it’s like to cheer for my favorite player, and feel true tension and excitement during a particularly close game, and satisfaction when my pick comes out victorious.
This weekend, MLG came to Orlando, and for fans the event was jaw dropping. Korean players started being invited to American MLG events a few months ago, and ever since they started coming, they’ve taken the top six spots every single time. In Orlando however, two players changed that narrative. Idra, a Zerg player known as the “bad boy” of eSports due to his propensity to trash talk, surged through the bracket, knocking off Koreans left and right and nail-biting games that had everyone on the edge of their seats. His teammate, HuK, a Canadian Protoss player living in Korea, dominated to an even greater extent, blazing through the winner’s bracket and ultimately defeating a longtime friend and rival, MC, to win the tournament.
The fact that he and Idra made it that far, and furthermore that Huk won the event over an array of world class Koreans while using a race that most would consider to be underpowered made the event possibly the greatest of all time for the fans. If mere words don’t express how much it meant to some, here’s the view from Montreal where a group of fans got together to watch the tournament at a bar. Events like this were happening all over the world for MLG.
Do you see a difference between that reaction and that of baseball fans when their team has just won the World Series? I don’t, and that’s why I feel like I’ve finally found a sport just for me.
“Nerd chills” is a term coined by Starcraft casters Artosis and Tasteless, who use it to describe a particularly amazing moment that happens during a game, or an unbelievable turn of events that literally sends chills up your spine. All day yesterday, I felt myself getting chilled from head to toe, and that’s something I can’t say I’ve experienced with another sport. But my friends have, and now I feel like I understand their passion.
The heroes of these games aren’t 250 pound athletes at the peak of physical perfection. Often they’re scrawny or chubby or or acne covered, and more than a few fit into the stereotypes you might envision of a pro gamer. But to the fans? It doesn’t matter. It’s a sport of skill and personality, not of looks and brawn, and even if the winner of an event is a five foot nothing goofy kid, that just makes it easier for them to hoist him onto their shoulders.
As I sit in front of my computer, cheering loudly in an empty room with a stream of a video game open, I may be a huge nerd for doing so, but at 24 I don’t give a damn about labels like that anymore. Starcraft is my sport of choice, and you might want to give it a chance to see what you’re missing.