The drinking man’s guide to watching StarCraft, part one: introduction

The drinking man's guide to watching StarCraft

The bad news is that you will never be good at StarCraft. The good news is that with the right attitude, a little bit of practice, and this guide, you can get good at watching StarCraft. And that’s good news indeed, because while the boy geniuses who are good at StarCraft spend all day, every day toiling away in tedious practice and gruelling combat, you get to relax on your couch with a cold beer and enjoy the results of their efforts. So who’s the big dummy now?

2012 is a watershed year for eSports, and StarCraft II in particular. A robust infrastructure of leagues and tournaments, a talented community of elite top-level players, and a new level of professionalism in game presentation and commentary, or ‘casting’, has created a golden age for those of us who choose to be spectators instead of competitors.

We spectators need to take our job seriously. After all, without an audience, eSports are just videogames, and being part of that audience requires its own brand of complex literacy. Until you know what you’re looking at, any sport is mostly a mess of brightly-coloured noise. But the more you understand, the better you’ll be at interpreting the recursive calculus and brutal poetics of high-level play. So that’s the purpose of this guide: to introduce complete novices to the fundamentals of watching StarCraft, and help beginners take their watching skills to the next level.

Let’s start with the basics. StarCraft is a realtime strategy game, which means it’s essentially a digital board game played with swarms of semi-autonomous pieces – a kind of chess on bath salts. If you’ve never played StarCraft before, just go play it. I assume by now it’s free-to-play; if not, I guess you’ll have to pay for it or something (which is really a shame because you should be saving your money for GSL season tickets and beer.) The point is that you don’t have to get good at the game, but you should have some familiarity with what it’s like to play – the imperious serenity of a god-like commander calmly issuing orders becoming a gulping panic as your buildings and units multiply exponentially until you are overwhelmed with a thousand different choices and actions, each of which is loudly and simultaneously demanding your attention while, shrouded by the fog of war, a cruel opponent plots against you, marshalling his or her forces to crash against yours in wave after wave of merciless death, destroying everything you’ve worked so hard to create.

Now that we’ve all dipped a toe into the anxiety cauldron that is playing StarCraft, we can clamber back over the walls of the gladiator pit and find a comfortable spot in the bleachers from which to enjoy the game’s true beauty. But don’t ever forget that taste of madness. That’s what we’re enjoying from a safe distance, the cognitive maelstrom pro-gamers navigate and the psychic toll it exacts on the human head. That’s the storm that powers every battle and it gets more intense the higher you ascend. Imagine sacrificing your whole life to that storm and keep that in mind when you see a player collapsed over his keyboard, face in hands, after losing a match.

A brief note on history: Realtime strategy was invented in 1992 by Brett Sperry, co-founder of Westwood Studios, creator of the PC game Dune II. Some similar games preceded it, notably Herzog Zwei, but Dune II, under Sperry’s guidance, created the RTS blueprint from which every subsequent RTS game has been built – resource-gathering, base-building, tech trees, it’s all there. StarCraft (and StarCraft II) are in some ways just highly embellished, highly polished, and deeply refined versions of Dune II. Sperry’s genius was to recognise that you could revitalise classic war games by injecting them with the skill-based action of videogames.

The essence of realtime strategy is a balance between thought and action. The choices players make as they negotiate the unfolding options of buildings, units and upgrades, and the skill they exercise as they directly control individual units in the heat of battle. These two strands of play are referred to as ‘Macro’ and ‘Micro’ and together they form the yin and yang of StarCraft. In future columns we will dive deeper into these complementary aspects of the game to see how each one works and how they work together to create the world’s greatest eSport.

Before we close, a note on the title of this guide. Rest assured that I am fully aware that women can, and do, watch StarCraft while under the influence of alcohol. This title is meant to be read tongue-in-cheek, and should not be taken as an uncritical recapitulation of patriarchal hegemony.