Thursday, October 18, 2012

Pro Gaming: Yes, It's a Thing.

So this is exciting.

Maybe not for everyone, certainly not key demographics of my readers, but still, I'm pretty happy with it. I'm a little confused why this is still an issue and, to be honest, still a law, but then again It wasn't too long ago that North Carolina made a big deal about it so...There's that.

DOMA? More like...FOMA...Because...Failure starts with 'F'...Sigh...I wish I was funny...

Because He's a Marshmallow! Marshmallow's don't talk! Nor do they have faces or appendages! It's FUNNY! *sob*

So the good news is that I'm at the point in the semester where school has given me a bevy of new ideas to write about. It's all mostly higher-level stuff, so right now I'm thinking of ways to make them palatable and...not-as-boring, but expect an intravenous injection of hard class to be hitting your favorite weekly blog soon, in particular the fact that ancient myths still have an almost stupidly huge bearing on culture today, An examination of things in storytelling we don't notice but affect us anyways, maybe a post on language, and all kinds of cool stuff. I've actually been mulling a lot of what I've got planned over for a while but it's only in the last several weeks I've gotten enough background to really flesh it out and give weight to the ideas.

Hmm...nothing else exciting happened this week. Let's move on!

Pro Gaming
Yes, It's a (Big) Thing

So, professional Athletes  yeah? They get paid a lot to do something relatively simple. That thing being to play a game. Now, I don't mean to demean that; I don't have any interest in sports but I do recognize that these people play their respective game very well. They practice day and night to learn it, improve it, and perfect it, and while it's easy to be the cynic and claim that they earn more than a hundred times what someone with a much harder job might might, I think that speaks much less to the Athlete and much more to the priorities of the people who pay them that silly sum. The point is that these people, regardless of what kind of noun they put in front of their "-ball" they love their game enough to become the best of the best at it, to the point where real, livable money is on the line. I repeat, I really don't care for sports in any capacity, I'm known to lampoon, dismiss, and even berate the kind of hyper-competitiveness it can create, but I do have a lot of respect for someone who decided to rest their livelihood on their passion. 

But what if that passion is playing Starcraft? Starcraft isn't your regular sports game, it doesn't even have any balls! I've watched several matches now, professional and amateur, and I counted exactly zero balls. No goals in which to put these phantom balls, either! In fact, Starcraft has done away with even the notion of points! Points! How can you even play a game without points?!

Nothing makes sense to me anymore!
Starcraft (and more recently, Starcraft 2) is what we in the gaming biz* call a "Real-Time Strategy Game" in that it is a strategy game and players don't take turns. We're not very good at naming our own genres. You play one of three races (Terran, Protoss and Zerg), and you build and you grow and you harvest and you train as fast as you can until you have an army of death large enough to counter your opponents army of death, last army of death standing wins. Something that makes Starcraft stand out though is that it is ridiculously balanced; there are no cheap tricks, there are no spammy attacks, there is no noob curve, every attack has a counter attack and every defense has a weak point. This turns Starcraft into somewhat of a high-speed chess with lasers and aliens and if you've ever seen or, lord only knows, played a match, you know how true this is. 

This game, you have to understand, was first released in 1998. It took off like a rocket in Korea and it wasn't long before it became a huge deal with it's own high-paying tournaments. People played this game, for a living, for twelve years before Starcraft 2 came out. Twelve fucking years. And in that time players rose and fell and teams formed with their training facilities with communal sleeping quarters, private gyms, and salaries. The top-tier players became rockstars in Korea with their own groupies and sponsorship (and all the ego to prove it). Until the last couple of years it's still been pretty niche but people were making a perfectly sustainable, even lavish career out of Starcraft.

What floors a lot of people is the sheer amount of effort, training, and raw skill goes into playing. Player Speed is measured in Actions Per Minute or APM. Most top-level players average about 275-300APM. If you don't know how crazy that is, try doing any 300 things in under a minute, then try making each one of those things a unique, intelligent thought. To get this fast, players practice for about ten hours a day, six days a week with coaches observing everything they do and correcting things which, frankly, even I can't see if I rewind the video.

This went on until 2010, when Starcraft 2 was released and then everything got even crazier. How crazy? Well, somewhere between Starcraft and Starcraft 2, an organization called Major League Gaming formed in an attempt to get Americans into this crazy pro-gaming stuff and when they were founded, mostly everyone laughed. Some people were really excited but the general response was "Really? You sure? What are we, some crazy Koreans? Psh." Problem was, Koreans were actually SO good at the game that everyone else was kind of scared to take part; almost invariably, they'd be beaten by a Korean player who had trained twice as hard, twice as long, with instruction twice as comprehensive. But with the release of SC2, there was a major shakeup; players who had been going so long in the original were having trouble adapting to the new systems and values and new players were starting to pull ahead leading to a massive influx of new players from all over the world who wanted a piece of that pie. 

