“Instead of saying I’m going to be best Pro Gamer I’d like to say that, especially in the eyes of the fans, I’ll work hard to be a pro gamer that always gives his all. A gamer that really enjoys and embodies the spirit of competition”
Lee ‘Jaedong’ Jae Dong, StarCraft II Player
“The difference between me and any other fighter is they’re talented, I’m God-gifted.”
Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather, Boxer
StarCraft, Race and Culture
Race has two distinct meanings in StarCraft. There are three in-game races that can be played: Zerg, Protoss and Terran; and there are two player races Korean and Foreigner.
What Race are you?
Just so we get this out on the table, and there’s no awkwardness later on – I’m a Zerg.
Player / in-game race
The relationship between players / casters / audience and in-game race is rather complex. Race acts like a sub-brand within StarCraft.
Anyone who plays StarCraft has to start by playing through a story line that introduces you to the game and the mechanics and back-stories of each of the in-game races.
Terrans are earthlings in the style of the hyper-real, hyper-masculine, hyper-everything depiction of the US military that’s now a standard in many video games; they use guns and tanks. Protoss are aliens with advanced technology and beam weapons; unit names Zelot and Templar also hint at a strong religious basis to the society, this is much less evident than the shiny look and sounds of the Protoss. Lastly, Zerg are crustacean / insect like life forms they fight using their own biological abilities.
I’ve not seen a Nick Yee type of study on why players choose a given race. I imagine there is a range of reasons and would be interested to what people think. The combination of effects and affordances of each race provides a differently textured aesthetic experience and I wonder if this is the underlying draw for most players whether it’s the one they state or not. (see my Aesthetics of Video Games for more on this point). For me there was just a draw to the alienness of the Zerg, thought I love the sound of Protoss. From my limited skill at the game it also seems like some races suit particular proficiencies of players e.g. Protoss force-field placement takes a specific hand / eye accuracy.
Players are typically associated with a given in-game race. As noted in the previous post in this series, casters will refer to someone as ‘the Zerg’ or ‘the Protoss’.
BossToss and Scarlett's Off-Race'ing
Two interesting things of note in the player / in-game race dynamic are MC and Scarlett. As we will discuss further later MC is an exceptional player in many ways. One is the number of names he’s known by, one being ‘the boss-toss’ i.e. the head of the Protoss race. While other players are strongly associated with a given in-game race, I’m not aware of any other ranking pro who’s nickname includes a reference to in-game race.
The other player with an unusual relationship with in-game race is Scarlett. Being the only female Zerg player at the highest level of competition she is sometimes referred to as The Queen of Blades (a reference to one of the main in-game characters). What is most unusual about Scarlett is that even in high-level competitions she will sometime change in-game race to an ‘off-race’ between games. For example in the x on 22 June 2014 in the MLG Anaheim Losers Round 4 Scarlett changed to Protoss in game two of the best of 5.
So engrained is the fixity between player and race StarCrafts journal of record Liquipedia had to add a special note to the game record noting the race change, through throughout Scarlett is categorised as Zerg so the switch would not be apparent unless you knew to look for it.
In-game race as brand
Commentators acknowledge and maybe amplify the emotional relationship that home players have with in-game races.
When talking about competitions commentators will reference all kinds of attributes of players, one way players will be grouped is by in-game race. This is not done simply as another category but importance is given to how various in-game races are being represented in various rounds of a multi-round competition. For example a commentator my say ‘we only have one Terran in the next round’, or may comment on the overall success of Zerg over a given period. All these comments are structured and delivered in a way to convey to the audience the message that how a given race is doing matter, not as much as a particular player, but possibly more than a given team (in a non-team competition that is).
What’s more a caster / interviewer such as Paul 'ReDeYe' Chanlor will typically say within in interview or analysis context “As a Terran…” as a self-referential marker. Such a statement does a number of things. It orientates the caster with the player and the audience; Terran indexes a certain style within the game and, generally, sympathies for other players that choose the in-game race. It also acts as a solidarity marker, casters must have a high degree of expertise with the game they are commentating upon, through mention of in-game race this provides an indication of an emotional bond with the game that is only formed through play; thus bonding the commentator to player and audience.
The other two races
Only two races play StarCraft: Koreans and foreigners. So pervasive are Koreans on the international StarCraft scene that Korean is often the un-marked category in player descriptions.
This use of categories is pervasive in Western coverage of StarCraft wherever the coverage is from. That is, a US player, playing in North American will be a foreigner. It may be the case that the simple bifurcation is used as a way to raise the racial divide to the level of the absurd so removing the dangers of race politics. Of course this tactic is not guaranteed and it’s not universally used.
