This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 221. We're republishing it today as part of our Blizzard theme week in celebration of the studio's 25th anniversary.
There are some things I’m just no good at. Maths. Skateboarding. Washing my clothes and folding them up in a cupboard before I need them.
Before StarCraft 2 was released, I had assumed its multiplayer segment would be added to this painful list. My prior experience came secondhand; stories of Korean men fighting other Korean men at the speed of light. I watched a few videos. “Their poor wrists” was all I could think. People said words like ‘APM’ as if they were real things, made jokes about needing more pylons. Haha! What’s a pylon? StarCraft 2 makes you play at least five practice matches before you’re allowed onto Battle.net’s permanently ranked ladder system. I tried one. I knew I’d lose. I won. I won again. And again. I lost my fourth and fifth games, but we don’t talk about those. I was—as my placement in the silver league now confirmed—Not Bad At StarCraft 2. For my spare time, that was bad news.
I am a competitive man and I will fight you if you say otherwise. My placement in the silver league made me inordinately happy for a short time—exactly as long as it took me to realise that ‘silver’ is shorthand for ‘might as well be last.’ Even the worst generals get to play in bronze. Silver, in the face of this stratification, was a slight.
Saturday was the day my plan came together. Standing astride Kulas Ravine, my little Terran command centres occupying nine of the map’s 14 resource points, I should’ve been happy. I wasn’t. I spoke to the people who’d understand me. “Marines, I am unhappy.” I aimed my criticism at my monitor. “Not with you, tiny marines. You have done your job, killing everything I’ve pointed you at and injecting yourself willingly with confusing green goo whenever I press T—and I press T a lot.” I was wearing my most warlike dressing gown, so they knew I was serious. “We’ve been through a lot, marines. We’ve risen from a midtable placement, across 200 matches in this silver league. We’ve punched through wall-ins together, we’ve fallen to mutalisk harassments together. I shouldn’t ask anything more of you.”
I stood as my opponent signified his destruction with a curt ‘gg’. “But marines, we have a greater challenge, and I need your help. By the end of this week, I will have slipped the surly bonds of this silver league and risen. In seven days, I will be in the gold league.”
Clever silver league play is about fundamentals, and I’d spent nearly 200 matches nailing them down. I’d developed an internal metronome that regulated the basic tenets. Tick, build more workers, tock, check supply depots, tick, OH GOD DARK TEMPLAR, tock, expand to your natural.
My opening gambits were hardwired. Versus Protoss: three barracks and a ball of troops. Versus Zerg: a set of Hellions to roast my opponent’s vital drones. Even my Terran opponents seemed to be lagging in production or direct unit management. I’d soon totted up eight wins on the bounce, pushing my ranking from the mid-teens to a serviceable tenth in my division.
My ninth game was tougher. When I tried to harass my Protoss opponent’s secondary bases with Banshee gunships, they were met by a weighty Stalker force, the anti-air robo-bastards using their blink ability to teleport into shooting range. My attempt to transition back into a troop-heavy force was lanced by a quadrupedal Colossus.
Through sneaky medivac work, I managed to drop grenade-launching Marauders into my foe’s largest concentration of harvester Probes. His production crippled, he thanked me for a good game, and quit. I stood and punched the air, my mouse hand sweaty. My next game was simpler, with a chattier opponent. I brought it to a close after half an hour. He messaged: “gg. what league u in?” “Silver. You?” “lol, doin my placement matches.” My foe, who’d held me up with competent macro-management and neat Roach control, had played four games of StarCraft 2 in his entire life. It took me half an hour to deliver a killing blow. Until that point I’d assumed Battle.net selected opponents from the same league bracket as you.
I still had an open chat window to my previous opponent, the one who’d nearly thrashed me. I tapped: “What league are you in?” His reply: “Bronze.” Fuck.
I’d closed the game down in disgust on Sunday evening, my burgeoning pride dented by the realisation I’d been bullying lowly Bronzers. Man, some of those Bronze league guys were my friends. I tried to imagine poor Tim, or poor Jaz, left helpless by an early cloaked Banshee rush, single tears rolling down their cheeks. Walloping people just made me feel cruel. Until I played the man who got me angry.
“haha u come with weak banshees?” StarCraft’s playerbase is—as a rule—friendly. But every community has its twats, and when you’re matched up against one of StarCraft 2’s, you soon know it. The negative comments invariably came at the end of a game, after I’d ground an opponent into the dust. “You suck,” they gobbed at the same moment they ragequit.
Not this guy. He was just mean. “lol more air units. u noob.” Taunted and teased, I felt like a poked bear chained to a pole of idiocy. My bastard foe would knock me off-balance with a prod, sending in two Void Rays and setting me off down an anti-air research path, before flipping his build and massing a land army. I never stood a chance, and he never let me forget it. His final assault sliced my SCVs up with invisible supermen and cauterised my troops with long-range lasers.
