Starcraft 2? eSports? What’s That?

(NOTE: We interrupt this irregularly-scheduled sci-fi writing blog to bring you some geeky gaming goodness.)

aLive is controlling the map with his hellions, denying Scarlet any quick third base. Scarlett is feeling the pressure but she’s not going to overreact and make too many units; that might cut into her economic edge, and she knows that, against a player like Alive, the economic edge is the only way she’s going to win. Suddenly, aLive’s forces appear in between Scarlet’s second and third bases, a large squad of marines and hellions with the healing support of medivacs. Scarlett sends a handful of banelings to slow them down, but the marines snipe the incoming explosive bugs before they can detonate and deal any damage. Scarlett’s only static defense, a lone spine crawler, is in the middle of being relocated from one base to another and is useless. aLive’s forces close on Scarlett’s undefended third base, the drones and hatchery looking dreadfully exposed. It looks grim for the Canadian hero.

But Scarlett’s not out yet. She quickly grabs her drones and pulls them away from her mineral line where they were about to be roasted by the hellions. The marines are focused on the hatchery, which buys Scarlett only about two seconds. But back in her base, she’s morphed another host of the deadly banelings and has a squad of zerglings to soak damage this time. They’re moving across the map. A carefully handled split sends the banelings and zerglings in three different directions to flank aLive’s forces. Alive has glanced back at his base for a moment to deal with a momentary supply block and Scarlett crashes her banelings into the hellions just before the drones are cooked. The Korean Terran sees his imminent doom. He loads his remaining marines into the medivacs and soars away to safety. Scarlett’s drones have survived, along with the Hatchery. Alive escaped, but Scarlett bought herself time and managed to keep hold of her economic lead. And she’s already working on a Spire…

This is a description of 30 tense seconds in the middle of a Starcraft 2 match between two professional gamers, Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, and Han “aLive” Lee Sook. This weekend marks the Season 2 Finals of the Starcraft 2 World Championship Series (WCS). It will certainly be an eSports Nerdtacular.

What? Watching other people play video games for $100,000 in cash prizes? What kind of crazy is this?

Yes, believe it or not, thousands of people around the world play video games competitively – titles such as Starcraft 2, Dota 2, League of Legends, Call of Duty, Street Fighter, World of Tanks, and others. And hundreds of thousands tune-in to watch online. They’re called eSports, and whether or not you agree that they’re actually “sports,” the broadcasted matches can be incredibly entertaining to watch.

Personally, I’m a Starcraft 2 aficionado. I started playing the game a couple of years ago, and, searching around the web to find more information to learn about the game, I started watching some professional-level matches here and there. Gradually, I got to know the players, the teams, and the storylines that make the game so fascinating to watch.

Starcraft 2 is a real-time strategy game, typically played between two players, each of whom select one of three science fiction-themed factions to play: the Terrans, the Protoss, or the Zerg. Matches typically last between 5 and 20 minutes. It’s real-time in that, unlike a game like chess, there are no turns. Players play against one another at the same time, without pause. That means that the ability to do things quickly and the ability to multi-task are critical skills, as well as the ability to make split-second decisions. It’s also a game of economics; players manage economies to develop the armies they will use to defeat their opponents. The split-second tactical decision-making, the economic strategies, the way players bluff one another or try to conceal their strategies, and the extraordinary level of control that players exhibit is what makes these games fascinating to watch.

If you have a chance, tune in sometime this weekend to a Starcraft 2 game ( and you’ll see what I mean.

If you ARE interested in tuning in, below is a little tutorial so you will have some sense of what you’re watching.

In Starcraft 2, victory is achieved by destroying all of your opponent’s buildings or, more commonly, by forcing your opponent to concede. (This usually happens because the losing player realizes he or she has been forced into a position that he or she has absolutely no chance of winning–the Starcraft equivalent of a checkmate.) At the beginning of the game, each player starts with a handful of workers and a base. Nearby the base are minerals and gas. These resources are used to build new buildings and expand to more bases as well as to build armies. Players are forced to choose between focusing early on relentless attacking, building up a strong economy to overwhelm their opponent in the later stages of the game, or managing some hybrid approach of aggression and economy. Players must also balance building a large army with building a strong army by deciding whether and how much to invest in early upgrades to improve their existing units. The game is played out on a map with various terrain features that permit players to expand, seize map control, and employ terrain features to their tactical advantage. Players’ vision is limited to where they have units and buildings, so one of the most important factors is trying to gain some kind of vision or scouting information to determine what your opponent is up to, while simultaneously trying to conceal your own strategy from your opponent.

