Starcraft II is compulsively entertaining when you've got your hands on the controls, but it's also a gripping spectator sport.
StarCraft II has a beautifully paced singleplayer campaign that sets the benchmark for inventive solo strategy, and that's all fine. Twenty hours of missions where your small men kill other small things in a familiar two-and-a-half dimensions, StarCraft II is a game that we've all played before in some form. Maybe it was dressed in a fluffy hat and dancing to cod-Russian music; maybe it was wandering around Warcraft before there was a World to explore. StarCraft II – we thought – could only be an evolutionary game.
But StarCraft II is revolutionary. It will change the world. It's already started to.
I came into the office in late October to find Tom at his desk, talking to Tim about StarCraft II . At this point after the game's launch, I'd dabbled in the online leagues, earning an average silver league placement. I'd let my interest wane slightly, having new games to play and few people to bounce ideas off. Tom was using words that I'd never previously heard him say, espousing theories on the importance of creep spreading, and damning a second Raven as an unnecessary expense. “Tom!”, I shouted over. “You've started playing StarCraft!”
“No I haven't.” What? How the hell was he hypothesising on concepts I barely understood after three months of play, then? “I've been watching the GSL.”
The Global StarCraft II League is hosted by GomTV in South Korea, and is currently the world's largest e-sports tournament. Technically open to anyone, the final pool of people are the world's best StarCraft II players, having smashed their way through the preliminary rounds to earn their spot on a televised broadcast and the chance to win just shy of £100,000.
The matches are played at lightning speed by professionals who train ten hours a day and exert superhuman control over their charges. To follow any other game as a spectator without complete affinity with the rules, units or common strategies would be a window into an incomprehensible world – but here was Tom, StarCraft virgin, telling me to avoid clumping up my marines in case of burrowed Banelings like IMmvp does.
StarCraft II is an e-sports enabler. The game's producer, Chris Sigaty, told me before launch that the two major causes for such a lengthy development time stemmed back to balancing the game. First, theywanted Battle.net (the game's always-on matchmaking framework) to be idiot-proof and fair in its opponent selection. Second, the finite details of unit interaction and race balance had to be hammered so far down that games were watertight – no overpowered tactics or unbeatable builds.
That attention shows. While forums are littered with children bleating about supposed imbalance between the three races, a few matches alone on the Battle.net ladders show that the game's distinct species are both completely different in terms of style and utterly mirrored in terms of power. This successful walk of the tightrope lets StarCraft II's multiplayer appeal three times over. There is – as yet – no perfect attack, no perfect build order. Combine this reward for Blizzard's relentless balancing zeal with mechanics all gamers are familiar with and, as Tom proves, StarCraft II becomes a viable and hypnotic spectator sport, even for non-players.
The drive turning StarCraft II into the West's first major e-sport is aided and abetted by one of the planet's best communities. A dipped toe into the swirling online world of StarCraft will come up with a few names clamped on: Day, Husky, Artosis. More outward-focused and approachable than any other subset of gamers, the English-speaking StarCraft community – with its homes on TeamLiquid.net and around the web – are consciously welcoming to new players, where so many games try to drive them away. Sean 'Day' Plott deserves special mention, devoting an hour and a half a day to talk straight into his webcam about emergent strategies, tips and stories culled from a life playing both games in the series professionally – find his essential archive at day9tv.blip.tv .
To bob around within the currents of StarCraft II in its present form is to feel connected to a genuinely global movement of players at the forefront of something. It's the reason I find myself doodling build orders on napkins at pubs, or practising hitting my control group hotkeys when I'm waiting for the other guys in the office to go to the shops at lunchtime.
Whether e-sports will ever truly sink their e-teeth into the televised schedules of the West as they have in South Korea is to be determined. But if they do, StarCraft II will forever be the game that took the first bite.