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Monday, June 6, 2011

The New Star Wars: e-sports expand at UC Irvine

Caught in the meteoric rise of a new spectator sport, the UC Irvine Starcraft Club fights for their spot in e-sports history.

by Charles Lam


The room is dark. Blinds drawn and lights off, it is slightly hard to make out Alex’s face, dimly lit by the glow of his computer monitor. A pair of headphones over his ears, he is oblivious to the frantic clicks and clacks of his keystrokes, the feeble click of his mouse. For a brief moment, he grimaces as his virtual army clashes with that of his opponents. His actions per minute, a measurement of how quickly he can micromanage the individual units in his army, spike at an estimated two hundred commands, near professional level.

As the sprites on his screen explode into a flurry of shrapnel, his actions become less calculated and more frantic. Finally, less than a minute after the battle began, he stops typing. He takes a breath, hits enter, and types a parting message to his faceless rival.

“GG” Good game. He concedes.

--

In the world of competitive video gaming, known within the community as “e-sports”, Starcraft has long been the dominant Real Time Strategy game, a genre of game where two or more players make moves against each other in real time. Starting with a small base with a limited amount of units, each player collects more resources using specialized units called “workers” while bulking up their army and fending off harassment from their opponents. As the armies grow, the players maneuver strategically around the terrain, attempting to catch their enemy off guard with their ‘micro’, short for micro management, and, finally, crush the opposing army. Think of it as chess, except in real time, with pieces continually moving and starting only with pawns.

What sets Starcraft apart from other games is how complex the strategy can be despite the simplicity of the game. Though there are only three factions that each player can play, they each have completely different styles. Players choose between the “Terrans”, the humanoid race using traditional earth-based weaponry such as rifles, tanks, and fighter planes, the “Protoss”, an advanced alien race with strong spiritual bonds and futuristic energy technology, and the “Zerg”, an insectoid alien race whose power lies in their quick evolution and swarm-like numbers. The interplay between these three styles continually changes, with no race holding dominance for long.

The popularity of the game is so great that, in South Korea, several different leagues were created and, to support them, teams were formed. The live events are televised and fill stadiums. The professional players are true professional athletes, with salaries and sponsorships from large companies such as LG, Samsung and Intel; their lives are nothing but ten hour training days and tournament competition.

The crowd at the finals of the 2006 Proleague in South Korea.

This success was not replicate-able in the West however. With population density and Internet penetration both low, neither live nor online events flourished. Though many tried, Starcraft never gained the popularity in Europe or North America that it had in Korea. Organizations such as the Cyberathelete Professional League strived and failed. Major League Gaming (MLG), the only company to not collapse, stagnated for years.

However, with the release of the sequel, Starcraft 2, new life has been given to the e-sports scene in the West. Though currently not as stable as the Korean organizations, several leagues have been created, such as the North American Starleague (NASL) and the IGN Proleague (IPL). Even MLG, long thought defunct saw its attendance numbers climb greatly. Combined, the tournaments offer over one hundred thousand dollars in prize money.

But championships are not the only thing that draw players to Starcraft. Currently, Youtube channels featuring Videos on Demand, VODs, of games have over four hundred thousand subscribers. Players are able to make upwards of sixty thousand dollars a year by streaming their games live and interacting with viewers using services such as Justin.tv. Though not glamorous, their lives are completely sustainable. The amount of money being invested in e-sports in the West has never peaked as high as it is now.

The amount of fans overwhelmed the available space at MLG Dallas 2011, forcing many spectators to sit on the floor. Due to popular demand, future events will feature larger stages and additional seating.

The environment is stable enough that smaller more niche leagues have been able to form, such as those specifically for new players, girls and even college students.

--

There’s a lot of things people could be doing on a free Wednesday night during spring quarter. The weather is mild, warm enough to spend time outside but still brisk enough to be able to enjoy a warm drink with a cute girl. The air is crisp and fresh. The grass and trees are green again.

Why then, would anyone spend their spare time in a fluorescent tube-lit room, sitting at a table surrounded by two dozen guys and three dozen computers? Such is the life of the UC Irvine Starcraft Club.

Nearly every Wednesday of the quarter, the Starcraft Club meets in a room on the third floor of CaliT2, in the engineering school. The room is ideal for their purposes, with its rows of desks, each with power sockets for their member’s computers, facing the front of the room. There, a podium with projector controls and computer hook ups stands to the left of a large projector screen. Perfect for screening games, Timothy Young, co-founder and current operations officer, starts each meeting with a few quick announcements before hooking up his computer and displaying the night’s live games.

The members watch the headline matches deeply interested, barely speaking except for a few moments of chaotic cheering. Once the big names finish playing, however, their attention shifts else where. Almost spontaneously, two players start an impromptu game. They both develop a crowd, part cheering, part jeering and part feeding them false information. Other members are off to the side browsing Starcraft community websites, reading about the newest strategies and biggest tournaments. More still are just doing their homework. Apart from the tiniest bit of extra geekiness, members of the Starcraft club are exactly like any other students interested in a sport. Part friend, part teammate, part rival.

With the several dozen members engrossed in their own activities, Timothy sits apart from the regular membership. Surrounded by team members and club officers, they discuss upcoming events.

“Among all the events out there is the CSL [Collegiate Starleague]. It was created by Princeton against MIT but has since expanded into something bigger. Originally we would always get forced out of the playoffs by our rivals, San Diego or Davis.”

