Eight nervous young men peer through the windows of HMV Gamerbase in London, waiting for the shutters to open. They are the best StarCraft 2 players in the country, and they're about to compete in a tournament that could change their lives. By the end of the day, one of them will become a pro gamer.
The first prize is a top of the range Alienware laptop and the top three contestents will take away a share of a £1950 prize pot. When asked why they entered the competition, none of the players mention the prizes. They're here for the opportunity to gain a contract with Team Dignitas, the biggest e-sports team in Britain. Joining them will mean a chance to compete with with the best StarCraft 2 players in the world.
One of those players is Jeffrey Brusi, aka Sjow. The IEM Season V - European Champion made his name as a WarCraft 3 player before moving on to StarCraft 2 during the beta. As one of Team Dignitas' best players, he'll have a significant say in which player gets the contract. Team Dignitas aren't just looking for skill, they want someone with enough dedication to practice every day. The player that wins the tournament won't necessarily be the one who joins the team.
"I'm looking for a guy with a lot of passion for the game," says Sjow, "that's really important to get to the top, someone who can play a lot."
One thing quickly quickly becomes clear. The Team Dignitas gamer search isn't just an X-Factor style stunt, it's a serious recruitment opportunity. Team Dignitas have been watching the contestants for weeks, examining their replays, noting their results and learning their play styles. To reach this stage, the contestants have already beaten several rounds of competition. Their skills are proven. What Team Dignitas don't know yet is how they'll deal with the pressures of a live event.
Team Dignitas' managing director Micheal 'Odee' O'Dell knows only too well the effects that a live LAN environment can have on a player's ability to stick to a strategy. That's why he plans to test the final eight contestants to their limits. HMV Gamerbase is full of crack gaming PCs with mammoth monitors, but today the players will all be competing on laptops.
"We need to see how they respond to pressure," he says, "playing here is very different to playing in your bedroom with your mum bringing you tea."
As the first round gets underway, it's clear that some are more used to the live environment than others. Only a couple of the contestants have played in live competitions before, and Gamerbase is an intimate and busy environment. The place is full of a dozen or so spectators who have been following the tournament online, and Team Dignitas are everywhere, peering over players' shoulders and taking note of their strategies.
It doesn't help that six out of the eight contestants are Protoss players (the other two are Terran), and in this room at least, Protoss vs. Protoss is everyone's least favourite matchup. Speaking after his second round victory, contestant Samayan Kay, aka BlinG, outlines the problems with PvP games: "if they're just one or two units ahead, it changes the game completely. Gas as well. If they have a bit more gas than you then they can get a Colossus so much faster, they can get blink so much faster with that.”
BlinG is easy to spot thanks to his bright blue and yellow T-shirt, and an impassive sense of calm. He's played in big events before, including two iSeries LAN contests, and he's well prepared for today's tournament.
“I have practiced a lot, Protoss v Protoss. I've played, I don't know, about a hundred games in the last three days. In a few of the online tournaments I managed to get some games in against NaNiwa .”
Thanks to the quality of his recent play, and his LAN experience, BlinG is one of the two clear favourites for the tournament. The other is Terran player Lau, who faced Bling at iSeries 41. Like BlinG, he seems completely unfazed by the environment.
“Warcraft 3 I went to LANs as well, I'm kind of used to the LAN experience,” he says, “but they do say that there's a difference between the online play and the LAN play. People do choke. It's just how you perform on the day.”
The tournament runs a double elimination set up. Players who drop out of the main tournament can fight their way through a secondary bracket for a chance to compete in the final. At the end of round one, BlinG and Lau are still standing, on opposite ends of the draw. Their next opponents are Orohuh and Vitriolic. Vitriolic is in good form, but is taken aback by the pressures of playing live. He turns around with a grin from his first round win over Neptunio. "I never thought I'd be this nervous," he gasps, "I forgot to breathe!"
As the players throw themselves into round two, it's interesting to see the level of dexterity to their play. At this level, StarCraft 2 shortcuts are hardwired into every player's muscles, and their hands dance across the keys with practiced grace. They're fast, but not as fast as you might think. The former Brood War players at the event note that StarCraft 2 doesn't require anywhere near the same number of actions per minute. BlinG admits that he's actually forced himself to slow down, sacrificing extra actions to improve his efficiency.