Beyond this single point there are many aspects to race and its active co-construction within the StarCraft eSports scene.
It’s hard to say what effect, if any, this positioning of races is having on the west and possibly the US in particular. However the respect give to an Asian nation and the acceptance that Americans are foreign, even in America appears to be quite different from much of US media. This bringing together of cultures occurs everywhere within the StarCraft world. Live chat rooms will often be multi-lingual typically mixing English and Korean, but also through the number of high-ranking Scandinavian players there will also be conversations in languages such as Finnish. The streaming site Twitch also broadcasts Korean StarCraft shows that are translated in real time by US commentators many of whom have lived in Korea, these shows also run Korean ads and pop music (K-Pop – which is growing in popularity in the US as witnessed by the popularity of the 2014 K-POP night a the South By South West festival).
From zero to Korean
There is certainly respect and tension between the Korean and Foreign sides of StarCraft.
In the documentary Inside look at Korean StarCraft II pro teams Won Jong-Wook Manger of pro team StarTale talks about having “Pride for Korea and pride for our player” and add that “when foreign players reach the finals more fans will cheer for eSports as a whole”. In the same documentary Kang Dong-Hoon, manager of LG/IM, notes that “loosing to a foreigner is far more bitter than a loss against any other Korean player”.
Being a sportsman
There is however a clear tension between western eSports shows and Korean culture. As TL of this parish has pointed out, eSports coverage has been constructed around the model of sports coverage. Players, caster and audience have co-constructed a way of watching eSports that draws heavily on certain well-understood tropes.
In MOBAs in particular there appears to be a heavy influence from US sports coverage – shows sometimes have commentary teams that use visual tropes such as uniform blazers, ties and big mics. MOBAs and games like World of Tanks fall slightly easier into sports model as they are team games with a team captain and the strategies particular in MOBAs are similar to American Football as players have well defined roles. Also there are number of highly ranked Western teams in games such as League of Legends, who’s players are used to the role of the star player within the construction of a game event.
In StarCraft there is a particular form of tension between the western construction of a players and Korean culture. In his interview with ReDeYe, Duncan "Thorin" Shields notes that players are often criticised for being “Faceless Koreans” due to their reserved interviewed along the lines of ‘he played well, I hope I play better next game’. In this same interview ReDeYe suggests that “Koreans are misunderstood” adding that Koreans tend to be reserved and respectful and what a western model of sports rivalry or trash talking is just seen as rude by many Koreans. As well as noting that not all Korean players are reserved (see MC below) ReDeYe states that “[if we] Understand their culture may be help us understand that not what they want to do or feel comfortable doing”.
As both Thorin and ReDeYe noted in their interview - so much of what the fan perceives of eSports is a story constructed by the creators of the event. In combatting some fan’s view of Korean players as all the same, Thorin suggested “maybe we could do something before the event to set up a story line”. ReDeYe also noted that increasingly events where only Korean players are competing have had compelling competition narratives i.e. the story arcs of the various players as the progress through the rounds; “maybe we’ve got better at telling stories,” he adds.
RedBull has taken eSports coverage to a new level in the west with their BattleGrounds series.
At the DC finals held in the Lincoln Theatre there were huge banners showing cartoon portraits of the finalists: Bomber, Cure, DRG, Polt, PartinG, Scarlett, sOs and Trap; all Korean except Scarlett from Canadian. Photo shoots, interviews, and player portraits all acted to heighten the personas of the players. The audience were also given large white cards with RedBull and battlegrounds logos on to write messages one – those features on the stream were typically about players (a practice that is used by Korean eSports shows) for example this “BOMBER A LONE Terran In a SEA of TOS + ZERG – GG” banner at BattleGrounds NYC.
RedBull also consciously constructed a story arc around the event, the headline for the final day summary ‘story’ on the RedBull site reads “Bomber wins Battle Grounds in day of the underdogs -favourites fall to the upstarts as Bomber goes on a spree in DC. Here are our picks of the weekend” not only a classic sports narrative but the David and Goliath narrative that underpins so many stories.
One thing that is going to be interesting in the development of eSports is the degree to which the structure of the industry does or does not select Korean players that fit more into the Western ideal of a sports personality. Also how much the construction of such personas needs any individual to have those traits and how much the creation of an even can impose them onto the individual.
Despite the banners, flames, ticker tape and screams of the crowd all SC2 matches still open with players using in game chat to say gl hf (good luck, have fun). Or as Imp the League of Legends Ad Carry for team Samsung Galaxy White put it in a recent interview:
“No. I don’t think I am the best at all. I definitively don’t think I’m the best AD Carry […] I don’t think it’s me”