By Vivian Yan
StarCraft's infectious competitiveness has made it a global phenomenon, including South Korea, where a gaming scandal shook the eSports world in April. Photo: Flickr
A life and death war between three futuristic civilizations plays out in a far-flung galaxy, while a crowd of 30-odd students watches every move of the battle on a projected screen in a room here on Earth.
Somewhere else on our planet, a man taps furiously at his computer with a precision honed by years of training, controlling each action his army makes against its enemies.
This is StarCraft, perhaps the most popular computer game in the world.
Since its release by Blizzard Entertainment in 1998, a unique global culture has developed around competitive play of the strategy game. The fever has only heightened since the release of StarCraft II on July 27. USC and 176 other colleges brought this culture onto campuses throughout North America with the foundation of a competitive gaming organization called the Collegiate StarLeague in spring 2009.
This year, senior computer science major Bada Kang is leading the expansion of gaming culture at USC. He is the president and co-founder of the USC eSports Club, where enthusiasts gather to strategize, discuss and play multiplayer computer games. Though its main focus is StarCraft, the club has grown to include games such as Counter-Strike and WarCraft III’s Defense of the Ancients.
Just what makes these computer games – and StarCraft in particular – so attractive? Many cite the game’s accessibility, thanks to low system requirements and ease of play.
Both StarCraft and its sequel are set in a distant galaxy where three races come into conflict: the Terrans, humans exiled from Earth; the Protoss, human-like aliens with advanced technology and psionic powers; and the Zerg, an insectoid alien swarm developed not with machinery but with genetic mutations. The basic gist of the game is that players control one of these races and attempt to destroy another player’s base while defending their own.
But what has made StarCraft a global phenomenon is its infectious competitiveness. Club member Allen Kou began playing StarCraft like many other club members.
“My older brother and a bunch of the friends around the block got into [StarCraft], so I started playing with them,” said Kou. “And then I just got really into it, because I couldn’t stand losing.”
As an international student from South Korea, Kang was part of the explosion of internet cafés in Asia that led to a massive gaming culture.
“It’s one of the favorite pastimes [in South Korea]. We’d go to a really cheap cyber café that’s always crowded because it’s so cheap. We’d go there Saturday mornings because no one would be there,” said Kang. “We’d get our spots and we’d play for like four hours. It’s like a bonding experience, like saying, ‘Hey, let’s go to karaoke and hang out. Let’s go to the cyber cafe and play a few StarCraft II games.’ It’s a really cheap form of entertainment. And they’re open 24/7, so it’s very accessible.”
Huge popular interest in the game attracted businesses and companies, which began setting up professional leagues and sponsoring teams. StarCraft-focused television channels broadcast games between top players, shoutcasters analyze and describe matches like sports commentators, and the best gamers have become celebrities in their own right. Though news in April of a gambling scandal in which 11 South Korean players were accused of throwing matches shook the eSports world, such high-profile drama emphasizes its profitability and competitiveness.
While gaming culture in America is not as prevalent, it is nonetheless making an impact. The finals of the World Cyber Games, the largest international eSports event, were held at the Los Angeles Convention Center from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3. Sean Plott, a USC graduate student in interactive media who hosts a live web show analyzing StarCraft matches under the alias day9, also shoutcasted for matches.
Though USC eSports is devoted to following top players, analyzing their matches, and learning and developing new game strategies, it is nowhere near as competitive as the WCG. According to junior Jane Chen, co-founder of USC eSports, CSL is just a place for fans to play at a casual level.
“It’s fun, and it’s your chance to play for your college,” said Chen. “It’s also a good place for people to meet other people who have the same interests.”
At the heart of CSL and USC eSports, the basic idea that first made StarCraft popular still holds true: simple, fun competition between friends hanging out together.