With the introduction with of Starcraft 2 however, things have changed for the Irvine team.

“[Last season] the UCI Team did exceptionally well, we placed first in our division. In the playoffs, we crushed the first two teams before losing to [eventual champions] the University of British Columbia.”

UCI's path though the finals. To make the play offs, UCI went 17-2 during the regular season. Losing only to Stanford and the University of Virginia.

Their success is due partly to new team manager and star player Alex Truong, known by his online monikers ShoeMaker and Shoey. At first glance he is a completely normal twenty-two year old Asian male, but his nondescript face hides the brain of an honors engineering student, future doctor, chess player and Starcraft star.

--

“I’ve always played video games, ever since my uncle gave me his old copy of Starcraft. After that, I played games on the Nintendo 64 and the Playstation 2. I’ve always been involved in competitive games too, whether they were video games like Warcraft 3 or chess. When Starcraft 2 came out last year, I started playing immediately. It’s the only game I’ve played since.”

Despite his gaming predige, Alex hasn’t always been involved in with the Starcraft team. He only joined this year, his last at UC Irvine.

“I wasn’t serious in Brood War [the first competitive version of Starcraft], I wish I was but I wasn’t so I didn’t participate in the CSL until this year.” Alex says with a shade of regret. However, his demeanor completely changes when asked at what point he would feel accomplished in Starcraft.

Smiling, he recounts the past season.

“I was team manager. I helped decide who plays in what line up. When we had to prepare for a match, I scouted the opponent, and helped devise strategy. I didn’t lose a single match in the CSL either.”

With the year's CSL season over, the team is looking forward to UCI’s annual LAN party, an event run by the campus’ chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineer where players bring their computers to a central area to play. There, he will be competing with the best the school has to offer, including many of his team members.

--

Much like the club’s meeting room, the IEEE LAN party is lit by fluorescent tubes. The tables are also set in rows with electric outlets and Internet cables within easy access. There are people huddled around computers. There are people reading strategy before their games.

However, as opposed to the small classroom the club usually occupies, they are now in a ballroom in the student center, capable of holding hundreds of people. Starcraft is not the only game on display, though it is still the most popular.
IEEE's 2nd Annual LAN Party was a success this year and featured Starcraft 2 as its featured game.

The crowd is bustling, moving like ameobas in a giant mass rather than as individual units. There is not a moment of silence. Whether sound effects from a game, a pitch from one of the sponsors of the event or an announcement from one of the referees, there is always a bit of noise. The air smells of the cheap pizza IEEE is selling.

On one of the walls, the Starcraft tournament bracket is displayed. It shows two players at the top: BonedOUT, an unknown sleeper player, technically a part of the team but having never played for them and Shoey. First place, BonedOut. Second place, Shoey.

Alex, however, does not look disappointed.

“The tournament was running out of time. I was supposed to play him for the finals; I came form the loser’s bracket [meaning he had lost a single game earlier] and he came from the winner’s bracket [BonedOUT had yet to drop a match], but they were running late so they just asked if I’d take second. I said yeah.”

He had never even played BonedOUT.

“I liked the second place prizes more.”

Though he didn’t get to take home the trophy, he did manage to win an external hard drive and a gaming specific headset. Valued slightly more than his opponents gaming specific mouse and mouse pad.

When asked what his plans for the future were, Alex is upbeat but honest. Like other near pro players, he had to make the decision between life and Starcraft.

“I originally wanted to compete at MLG Anaheim this summer but med school starts before then so I won’t be able to. I’ll continue playing in the CSL at Davis but Starcraft is starting to become more of a hobby. Now, I play to relax.”

--

Next year will be a transitional one for the Starcraft Club and Team. Alex is not the only player leaving. Joining him will be Darren Chen, known as darrenc, another co-founder and star player. After a red hot season in the CSL, the next few months will be an uncertain time as new players begin to filter in.

Despite the set backs, Timothy Young and the rest of the club and team are ready to face the future.

“The interest in competitive Starcraft 2 doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. The amazing thing about the movement isn’t just the game play or the competition but also the way it’s bringing together people all over the world. The team isn’t going to be disappearing just ‘cause we’re losing a few people. There’s a place for us in e-sports. We’re going to take it.”



Reporting Notes:
45-minute Interview with Timothy Young
1-hour Interview with Alex Troung
E-mail interview with Erik "DoA" Lonnquist
10-minute Follow Up Interview with Timothy Young
"It's Gosu Interviews Erik "DoA" Lonnquist" http://www.itsgosu.com/game/sc2/news/it-s-gosu-interviews-erik-doa-lonnquist_103
"StarCraft 2 esports explode at UC Irvine" http://www.myucirvine.com/news/features/item/78-starcraft-2-esports-explodes-at-uc-irvine
"'Wings of Liberty Soars" http://www.newuniversity.org/2010/08/entertainment/wings-of-liberty-soars/
"The Dawn of Starcraft: e-sports come to the world stage" http://arstechnica.com/gaming/news/2011/03/the-dawn-of-starcraft-e-sports-come-to-the-world-stage.ars http://www.cstarleague.com/league
http://www.cstarleague.com/league/teams/12
2 Hour Meeting Observation
2 Hour IEEE Lan Observation

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