My column was on hiatus over the holidays, but now it’s back with a discussion of why esports generally make for lousy spectator sports. I say this as someone who has probably watched a hundred games of Starcraft 2 over the last month. I love watching these games, but only because I’ve clocked enough hours with the game to make sense of the gameplay. I don’t watch many other esports, but they all have more or less the same problem. Read the column if you want to hear why I think it doesn’t work and what a more approachable esport might look like.
So let’s talk about watching Starcraft 2 games…
The Anatomy of a professional Starcraft 2 Match
Here is a newbie-friendly description of what it’s like to watch (or play) a game of Starcraft 2. This is 100% jargon-free, which means it will be easy to follow at the cost of driving seasoned Starcraft 2 fans absolutely crazy. The game begins with…
Phase 1: Nothing Happens
The game opens with our two players in opposing corners of the map. To start with they only have a handful of worker units, who begin harvesting resources. After a little gathering they have enough to make their first supply structureA building that allows them to build more units. Think of it as needing to build 1 farm for every 10 soldiers., and then after some more harvesting they have enough to begin building their first real production facility. It will take this thing a while to complete. Somewhere around two and a half minutes we’ll finally see the first proper military units appear and the players can begin trying to kill each other.
Usually the audience watches a game with a quasi-professional caster providing commentary. We in the audience can see through the fog of war and watch what the players are doing. You can often judge the skill and experience of the caster by how well they fill these pointless two minutes with patter. They’ll talk about what the players have done in previous games. They’ll make guesses about what they might try to do in this game. They’ll speculate about what each player might be thinking their opponent is thinking.
The casters do their best, but it really is hard to make this interesting.
Phase 2: Almost Nothing Happens
The first couple of offensive units appear on the field. These one or two units will generally travel all the way across the map, slip into the enemy base, and begin harassing the opposition by attacking the worker units. You end up watching two low-powered units chase each other around for a couple of minutes. The stakes are low, the action is low, and most of us are just waiting for the game to transition to the next phase.
Each player will kill a small handful of their opponent’s workers. This activity is called harassment. Killing workers slightly slows down harvesting, which slightly delays getting to the point where they start building a proper army. Since both players are trying to do this to each other, the caster has to choose which side of the map we get to look at, with the opposing harassment happening off-screen.
The overall effect is that these attacks usually cancel out. I kill five of yours, you kill four of mine, the game rolls on. It’s boring and tedious and nothing comes of it, but if you don’t harass me then I’ll kill five of yours and you won’t kill any of mine, and that imbalance will add up over time.
Once in a long while a player will do something crazy called an “all-in”. This is where they stop building workers and growing their economy and instead pour all their resources into a single attack. If they succeed, they win. If they fail, their opponent will be able to turn around crush them. So if anything interesting does happen here in phase 2, it just means the game will end right away instead of transitioning to the later, more interesting phases. I realize that an all-in is a totally legitimate strategy and a natural product of the rules as designed, but I’ve come to loathe them because they’re so uninteresting to watch. For the audience, it turns the entire match into a coin flip and sends the entire process back to phase 1 with the next match. I suppose this is how Quidditch viewers feel when someone grabs the golden snitch at the start of the game. I just found my seat and the game is over already? This is bullshit!
I really hate early game harassment. If I never have to watch another Terran reaper play peek-a-boo with a Zerg queen, it will be too soon.
Phase 3: Early Game
Finally the poking and prodding ends and we (probably) get our first real battle. Each player has a choice of what technologies / units they want to focus on. At this point their chosen units will begin appearing. This part of the game is a bit like playing chicken. You want to build as few units as possible and still survive.
How it works is this: As you play, you work your way up the tech tree. The Crappy Building lets you build crappy units, and also allows you to build the Less Crappy Building. In turn, you can then build the Pretty Good Building, which leads to the Totally Awesome Building. The later buildings allow you to construct units that are more efficient in terms of cost vs. damage output. The longer you wait to build your army, the more powerful your unit composition will be. It’s much better to spend 400 space minerals on a space aircraft carrier than to spend those same resources on 4 space mooks. On the other hand, if you don’t build enough to defend yourself then your opponent will be able to steamroll you with their crappy space mooks.
