Cracked asked me to go undercover and infiltrate the insane culture of StarCraft because they said I would be "ideal" for the job. The last time I played online, I constantly got cussed out by players when I asked for simple help on how to build peons or where to find quests (nobody has told me to this day), so I asked the Cracked guys why on earth they would think I would be a good fit. They just coughed meaningfully and eventually said, "You know. Because you're... uh, your people like StarCraft, right? Isn't that like the national sport over in, uh, the Orient?" They then looked at me encouragingly. I think someone struck a gong.
"Sorry guys, I'm not following you."
Yeah, so I'm not sure what any of that means, except that you're going to learn about the bizarre world of professional StarCraft from someone who can't play the game.
First of all, StarCraft came out in 1998, and StarCraft 2 just came out--mildly interesting to you or me, but a life-changing event for a bunch of Koreans.
You know, like a Rain concert or something.
Yeah, the U.S. has pro gaming circuits, sure. The Koreans have 12 professional StarCraft teams with top players making fat six-figure salaries. Even the average pro gamer makes more than the average Korean.
Not only do Korean pro gamers rake in the dough, but also national attention. 120,000 people gathered live in a stadium to watch a 2005 StarCraft championship--over 40K more than attended the Super Bowl that year.
That's an actual StarCraft tournament, this is not a joke photo.
And if you had any doubt that Korea as a nation takes this seriously, note that the Korean Air Force actually started their own gaming team so that top players wouldn't have to stop playing when the joined the military for their compulsory two-year service. The team doesn't usually do very well in the leagues since most of the players are ancient greybeards at an average age of 27, but I bet they'd still kick most non-Korean asses.
"We who are about to play a video game salute you."
If you're wondering if it's like this anywhere else, well, no. Almost half of all copies of StarCraft (4.5 million out of 9.5 million) were sold in South Korea. Note they have one sixth the population of the U.S. Shame on you, America. We're already lagging in so many areas. Must you fall behind on StarCraft-buying too?
I think competitive eating is all we've got left.
Why is Korea so cuckoo for StarCraft? Most likely because it's a multiplayer game with strong replay value that came out just when multiplayer gaming in Internet cafes ("PC baangs") took off as the hot new craze in Korea. After staring at a screen in a cubicle all day, who wouldn't want to escape and unwind?
Left: Korea during the day. Right: Korea at night.
You can probably see now why Koreans and other StarCraft pros are so nervous about StarCraft 2. After almost 12 years of playing the same exact game and working out their little strategies and gambits, it feels almost as set in stone as chess. Imagine becoming a chess grandmaster and suddenly being told to throw it all away because they've come up with a Chess 2. Backwards-moving pawns! Bishops that can teleport! Elevated squares! Cats and dogs living together! Mass hysteria!
Although apparently we will adopt it eventually.
So no matter how hardcore your U.S. StarCraft team is, nobody is ever coming to a football stadium to watch you play. And the U.S. Air Force is sure as hell not going to make a team for you. So what's an American StarCraft ace to do?
Ha ha, just kidding! You move to Korea, of course!
The first big star to go East was Grrr (Guillaume Patry), a Canadian. He moved to Korea at age 18 in the early years of StarCraft, and was a pioneer in developing strategies and whatever, winning things left and right, until time passed (like one year) and this new generation of damn kids studying the strategies of the old schoolers rose up and usurped their elders.
Time had moved on and passed this grizzled old man by.
Life moves fast in StarCraft.
After trying his hand as a poker pro, Patry got a real job or something, and now has come full circle to throwing his hat back in the ring with StarCraft 2. He's a creaky old 28 now, so this is probably going to go the way of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler.
I mean he is going to die performing the Ram Jam on an opponent.
Since then, other foreigners have attempted to make their name in the Korean scene, including American big shot, IdrA (more on him later), who also moved over at 18. What would your parents have done if you told them that, at age 18, you were going to Korea to advance your StarCraft career?
This look, right?
Would they make you repeat the last two words a few times, certain they hadn't heard you right? Well, I don't know, maybe your parents were super open-minded, I'm just saying my parents would have staged an intervention.
At first I had planned to research by ramping up my gaming skillz to work my way up the ladders in order to get to know some competitive players and understand their ways. But then I saw this video.
After that, I deleted the game from my hard drive, ate a gallon of ice cream and decided to just read about them instead.
They're measuring their speed in "actions-per-minute," the number of times in one minute they can move a unit or do something else in the game. In that video, one gamer talks about how at the top levels you need about 300 actions-per-minute. That's five actions per second.
My enthusiastic StarCraft-playing friends estimate themselves at about 30 actions-per-minute. Me, I can do about two, but if you count erratically zooming all over the map trying to find the ramp to your base as an action, maybe three.
They get up to that speed by first being born with a Rain Man-like perfect storm of genetics and then training for a minimum of 10 hours a day, six days a week. Teams actually live together in barrack-like quarters, though of course they separate Protoss, Zerg and Terran players into separate rooms. Naturally.
Zerg players' bedroom.
So, if you think you know some crazy StarCraft players, consider there are millions of Koreans whiling away all their free time in PC baangs playing match after match of StarCraft and they're not good enough for the pros. Only 300 lucky nerds are licensed pros--yes, you have to be licensed. They have a draft too, seriously.
You might as well give up right now, kid.
Meanwhile, I don't think I'd even qualify for the StarCraft class at U.C. Berkeley. Now that's sad.