I'm writing this blog post from the floor of the Raleigh Convention Center during the second day of Major League Gaming's Summer Championships. Even if you're not familiar with eSports, any sports fan would feel at home in the auditorium here as the crowd cheers their favorite players on, as the analysts give play-by-play color commentary, sponsors beg fans to text for prizes, and the winners give post game interviews.
Electronic Sports (eSports) are not some new hot trend. Competitive gaming was born the day that commercial video games were brought to market back in the 80s. Today's eSports are professionalized, well sponsored, and adored by millions of fans worldwide. At this afternoon's event the world's top players are competing in head-to-head matches that will result in the crowning of a world summer season champion in the StarCraft II pro circuit.
At this moment Stephano and Violet are battling: Zerg vs. Zerg. StarCraft II is a competitive realtime strategy (RTS) game created by Blizzard Entertainment. You can play StarCraft alone but beating a computer generated opponent isn't as much fun as testing your mettle against an organic life form of your own species. To play StarCraft each electronic athelete has to mine resources, build bases and units, and attack his opponent. Competitive StarCraft requires lightening reflexes, a great command of the mechanics of the game, and excellent strategic planning. In this way, StarCraft is similar to Speed Chess. Most games are won or lost based on strategic decisions made early in the game.
Stephano and Violet sit in small glass booths with their computers and headphones under giant video screens. Cameras show the audience their every reaction as they fight for control of the map, upgrade their units, and launch feints and defend against attacks. Stephano belongs to a major league team: Millenium, based in France. Violet is an independent and a great enough player that he is sponsored directly by a Korean company. Korea is the true home of competitive StartCraft. The majority of StarCraft players in Raleigh today are from Korea and you can see them taking smoke breaks outside the convention center and walking down Fayetteville Street looking for lunch. (I recommend the Mecca Restaurant.)
To follow the game you need to understand how StarCraft is played. The commentators talk about roach speed, mutalisk units, evolution chambers, and the hydra-queen defense. But they also talk about calculated risks, getting back into the game, and incredible plays. Luckily, I played the original StarCraft back in late 90s (not competitively) so I can follow along while my sons gives me hints, tips, and bits of player background.
And that's the real reason I'm here: Because eSports are important to my nearly grown-up kids (and to lots of young adults). I could drag my kids to a baseball game but they're not little guys anymore. Instead I'm letting them drag me to a StarCraft tournament. Looking around the vast auditorium floor I see only a handful of parents. But that's ok. I'd rather spend a weekend in the world that my kids inhabit than force them to suffer through mine. And the truth is that I'm having a great time. The enthusiasm of the players is infectious. The color commentary is as good as it gets. The games are truly exciting. Really -- I'm a big kid myself!
I'm participating in the future here: 10 or 15 years from now eSports will be as big as Baseball (in the US, they are already as big as Baseball in Korea) and star players like Stephano and Violet will be recognized legends.