So how big is it now? The last MLG tournament crowd looked like this:

So that's a few thousand people packed into a sold-out arena to watch some guys play video games. What. That doesn't even speak of the millions, yes millions of people who tuned in to the livesteam of the competition (with live commentary, by the way) on and other streaming services.

Don't even get me started on the prize money. When I said people could make a career out of this I wasn't kidding; according to this ESPN article, MLG alone gave out more than $160,000 in it's last tournament and that's not counting other tournaments like NASL, the ESL, Dreamhack, And the IGN Pro League and Team League. 

All of this is just Starcraft, mind you. Just Starcraft. What, there's other games? Of course there are. Most aren't nearly as big, granted  but there's still a lot of growth to be found as a side-effect to the kind of huge exposure these leagues have gotten. 

What is likely the second largest game currently played on the pro circuit is League of Legends, what's called a MOBA or Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (Seriously, we SUCK at genres) and I only say arguably because there's a lot of people right now who think LoL might actually be a bigger deal than Starcraft at this point. A couple of weeks ago there were some allegations of cheating in the League of Legends World Championships and the officials, finding at least partial guilt, fined the offending team $30,000. That, itself, is a lot of money, that's huge. That's two decent cars or half a crappy house. It was also about 20% of that team's winnings.  

The thing about LoL is that it's intrinsically a team game, it has to be, it's built to be 5 on 5 and so the winnings get split five ways which means the tournaments can charge five times as much to enter so the pot gets five times as big. Like Starcraft, it's got a lot of that same hyper-intricate balance to the point where I simply have no idea what goes on in any given match. I know that the goal of a match is to knock down your enemy's turrets which are blocking your way to the enemy nexus, which you have to destroy. First Nexus down ends the game and the victors move on. I even get jungling, the idea of moving between lanes where the turrets are lined up to kill hidden monsters and net your team extra loot and for the deeper mechanics though...It's beyond me so much so that even in entry-level games (The client matches you with players of similar experience levels) I'm always the one holding the team back. I've had friends get super deep into League of Legends and...Well, those were usually short conversations. 

I haven't even tried to play Starcraft 2. I played enough of the campaign in the original to understand that there's a lot more going on than "Make little men, send your little men to kill other little men, and if you have more little men, you win!" Much, much more. There's creep spread, Pylon placement, concave battle lines, micro game, macro game, economy, Banner Mules, 6-pools, 9-pools, and to be honest, even after watching a lot of pro matches I still have no clue what most of the buildings do. 

Oh no! A giant whirligig is attacking my green goop building! I need to make more robot men and fire buggies QUICK!
What's really fun, money aside, about all this is that Professional gaming is now getting big enough to start having scandals. A French Starcraft player known popularly as "Stephano" was suspended from his team for a month for telling another player in a match that he had abused a 14-year-old. It's now believed to be simply a combination of bad English and a wide definition of "Abuse" but that's still kind of a hot topic because Stephano is currently the top-ranked Zerg player in the world. In the World of LoL, another pro player accidentally forgot to turn his streaming software off last night (It's pretty common for some pro players to stream their off-season games for fun and posterity) and ended up streaming to the entirety of his masturbation session, complete with face cam. 

That's actually soap, if anyone was wondering. 
I think what boggles my mind is how big it's gotten. Like, I've spent this entire post talking about how big it's gotten but it's...really really big. It's big enough that not only are players making a living off of this but there's now a whole group of people who's entire job is to coach those players, there's a set of people who's paycheck comes from casting and commentating on those matches, to say nothing of all the people who's job is to set up and maintain all the background tech for tournaments. At this point, not only are people making a living off gaming, there are people making a living off the people making a living off gaming. That just kinda blows my mind a bit. It's getting bigger, too. Last year was the biggest MLG tournament in history and it was so popular that all the numbers have shot way, way up in the intervening year. There's more channels streaming Starcraft and LoL, more tournaments getting more publicity and giving out more prize money. I don't think I'll ever be one of those players or even one of those people who rides the wave because in general those just aren't my games but I, for one, am excited to see how it grows and changes over the coming years.

And if nothing else I can start talking about it whenever people I know try to tell me football things. That's pretty satisfying.

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