The Terrans are basically humans, and feature various sci-fi looking soldiers, tanks, ships, robots, and other machinery. Terran playstyle is characterized by using small bands of marines accompanied by medivacs, which are dropships that can heal some Terran units, to harass multiple locations on the map at the same time. The best players can manage attacks in three locations simultaneously, all while defending counterattacks and managing their economies.

The Zerg are hive-mind space bugs. Their units are typically insectile and monstrous-looking. Zerg playstyle is characterized by extremely quick expansion in the early game followed by buildups of horde armies of small units (zerglings) or gigantic monstrous units (Ultralisks). Zerg armies can spread “creep”, which is a coating on the map’s surface that makes Zerg units move even faster and also allows the Zerg player to see any of the opponent’s units that move onto the carpet of creep.

The Protoss are super-advanced space elves. They have pyramids and crystals! Protoss units are typically more expensive in terms of resources, but ultimately stronger than the units of the other races. Thus, Protoss armies tend to be weak earlier in the game and extraordinarily powerful late in the game. Protoss armies have a special feature called “warpgate technology” that allows them to summon new units anywhere the Protoss player has constructed a Pylon (read: magic crystal).

There are a lot more vagaries to each race and capabilities of each army, but this is probably enough for you to start watching and have some sense of what’s happening. During a match, however, there can be a lot going on. To try to get a sense of who is ahead, listen to the casters. But more importantly, see how many bases each player has and how much “supply” each player has. Supply is a numerical measure of how large one player’s army is compared to another and is limited by a “supply cap”, which can be raised by constructing certain buildings. The game has a hard supply cap of 200 supply per player. By seeing who is ahead in supply and who has the most bases, you can begin to get an idea of who is winning the game. However, supply is only a number. Sometimes even more than numbers, positioning, upgrades, and the targeted use of special abilities can be the deciding factors in a critical head-to-head battle.

Also useful to note are that some units fly and some units are ground-based. Some ground units can shoot only other ground units, while some flyers can only shoot other flyers. Each army also has a limited number of units that can turn invisible (such as the deadly Protoss unit, the Dark Templar). Each army also has at least one unit and one building that allows them to detect these invisible units, which can cripple an opponent if not dealt with quickly. If you’re interested. you can learn more about each faction’s units by selecting the links above.

Here are a few common strategies that you might see:

Cheese or Rush: One player goes for an early-game make or break rush that will either win or lose the game. If spotted in time, the defender usually comes out on top, but if the defender fails to spot the attack in time and doesn’t control his defenses perfectly, he or she may suffer a humiliatingly quick loss.

Proxy: A type of cheese that involves one player building an army-producing structure right next to his opponent’s base. This may allow the attacker to get army units into his opponent’s base before the defender has any suitable defenses prepared.

Harassment: This is typically an early- to mid-game strategy that involves trying to slow your opponent down by using small groups of units to destroy the opponent’s workers. Fewer workers means less economy. Less economy translates to smaller army and slower growth.

All-in: Cheeses and rushes are all-ins, but not all-ins need to be rushes. An all-in is basically when one player or the other just goes for it and throws everything that they have, knowing that if they don’t win, they basically just lost. Can be a coin-toss moment.

Base-trade: This can be a fun coin-toss moment. Both players attack each other’s bases at the same time, but don’t have enough defenses to both attack and defend. It becomes a race to see which player can destroy all of the other player’s buildings first. These are often exciting games.

Timing attack: Equally-matched players will often have similarly sized armies and be progressing at similar rates. By executing a timing attack, a player looks for a brief window of opportunity where they have a very small unit or upgrade advantage over their opponent. The purpose of the timing attack usually isn’t to win the game right-out, but to widen the gap. Once the gap grows, it becomes difficult for one player to come back.

