E-sports are boring, I've always felt. I wanted to follow them, have a favourite team or know who any of the players are, but almost every time I watched a game, I just couldn't keep up. It looked like there was skill involved, but I couldn't really relate it to my own experience of those games. But the scene has changed, and I've changed my mind. I think professional gaming has come of age.
The last time I looked into the competitive scene thoroughly was for a feature on it in 2006. I was sent out to the E-Sports World Cup in Paris, not to cover the results of the tournament, but to watch the games, interview the players, and just tell you guys if this was something you'd enjoy if you got into it. I came away impressed by the talent, intelligence and even personalities of the players I met, but no more able to actually follow a tournament match and understand it.
4 years later I'm sitting on a train, transfixed by my laptop screen, pulse racing. I'm watching Cool play oGsTop on Kulas Ravine, and I care more about the outcome of this game than any I've played myself in months. Top has a screen-filling swarm of Thors, mechs the size of buildings, streaming in to Cool's base. Cool has nothing. But Cool has just done what Cool does, what you can never let Cool do if you ever play him: he's hatched 12 Ultralisks.
The resulting battle actually makes me gape. I don't think anyone on the train notices, but if they did they probably wondered what the hell I was watching. What else can you watch that makes you sit bolt upright, mouth agog? Pro gaming isn't just a good spectator sport, it's now one of the most exciting and entertaining ways to waste your time.
What happened, really, is that the scene grew up. Commentary got good. Spectating got better. Sites sprung up to organise and collate replays. It's now trivial to find easy sets of YouTube clips, cast (commentated) by pros who understand the significance of what's happening, and who know how to give you a feel for it even if you don't understand all the terms.
But all of this happened while StarCraft 1 was still the best competitive strategy game out there, and it's so damn ugly that the Western world stopped paying attention to it. The E-Sports World Cup I attended didn't even have a StarCraft league.
That's why StarCraft 2 is a pivotal moment in pro gaming. It's inherited the massive competitive interest in the first game by preserving that delicate asymmetrical balance, but it's also a new, sexy, accessible game we're all playing and talking about. The scene that's got so good has just shed its skin, and in its new shiny, easily understood form, it deserves to catch on.
The funny thing is, I don't even particularly like StarCraft 2. You don't have to, to enjoy watching it. Any more than you have to be an athlete to watch the football. I find micro-management fussy and frustrating at the competitive level, but I love to see a seasoned pro get a perfect surround with his Zerglings on a hapless fleeing Reaper.
If you don't know what that means, it doesn't matter. Without spending a lot of time explaining terms, well-commentated StarCraft 2 matches have a way of teaching you the game by osmosis. I finally know what 6-pool and 14-pool mean: it's the number of resource-gathering drones a Zerg player creates before making a Spawning Pool to unlock offensive units. 14 is standard, safe play. 6 is "Fuck the economy, I'm going to kill you or die trying right now ."
The match I mentioned with Top's Thors and Cool's Ultralisks was part of the Korean GomTV StarCraft 2 League - the GSL - with English commentary by Tasteless and Artosis. The smart, witty and nail-biting narrative they give the games is what finally turned me into an excitable e-sports fanboy. Tasteless is personable, often funny and self deprecating. Artosis is an encyclopedic font of nerdy details about the mechanics of StarCraft 2, often able to predict a player's full game plan - and its chances - from the first few units they make. And they're both pros themselves - at one point Tasteless has to get a replacement partner, because Artosis is actually playing the match they're commentating.
When you're watching big armies clash, it's obviously exciting. But at the highest level, a game like StarCraft 2 involves subtle plays with enormous significance that you could miss without good commentary. There's a moment in an earlier match of the GSL when TheLittleOne uses an invisible Ghost unit to call in a nuclear strike on a large group of oGsHyperdub's tanks. It creates a huge red marker on them, so of course they pack away their stationary guns and move out of the way. Since it's no longer going to hit anything, the Ghost cancels the nuke.
I'd normally find this pretty disappointing - nothing really happened. But the commentary makes the true significance - and genius - of the move clear. Without firing a shot, taking a hit or spending any resources, one tiny unit had just negated a massive enemy force, rendering them powerless to stop an assault on a base they were built to protect.
Watching pro StarCraft 2 players, commentated by pro StarCraft 2 players, has changed the way I think about all games. Not just intellectually, but as I'm playing them. If I shot off a few rockets in Team Fortress 2 without killing anything, I used to think "Oh well, I guess that annoyed them at least." Now I think "Oh wow, I just crippled that Medic. He's going to have to leave his Heavy to go and get health, and that's going to take the backbone out of their offense. Now I can force the Heavy to wind-up his minigun to retaliate, and duck behind that ledge so he wastes time or ammo without getting a hit."
It's not exactly the level of the pros, but it makes tactical play a clear and satisfying accomplishment, rather than a vague series of failed kills that gets you no points. I now have an internal commentator scratching his head at my screw-ups, applauding my sprees and analysing my decisions. I don't know if it's making me a better gamer, but it's making it a lot more fun.
I started with SC2Casts.com - I recommend it. It pulls in pretty much every YouTube video of a professional match, all with commentary, and tells you who played and what tournament the match is a part of - if any. Some are just one-off ladder matches between sparring pros, some just for fun. Other times huge sums of money are at stake, and once you see a few good matches of a tournament, you'll find yourself following it slavishly.
Husky and HDStarcraft are the titans of StarCraft 2 commentary - anything cast by them is going to be a good, and accessible. In our new issue, Rich picks out an epic match between TheLittleOne and Hasu as a classic Husky cast, and " a ridiculous game of Zergling and mouse " cast by HDStarcraft. All these are free.
But if you want to follow an incredibly exciting tournament, or if you've ever wanted to hear a grown man shout Edgar Allen Poe in excitement over a Raven-class science vessel deploying a point defense drone at a crucial moment, you should watch the GSL. The first season has just finished, with a spectacular conclusion and a surprise champion, and a season ticket to watch all 63 matches on their site is currently half price at $9.95. To avoid spoiling who makes it to the final, I'll just link the very first match and you can take it from there. The first round of every match is free to watch, but you need an account.
Or you can just click around on SC2Casts and you may find someone else is to your tastes. Either way, link us your favourites in the comments.