On the Ball: Man Versus Machine

Jordan Deam | 7 Apr 2010 21:00
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It's officially StarCraft week at The Escapist, which means that in addition to clocking a couple hours each night with the StarCraft II beta, I've been reading, editing and yes, writing about Blizzard's latest soul-sucking time-sink disguised as an RTS. Issue 248 of our weekly magazine contains an interview with StarCraft II's lead designer, a sort of coming-of-age story about the Zerg, a profile of the best StarCraft player that ever lived and a cautionary tale from a StarCraft also-ran. But while each article covers a different facet of the StarCraft experience, the latter two got me thinking about a much broader topic: the difference between a game and a sport.

Reading Jack Porter's piece about the toll competitive StarCraft play can take on your psyche transported me back to my college years, when I was obsessed with an altogether more primitive strategy game: chess. Aside from our platform of choice - a modern PC in Porter's case, a slab of patterned wood in mine - our stories played out in a similar fashion. We both became mildly obsessed with a game that revolves around the memorization and application of a nearly infinite array of patterns, to the point that we were practically haunted by what should have been an enjoyable way to pass the time. When I moved out of my freshman dorm and away from my closest competitor, I pretty much stopped playing and haven't looked back since.

Brett Staebell's article, on the other hand, offers a portrait of a more determined competitor, one who went on to become a sort of StarCraft Grandmaster: Lim Yo-Hwan, better known as SlayerS_'BoxeR'. BoxeR practiced religiously for years until he reached the top of the professional StarCraft scene, becoming a high-profile and well-paid gaming celebrity in the process. It's an extraordinary achievement that hasn't been replicated since - one could argue that BoxeR wasn't just the pinnacle of competitive StarCraft, but of e-sports in general.

But one commenter wasn't as impressed with BoxeR's success as I was. Xersues laughed at the very idea of "e-sports," suggesting that BoxeR and his cohorts were taking the game entirely too seriously:

Anything that a computer has a chance of doing better I can't ever claim to be a "sport" or even "pro" at. If Blizzard really tried I bet they could make an ultimate A.I. that would just be so cheap even making it follow the rules it would win most tournaments itself. It would micro faster, move faster and space out the units faster. Script in some "pro-strats" and I'm sure it could win most of the time.

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