I packed up and left the game without a ‘gg’. The monster followed me out, messaging me for 20 subsequent minutes. “u play in silver?! man u suck. such noob tactics.” I didn’t win a game for the rest of the day.
I didn’t sleep well. Seconds before I woke on Tuesday morning, my girlfriend told me, I squeaked “but I have blocked my ramp!” I’d broken my life. StarCraft was in my brain, killing my dudes. I had to get back on the spacewagon, potential embarrassment be damned. But my current tactics were built on shaky foundations: a set of build orders I’d committed to muscle memory. When my foe came to me with an army makeup that differed from simple archetypes, I panicked. I needed inspiration.
As so often in life, that inspiration came from a load of men in a room shouting at a monitor on the other side of the world. Conveniently, I was trying to up my game during preseason rounds of the GomTV StarCraft League. I’d long been absorbing videos from superlative StarCraft commentators such as HD and Husky, but watching the GSL prelims was like cracking a new door into the game. I started taking notes.
My Tuesday was overcome with arcane scribblings, with writing mad things like “Raven rush an option!?!?” on Post-its and sticking them to my monitor. In one day, I took in more details about StarCraft 2’s competitive scene than I had in three months. Later on, I played one match. I won it comfortably.
Partly as a training regimen and partly because I’d been alone in my attic communicating in single letters all week, I started shouting my next moves to an empty house. It helped.
“IT’S SUPPLY DEPOT TIME!”, I screamed, facing up against a welldrilled Zerg foe. The metronome I’d put together earlier in the week had turned obnoxious to compensate for my pasting at the hands of Monday’s mean man. Anyone walking past the school opposite my house hopefully wouldn’t have heard me yelp “MARAUDERS IN YOUR FACE!” as I took down my opponent’s first expansion, but I was pretty loud.
Wins weren’t guaranteed. I was playing fast and loose with my strategies, testing skits I’d seen performed by pros on my video binge. I tried a Raven-only assault and without the necessary micromanagement, was incinerated by a hugely confused Terran army. I chalked it up to experience. The next game, I incorporated my findings—that three Ravens, one deploying defence drones and two lobbing autoturrets, can clear a base of vestigial defences—and won.
He’d overcommitted. We were playing on the confined Steppes of War map, and my foe had four siege tanks directly outside my base. But they were stuck at the bottom of my blocked ramp, and couldn’t get a firing solution on any of my units.
I sent a Viking to scout, skirting my foe’s major concentration with its huge sight range. I found secondary tanks further back, undefended. Floating further out, I noticed he was gearing up for an expansion. I had to hit all elements simultaneously, while setting up a new base of my own. I started talking to my marines. I was wearing my warlike dressing gown again. This was going to work.
The Banshees hovered above the forward set of tanks, as I loaded a set of marines into a medivac transport. Another medivac picked up a lone tank from my main base and sited it on an overhang watching the gold mineral line. A final medivac picked up four hellion buggies and nosed its way around the corners of the map, studiously avoiding contact with the enemy. Commence operation My Fingers Hurt.
I struck with the Banshees first, twatting the tanks with rockets. Two went down before my foe used a comsat scan. I used the rear medivacs to drop a handful of marines directly onto the remaining tanks. My own tank dug in and fired at the weak SCVs. At the same time, I dropped four hellions directly into his home, their upgraded flamethrowers crippling his economic lifeline. He was dead in the water. “Damn. gg.”
This pattern repeated itself several times throughout the day.
Overnight, I dropped a place to sixth as my peers won victories of their own. That made today’s objective a smidge harder, but my resolve was unswerving: I would, by the end of the day, top my silver division and ascend to gold like a phoenix who’s really good at clicking on little men.
I started my day early to make up the hundred or so points I needed to lead the table. The game looked more beautiful than I’d ever seen it, obvious actions playing out as I anticipated them. A fast expansion went up, and I’d taken it down before my Zerg enemy even got a drone out. My actions per minute were in the high 50s, more than they’ve ever been, but I was calm. Seventeen minutes down the line, I won, and allowed myself a little air fist pump. I must be in fifth now, easily. A little box popped up.
“Congratulations! You have been promoted to the gold league.”
Wait. What? I checked my profile. I checked my ladder ranking. There it was, a glowing yellow octagon denoting my new home. I wasn’t even top of my silver league.
Maybe it’d be the same? I fired up a game. Fourteen minutes in, I was squelched underfoot, someone sixth in their own gold league splitting apart then murdering my entire army with a handful of high templars and some masterful sentry work.
Afterwards, I closed StarCraft 2 and sat in silence for a while. I was scared. I’m still scared of what I’ll find in gold, of who will kill me and how. But, man, am I proud.