Over the past ten years, video games have become a sport. Electronic sports, or ‘e-sports’, is a viable source of income for elite gamers worldwide and is constantly growing along with the emergence of high speed broadband and online marketing opportunities for businesses. The most prominent e-sport is StarCraft, largely thanks to the success of televised matches in South Korea. South Korea was in a recession during the late 1990’s, so in order to stimulate growth, its government invested in a world-leading broadband and communications network, allowing users to connect at unparalleled speeds.
In 1998 the original StarCraft came out. It is a best-selling real-time strategy game with three distinct and contrasting races, where between 2 and 8 people can play together, managing an economy, building bases and armies, and fighting each other. The game is extremely fast paced, with an incredibly high skill ceiling. Around the year 2000, South Korean TV stations realised that there was a market for televised StarCraft matches and tournaments, so individual one-on-one leagues and team-based pro-league matches were created.
As of 2010, there are 12 pro-gaming teams, groups of players living in pro-gaming houses where they are paid a salary to play StarCraft exclusively for 10 to 14 hours a day at the highest level possible, completing between 300 and 400 actions per minute, that is – move, attack, spell, hotkey commands. That’s between 5 or 6 actions every second.
The game is extremely popular not only with online communities that play the game, but with people who are purely spectators. The results of StarCraft leagues make it into news bulletins, newspapers and everyday discussion in Korea, as people talk about their favourite players or teams.
A lot of people come from all over South Korea, and sometimes the world, to watch professional StarCraft. It has been extremely successful as a spectator sport and is ingrained in Korean culture. Recently its sequel, the imaginatively named StarCraft II was released and has been accompanied by a staggering amount of business investment in tournament organisation and media coverage, bringing e-sports into a new light.
StarCraft II differs from the original in many ways. Although the playable races are the same, the controllable units, buildings and gameplay mechanics (specifically relating to the control and production of units) are significantly changed. Balance and combat interactions between the races is different, and the maps are quite a bit smaller. The game was practically shunned in South Korea upon it’s release, though Blizzard’s hard work on balancing the game and replacing unpopular maps, as well as some StarCraft 1 legends transitioning to the sequel have turned the games South Korean popularity around.
The most prestigious tournament to emerge in the South Korean pro-gaming scene for SC2 is the GomTV StarCraft II Open Starleague, or GSL for short (run monthly). Boasting open qualifiers for anyone willing to attend (‘foreign’, or non-Korean pro-gamers have flown to Seoul to compete) and the largest prize pool in gaming history (1st place prize of over $80,000 USD), the GSL has become the pinnacle of e-sports competition. Blizzard, the company who developed and maintains SC2, releases ‘patches’ which address various issues with the game in accordance with periods of time before and after a monthly GSL begins.
Two complete GSL seasons have been completed, with the 3rd almost underway. The preliminaries have finished and the players have been matched up in tournament brackets, ready to prepare for their televised matches within weeks. The first GSL was watched by tens of thousands of international viewers online and through other means, as well as over 100,000 Koreans. When the second GSL got underway and notable StarCraft 1 pro-gaming legends such as SlayerS_Boxer and NaDa were participating, viewership spiked to well over a million South Koreans and 400,000 ‘foreigners’. Staggering numbers such as these will motivate sponsors and businesses to invest further in e-sports, and perhaps bring it into the public sphere in the west.
Five foreigners have qualified for the latest GSL event, all of whom are participants in the largest StarCraft pro-gaming community outside of Korea – ‘Teamliquid’. Teamliquid, or TL, is a StarCraft community for both the original StarCraft and it’s sequel. TL has a vast user-base with actively posting members from over 100 countries around the world. It boasts discussion on general everyday activities and world events, foreign tournaments around North America, Europe and South-East Asia, and includes a wealth of information, discussion and debate about StarCraft related strategies, teams, players and balance issues. In Melbourne, Victoria, there are organised meets by Teamliquid members for a collective viewing of each GSL Finals streamed live on the night.
There are large tournaments outside of Korea, however nothing yet compares to the sheer size and popularity of the GSL. A combination of factors including popular players (NaDa and BoxeR are household names in South Korea), and a stable viewership has made sponsoring such a large and prestigious event worthwhile for software and hardware companies such as TG-Sambo and Sony Ericsson. One American company has been trying to bring e-sports to a wider, more mainstream spectating audience and has been meeting some success from a business perspective. Major-League Gaming (MLG) runs an e-sports circuit throughout major cities in the U.S and boasts prize pools of over $20000 USD per gaming title (multiple games are played in the tournaments, for example SC2 and Halo 3/Reach). MLG has managed to become sustainable because of advertising, which is a welcome change from previous events allowing sponsors or organisers to break even or make a loss. If e-sports is marketed correctly in the west it could become a sensation as it has in South Korea.
So for all my rambling I suppose I want to make clear that StarCraft II, and e-sports in general, are viable spectator sports. They require as much intense preparation and training as many physical sports and can be incredibly exciting and exhilarating to play or spectate. While relatively unknown throughout western countries, there is a significant scene with hundreds of thousands of spectators for high-level StarCraft matches in the United States alone. South Korea is an e-sports success story so far, with select hyped matches receiving over 2 million unique internet hits in Korea alone. It is a viable business venture for some companies to invest in, and a viable way for passionate gamers worldwide to have income and incredible experiences.