Everyone knows that video games are a pretty big thing in South Korea. And one of the biggest games in Korea’s history is Blizzard’s real time strategy franchise Starcraft – now Starcraft 2. Players have attained levels of prestige the equivalent of North American sports stars, including six-figure incomes, hordes or fans and recognition on the street. Real-time strategy has become a sport unto itself: a digital chess match that requires intense clicks-per-second and incredible observational skills. Tournament after tournament presents players going head-to-head – for cash. The prestige in North America is nonexistent by comparison, the money less and the fanbase not ready to making gaming more than a casual pastime. The North American Star League is trying to change that.
An official league for Starcraft 2 has burgeoned in North America, beginning with a 50-player tournament comprised of some of the best Starcraft 2 players from all over the world, including South Korea. Begun on April 5th the “NASL” lasted 13 consecutive weeks of five-day rounds, from Wednesday to Sunday. The tournament is live online at nasl.tv and rolled round by round through the preliminary tournament bracket – all for a crack at competing for year one’s grand prize of $100,000.
With each week the broadcast improved as hosts Andre (Gretorp) and Geoff (iNcontroL) Robinson got more and more comfortable in their roles and the technical production offered them greater options to smooth transitions between matches. The commentators serve to breakdown the gameplay, provide insight into the players’ distinct playing styles and fill uneventful time in the early-game with engaging and often silly banter. Occasionally the NASL offers interviews with players who have just defeated opponents or guest hosts who, like iNcontroL, are competing in the tournament themselves. Since this writer began watching (thanks to a handy post on Facebook) the backdrop went from ‘gray wall’ to Starcraft mural, the music went from ‘not existing’ to epic arena rock and the viewers have gone from… well, over 10,000 on any given night since its inception. All of these details point to one thing: the North American Starcraft League is on the up and up. With the continued ascension of respect for video games in society, the origin of league gaming could not come at a better opportunity. The time has come to start selling the brand and giving these cerebral gamers their due.
Though I will admit that in order to appreciate players for their attributes in-game you have to know a thing or two about Starcraft, I still found they are the most engaging part of the tournament. I immediately found a preference with some competitors over others despite having no predisposition towards any of them. I liked Cyber Nation’s “MoMaN” (yes, each player comes from a team of practicing Starcraft professionals) for the arbitrary reason his profile picture was funny and he was the only player hailing from France. He ended up with 4 wins, 5 losses and a berth at the round-robin for one of the coveted final slots before losing to Dignitas Naniwa. I also liked iNcontroL of the team Evil Geniuses – an easy choice as he is one of the funny commentators and looks to be the odd combination of professional gamer and bodybuilder. What? Yep. iNcontroL was fast out of the gate with three straight wins before also ending up 4-5 and missing the round-robin. In the end TeamLiquid Ret, SlayerS Boxer and imba.FXOpen Strelok reigned supreme with records of 8-1. The final tournament takes place July 8-10th, 2011, in Ontario, California and more information can be found here: NASL Finals information.
There are certainly drawbacks to the NASL but I find myself continually, well, drawn back. For starters, you have to know Starcraft 2 well enough to appreciate the nuances of these battles. You also have to be ready to drown in jargon, much of which is still above my head despite my playing Starcraft 2 since its release – but this is a learning experience in itself. There is also very little here to engage the fairer sex as all 50 players are male as well as the commentators – but that could be of little surprise. In the league’s defense, they have been working hard to improve their production’s entertainment value since the tournament’s inception, listening to viewer comments to key in on their weak spots and experimenting freely. However, the website could do with greater maintenance as matches can go unreported for days and even now tournament bracket information is hard to find.
One final thing: just like in sports, you learn by emulating the best – and my game has definitely improved since April. Sometimes it is worth studying the chess match, other times you can do nothing but drop your jaw in awe at a player’s ability to perform five actions seemingly at once. So if you dig real-time strategy and the Starcraft world in particular, give the NASL a chance. In short order it might merit a bookmark as a daily diversion.