Social Media and Starcraft
There exists a subculture of video-gamers who make it life's goal to be the best players in the world. These are the hardcore, the professionals, abandoning the trappings of mainstream society to pursue a special godhood among the nerd elite. Starcraft 2, a real time strategy game, just one year removed from release, dominates this niche. Just a glance at Major League Gaming tells the story: thirty-five million people tuned into the live feed of MLG Anaheim (10); this upcoming MLG, called Providence, promises an even broader audience with a prize pool worth one hundred twenty thousand dollars for Starcraft 2 alone (4). This prolific surge in popularity is made even more surprising given the original game's competitive history, enjoyed fervently in South Korea during the late 1990s and early-mid 2000s. Thanks to social media outlets such as Youtube, Twitter, and streaming networks like Justin.TV--utilized previously in aggressive advertisement campaigns by Blizzard Entertainment--North America and Europe have embraced the professional scene with nationalistic pride.
That said, Starcraft 2 can't be mentioned without first delving into a brief history of its predecessors. The original Starcraft and its expansion, Brood War, respectively released in 1998 and 1999 (2), became overnight success stories that helped paved the way for Blizzard Entertainment's other three-headed monster: Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos, Warcraft 3: Frozen Throne, and, finally, World of Warcraft. In South Korea, Starcraft: Brood War became "a national obsession, with official leagues, snacks, and TV channels." (3) The most prestigious of these leagues is the OnGameNet Starleague, or OSL for short (4): a semi-annual (about two-three per year) multi-stage tournament established in 1999 amidst an insatiable demand for pro gaming. Suffice it to say any player who wins three OSL tournaments is rewarded with the Golden Mouse, a gold statue worth approximately eight thousand dollars (4). This is no easy feat, and in the twelve year professional history of the OSL only four players have claimed this prize. In South Korea, these names are instantly recognizable and whispered in reverence.
And where was North America and Europe during all this? Either completely absent or leaving a mark so small as to be invisible (with the lone exception of a French-Canadian player named Grrr, who won the first OSL). Professional gaming held little relevance to the old western world, before Youtube and Facebook, where the only exposure something received was on TV or on the radio. In South Korea the gaming culture was already established and well accepted. Professional Starcraft was a strange, inverse world where Korea was king and Everyone Else was just a foreigner. Players lived a spartan existence in gaming houses, forbidden from having relationships or even accepting gifts (5). Very few were willing to make the sacrifice, and those who did often burned out and returned home. The barrier was a faraway land with unfamiliar customs and languages and a militant training regiment, and it proved impenetrable. If a foreigner won gold, it would be in a foreigner tournament.
However, Blizzard Entertainment understood the staying power of its surprise sport, and feverishly marketed Starcraft 2 in North America and Europe as both the thinking man's game and the action junkie's crux, like hyper-violent chess. On May 17, 2007, Blizzard unveiled their announcement--tellingly--in South Korea (5). Moments later the news broke out over Twitter, Facebook, the whole of North America and Europe, and almost immediately thoughts turned toward multiplayer. Before the game was officially released--while it was still in the hormonal phases of constant balancing, constant testing--the first major tournament, the HDH Invitational, was organized, with the winner receiving two thousand dollars (4). It was the largest prize pool a beta tournament ever heralded; on Team Liquid the official thread reached three hundred and twenty five pages. Blizzard used the world's fascination with this adrenaline fueled strategy game to its advantage, constantly hyping newly unveiled units and giving sneak peaks to gaming magazines such as PC Gamer (5).
The explosive rise of Starcraft 2 has created a swelling, burgeoning community of fans clamoring for a local champion--this has led to the rejuvenation of organizations like Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid, two of the oldest, most steadfast, and beloved foreign pro-gaming teams on the scene. Teamliquid.net is a social network in itself, complete with its own wikipedia (called Liquipedia), blogs, tournament roundups, power ranking, forums, and host to over one hundred streams (live video) of pro, semi-pro, and amateur players alike (6). Case in point: whenever a player like Destiny starts streaming, one can expect up to four thousand unique viewers. That's four thousand people watching someone practice a video game. Each stream comes equipped with a chat room where the viewers can discuss anything, from the game itself to politics to Star Wars. For the above reasons Team Liquid is considered the crucible of professional Starcraft (hereon referred to as "esports"), a one-stop-shop for news, results, gossip, and fan clubs. Here the players are idolized or bemoaned; if Team Liquid isn't talking about someone, that someone is not relevant. The website serves as a springboard into the world of esports.