The WCS tournament is an ongoing tournament broken into three regions: America, Europe, and Korea. Any player can play in any region, but they must play there throughout the entire season. A season lasts about 10 weeks. Each region starts with a round of 32 players, then plays through a weekly season until they get to a regional final of 8 players. The sixteen players involved in this weekend’s season finals are the regional champions of the American, European, and Korean regions. In Starcraft 2, Korean players dominate, largely because Starcraft in Korea is treated as something like a national sport, and has the economy and infrastructure to support large professional teams and leagues. In comparison, the American and European players (known as “foreigners), simply don’t have the practice time and dedicated infrastructure to typically rise to the level of Koreans. Koreans, of course, populate the entire Korean regional tournament, but the regional finals on North America and Europe are also dominated by Korean players. This season, one Canadian and a few Europeans made it through to the Season 2 Finals. I think one of the reasons the finals are so exciting to watch is that you get to root for the underdog American and European players who are holding their own against the very best Korean players in the world.

Matches are typically best of 3 games, rising to best of 5 and best of 7 in the quarterfinals and finals. In the initial round of 16, player play in groups of 4 (called the Group Stage). The top two players from each Group will move onto the round of 8, which is a more typical bracket format.

This weekend’s tournament will be held at Gamescom in Cologne, Germany. Because it’s being played in Germany, broadcast times are early in the day (morning and early afternoon EST). The tournament features some really exciting players. Here are a few of my favorites:

My underdog favorite is the Canadian Zerg player, Scarlett. Scarlett won the American championships at last year’s WCS tournament and came in 3rd place in the recent WCS America behind the Korean superstars Polt and Jaedong. Scarlett is being called the best “foreigner” in the world, but this weekend we’ll get the chance to see if she can go toe-to-toe with the best Koreans in the world. I’m not delusional enough to expect a top 4 finish in the season finals, but if she makes it into the Round of 8, it will be a huge win for the American scene.

Next up for me is the Korean Terran playing in America, Polt. Originally from Korea, Polt moved to Texas this year and studies English at UT Austin. He loves America, speaks excellent English, and has a great sense of humor. He just seems like a great all-around guy and is a fantastic player. Polt is only the fourth player of all-time to win the “Triple Crown” (an unofficial title for players who have won a premier tournament in each of the three major regions), and seems at the height of his abilities right now. As the winner of this season’s American regional final, it will be interesting if Polt can go far in the season 2 finals. If he can make it to the top, it will be fair to say that the WCS American region features as strong of competition as the Korean region.

The Korean Terran Innovation will be one to watch. Tournament results early in the year were painting Innovation as the new “god” of Starcraft, with his ability to crush masters such as Flash, Jaedong, and Life. But despite his convincing victory in the Season 1 Finals, Innovation has shown that he can get rattled by a case of nerves and lose hard when another player is able to get inside his head. His 0-4 loss to Season 2’s winner, Maru, demonstrated that Innovation is far from invincible. It will be interesting to see if Innovation gets his composure back and can hold it together long enough to ride all the way to victory.

Swedish Protoss player NaNiwa has also shown himself capable of playing some world-class Starcraft, but he’s also known to crack under pressure and rage at other players. If his teammates can help keep him cool and level-headed, he might go far, especially as he is playing in familiar territory and will not be jet-lagged like the Korean and American players.

The Dutch Protoss player Grubby is a fan-favorite, who, unfortunately is unlikely to go far in the tournament. He’s a fantastic Starcraft 2 player; he’s just not showed quite the level of skill in premier tournaments as the other players, at least until this year’s Season 2 European finals, where Grubby schooled the Spanish Zerg Vortix and nearly took down the Korean duckdeok (prounounced “duck-duck”) who would ultimately go on to win the European region.

This is pretty much some of the best Starcraft 2 you can watch and no doubt it will be highly entertaining. I hope that if this sounds even remotely interesting to you, that you will tune in and watch for a game or two just to see what it’s about. And if you’re free and in the DC-area, give me a call and we can get together and watch a few games over a beer.


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