It's a practice that pays off. He glides past Orohuh in round 2. Meanwhile, on the other side of the contest, a hard fought battle with Vitriolic sees Lau move ahead, setting up a tense winners' bracket final. As many of the players quietly predicted, it's a Lau vs. Bling face-off for a slot in the grand final. Every member of Team Dignitas is crowded behind the chairs of each player. In a separate room, shoutcasters Total Biscuit and Apollo get ready to commentate the live stream.
It's a close fought affair. Lau has changed up his tactics from game to game as the tournament has progressed, but his aggressive Banshee use has so far proved particularly effective. The Terran flyers' ability to cloak and obliterate heavily armoured ground units allows him to devastate enemy buildings. In this matchup, BlinG runs an effective counter-strategy, using small squads of Phoenix gunships to harry Lau's mineral line. With Lau's economy thrown off track, it's only a matter of time before BlinG's forces outnumber the Terrans.
Soon enough, it's over. BlinG progresses to the grand final. Lau must play the winner of the secondary bracket for a chance to challenge BlinG again.
In spite of the tension of tournament competition, most of the players welcome the break from the repetitive challenges of ladder play. In the UK, events like this are few and far between. StarCraft 2 Shoutcaster Total Biscuit talks about the effect events like the Team Dignitas GamerSearch have on the UK StarCraft 2 community: "StarCraft 2 play in the UK has been - I wouldn't say flagging - but it's been struggling quite a lot. There are some tournaments going on. There's quite a lot of online sport, very small tournaments, a couple of hundred pounds prize money, we've had the Multiplay series as well, which is now coming into its third StarCraft tournament with i42 and we've also got the Gadget show event, which is looking very strong as well, big prize pool for that, hopefully some very professional production behind it.
"Things like this really do help to raise the profile. They also help people to get involved in it that otherwise might be perhaps a little bit scared. You get people who go into the qualifiers, and maybe they get knocked out in the first round, but they've seen that maybe getting to that level is not as unattainable as they might think, and they're willing to try a little bit harder to get there, and it's good that Dignitas are willing to put their support and reputation behind it, but also their money and their wallets, and really help the scene out in that way. It's definitely helping, and more stuff like that will help to grow the scene."
In the secondary bracket, players like Vitriolic and advanced GCSE student Razerblader falls by the wayside as Protoss player Neptunio makes a surprise comeback, after falling to Vitriolic in the first round. It's an impressive resurgence, but he can't do anything against Lau's aggressive style. Total Biscuit is impressed by Lau's play, "He gets in there very early on with a double Starport. It's very risk. He does maximum damage for minimal loss. He knows he's going to lose the aircraft, but he does everything with them that he can."
It's Lau vs. BlinG again for the grand final. If you'd like to see the final and don't want to know the winner, stop reading here and come back after you've watched the videocast on the Team Dignitas site.
Two more games and the winner is finally decided. It's past closing time, and HMV security are lingering in the doorways, wondering why there's a beaming man with a giant cheque being applauded in the middle of the room. Odee has announced over the PA that BlinG has won the Team Dignitas contract. Just like that, Samayan 'BlinG' Kay is a pro gamer.
He takes his honourary black and yellow Team Dignitas hoddie and throws it on with a massive grin. The other contestants applaud as well, pleased and unsurprised by the announcement. All day long, BlinG has been the man to beat. He stops every few feet to shake hands with another player, or one of his new colleagues from Dignitas. "I couldn't be happier!" he says, "hopefully I can practice with the other players from Team Dignitas, and take it all from there."
It's been a long but memorable day for the contestants. Each of them have won a cash prize for reaching the finals, and they all take home goody bags for attending. Second, third and fourth place take home a share of the prize pot, too. More importantly, many have gained their first taste of proper tournament competition. It's experience that will stand them in good stead for future events. BlinG took home the contract this time, but Dignitas are sure to be keeping their eyes on many of the finalists. In a year's time it would be no surprise if some of their names are sure to start making waves on the international stage.