To form a loose analogy to the NCAA, and to put this in the proper perspective, the sudden popularity of Starcraft 2, in less than one year, has brought to light the Collegiate Starleague, or CSL for short (7). The league existed before Starcraft 2 but enjoyed a surge in popularity after the game's release. Colleges in every state--like VCU and the University of Richmond, for example--vie for statewide and national honors. From there is a short jump to the NASL, or North American Starleague (8), though there is no actual CSL to NASL "graduation." At least, not yet. Both the CSL and NASL utilize VODs (videos on demand) to highlight particularly interesting sections of their live streams for viewers to pour over and analyze. New VODs draw thousands of viewers each week, if not more.
A quick search on Youtube will bring up a litany of Starcraft 2 analysts, or "casters," such as: Day, HuskyStarcraft, HDStarcraft, CatsPajamas, DJ Wheat, Artosis and Tasteless (Day's brother), NukeTheStars, TotalBiscuit--and those are the popular casters, whose advertisement revenue alone support several invitational tournaments (HuskyStarcraft and HDStarcraft organized the HDH Invitational (4)). Each have a distinct style of dissecting a match married with peculiar senses of humor; Major League Gaming hires these analysts for play-by-play commentary (1), and it often draws comparisons from casual observers and fans to Monday Night Football. Twitter is utilized as a live report for those unable to watch, opting for quick summaries in lieu of analysis. When a tournament is finished, the replays and VODs are released.
All of these factors--Team Liquid, the CSL, the NASL, Twitter, and Youtube--have formed a pressure cooker similar to the systems most professional sports utilize to preen their talent. (Note: there's even a hint of High School leagues popping up) As a consequence, the playing level of foreign players has dramatically increased, arguably rivaling Koreans and their gaming houses; without these social media constructs--and without zealous fans--esports wouldn't have the following it does, and the incentive for foreign players would be minimal at best. More publicity, more money, more fans, more players, more skill. Nothing illustrates this better than Major League Gaming.
Historically, MLG was the tournament for foreigners; without actually barring Koreans from play they never offered enough to goad them away from Korea--all the money, fame, and glory could be found in their native country, after all. That is, until MLG created a player exchange program with the Global Starleague (GSL, successor to the OSL) prior to MLG Columbus (1). This both allowed foreigners to compete in a Korean dominated league and the Koreans to play in the United States. The results were predictable: player MMA of team SlayerS (founded by none other than Boxer, the original "bonjwa") became the first Korean champion of MLG at Columbus (1). At MLG Anaheim, another Korean pro, this time named MVP, won gold (1). Just a month later yet another Korean player, Bomber, destroyed the foreign competition to claim the tournament (1). No North American or European player cracked the top four in any of these three events, with the lone exception of an American player named Idra at Columbus (1); at Anaheim and Raleigh, Korean players took the top six of the eight prize-winning spots. On Facebook, Twitter, Team Liquid, and Youtube, fans voiced their displeasure, quickly adopting a World versus Korea mentality that still thrives today.
It wasn't until MLG Orlando, just weeks ago, did a foreigner beat out the Korean competition: a Canadian player (with United States dual citizenship) named HuK, part of Evil Geniuses, claimed gold after being on the cusp for so long. His teammate and rival, Idra, landed in fourth place after an impressive run (1). In every scope of the online world (and offline, for those attending MLG live and participating in Starcraft themed barhopping, or "barcraft") there was celebration. Game and medium have become intertwined (in fact, Blizzard Entertainment once considered tying Facebook into their Starcraft browser, but decided against it after fans roared their disapproval) (9). Without social media Starcraft 2 wouldn't have become so popular so quickly: no CSL, no NASL, no small, local leagues; and the mere existence of these things pressures foreign players to play better, to rival the masters. Blizzard marketed Starcraft 2 as the summit of competition: a brainy yet visceral game where bullet time decisions effected the outcome of entire matches. Using social media the company pounded this image into the collective mind of North America and Europe, and their players rose to the challenge. Without this broad spectrum of social media binding the world together, the scene may have faded with a whimper instead of cannonading itself into the hearts and minds of fans everywhere.
Edit: This is the updated version, thanks to everyone for the feedback.