So you want to do everything you can to get units inside your opponent’s base so you can get a sense of how big their army is. If they’re scary big, then you begin pumping out appropriate units to counter them. If they’re too small, then maybe consider taking what you’ve got and trying to crush them now. If things are about even, then continue building more infrastructure and workers to give yourself a booming economy and access to late-game tech.
This is the part of the game where you start to see armies roaming the center of the map, taking potshots at each other, scouting, and vying for map control. If one of the players made a mistake in the previous phases and suffered a lot from harassment, then here is where that will pay off. Their economy will be weak, their army will be too small, and they’ll start losing fights.
Maybe Blue isn’t strong enough to kill Red outright, but their advantage allows them to constantly push Red back. Red is forced to cower inside their base. Unable to expand, Red will gradually starve as their resources start to run low. If they can’t build new bases on fresh resources patches, then they’ll enter a downward spiral and eventually succumb to attrition.
At the pro level, players are really good at recognizing this situation and will concede if they’re doomed. Less skilled players often don’t realize how screwed they are and will continue to fight a lost cause. Which means low-level games are, on average, a lot longer and a lot less interesting than pro games.
Assuming nobody makes any major mistakes, then eventually the game will proceed to…
Phase 4: The Mid Game
This is my favorite phase of the game. We get here a little after the ten minute mark. At this point the players will be getting close to the supply cap. This is the hard limit on how large a player’s army can be. In the old days this limitation probably existed to keep players from filling the map with thousands of units until their computers slowed to a crawl. A max size army is a terrifying thing to behold.
At this point the resource patches the players claimed in the early stages of the game will begin to run out, and players will need to move out into the middle of the map to grab more. This means the game gradually shoves the two combatants towards each other. The starting resource patches are always on the high ground, behind an easily-defended choke point. As the game goes on the players are obliged to claim spots that are more exposed.
Games usually end in this phase, but sometimes things progress to…
Phase 5: The Late Game
This phase is like the previous phase, only moreso. At this point both players will have max armies, and the armies will be composed of lots of advanced units. This is where the really big battles happen. Two armies will prowl around the map, probing for glimpses of each other and looking for an opportunity. It’s pretty cool to be in the audience and see everything as the players cope with divided attention and imperfect information.
Things the players are trying to do:
- Catch the enemy army out of position. Maybe you’ll get behind them, where their soft, vulnerable, high-value support units are positioned. Maybe you’ll ambush them from the high ground. Maybe you’ll get them with their back against a wall where they’ll be forced to fight on your terms.
- Secure fresh bases on new resource patches. At this point in the game the players will start to “bank” money. Once their army is max size, the resources they collect will begin to build up. This means they have the reserves to quickly replenish lost units. The two sides will clash, suffer losses, retreat, and then in the space of a minute they’ll be back to full strength. This binge-spending burns a lot of resources, and thus requires grabbing ever-more bases.
- Destroy active enemy bases. If you can choke off their economy, then you’ll be able to replace lost units and they won’t. If they have a lot in the bank then it might take a few engagements to starve them, but it should happen eventually.
Very few games go beyond this point, but once in a while we get to…
Phase 6: The End Game
As we get close to the one-hour mark, the last resource patches on the map will begin to run out. This process might take a little longer on larger maps, but sooner or later it becomes a war of attrition.
It’s Actually Pretty Fun to Watch
I realize I’m doing a bad job of selling you on the game. That’s fine. If you’re not already a fan of the game, I have no idea how to make it sound interesting. It’s a weird game and the learning curve makes for a tough climb.
There’s an ESL tournament happening this week, and I’ve been watching ZombieGrub act as a caster for the games. There are tons of casters out there covering these games, but ZombieGrub is the one I’m familiar with.
— ZombieGrub (@ZGGaming) January 9, 2019
Anyway. That’s the esport I’m into. What do you watch?
 A building that allows them to build more units. Think of it as needing to build 1 farm for every 10 soldiers.
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