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U of R StarCraft club brings professional video gaming ‘out of the basement’ and into the dorm rooms
“I guess I’m just a player. I have no organizational skills whatsoever, and I’m pretty bad at the game,” said Jason Wist, a fourth-year engineering student and avid StarCraft player. Wist is one of approximately 20 people who have formed the University of Regina’s first club dedicated to StarCraft II, the Windows- and Mac-based real-time strategy game.
“Wist is our star platinum player,” said Dan Gienow, a fourth-year electronics engineering student and events co-ordinator of the club.
“Or, as we like to call it, our comic relief,” laughed Taylor Nelson, a fourth-year environmental systems engineer and president of the club.
While the joke may be lost on most people who aren’t StarCraft aficionados, Wist’s platinum player status puts him in the lower echelons of the U of R StarCraft club. Most of the club’s players sit in the master’s league, which puts them in the top two per cent of players in their region.
“It’s not the most competitive server in the world,” Gienow said. “But, being in masters league… is more than something to shake a stick at.”
Yet, despite being perhaps some of the best players in their region, Wist, Gienow, and Nelson don’t think much about their status in the StarCraft world.
“I take it more as a pastime,” Nelson said. “I usually view the game as more of a mental kind of competitive thing.”
“I just treat it like a game”, said Wist, echoing Nelson’s sentiment.
But Gienow sees some practical application to spending his time on StarCraft.
“I find for a lot of people, not only is it a game, but a lot of people improve multitasking skills with it,” he said. “[But], for most people, it’s just a pastime.”
The club was started a year ago by another fourth-year engineering student, Kyle Smyth, who started the club on the same premise Wist, Nelson, and Gienow play the game: an opportunity for people to get together and have a bit of fun.
“I’ve always been a huge videogamer. I’ve been playing video games since I was a little kid,” Smyth said. “[With the StarCraft club], I wanted to refresh that childhood awesomeness.”
But these aren’t just a bunch of engineering students attempting to relive their childhood. Smyth enrolled the club with the Collegiate Starleague, which puts them into a competitive pool of 250 other universities and matches them up with nine other schools they are to play throughout the year.
The basic premise of StarCraft II involves an interstellar war between humans and two warring alien species, but while a detailed synopsis of the game would require a specialized vocabulary that relies on knowledge of the previous game, its gameplay is fairly simple.
You start with a basic setup of workers who establish a command centre for you to control your colony. From there, you build up your army and your base and attempt to attack and destroy the other player before that player destroys you. While the basics are simple, however, the action is frantic and requires players to strategize in advance.
“The best way to look at it is like it’s a game of chess,” Nelson said. “Except, instead of, ‘I move a piece, and then you move a piece,’ all the pieces take a certain amount of time to go to a certain place, so… it’s not just back and forth. Everything is going at the same time.”
“There’s a lot of strategy involved in it,” Gienow said.
In what they dubbed “The Battle of Saskatchewan”, the club had its first matchup of the year on Sept. 17 against the University of Saskatchewan. Matchups are best-of-five, with the first team to win three games winning the match.
Matchups are more exciting than one might think. But, if the idea of watching people play video games conjures up images of what Nelson calls “basement dwellers” in front of computer screens, you’ve got it all wrong.
“Traditionally, if you look at games six years ago, it was really a niche market. It was kind of like nerd life,” Nelson said. “But now, it’s switching over to what you call ‘e-sports’, so it’s more a competitive league.”
“It’s just like an NFL game,” Gienow explained.
The game has a huge following in South Korea, where over 4.5 billion copies of the original game StarCraft have been sold.
“About two weeks ago, we watched a GSL [Global StarCraft League] all-star game,” he said. “It was like three o’clock in the morning our time, because it’s all in Korean time and that’s off by like 14 hours.”
And, like any good professional sporting event, StarCraft has its fair share of obscenely-paid professional players.
“They’ve got a full pro gaming league [in South Korea], and they’ve regularly got StarCraft tournaments which [have] like a $400,000 prize pool,” Gienow said. “I’d say there are about 50 or 60 StarCraft players who make more than a CFL player, like easily.”
These players are recognized internationally by their screen name, though not necessarily because they’re good at what they do.
“Destiny is a jerk, but he’s recognizable, so people watch his channel and he makes money off of that,” Gienow said. “He doesn’t necessarily win tournaments, but he makes a big show of being a jerk. So it’s a lot like UFC or WWE, where if you can be the biggest loudmouth there, you can make money without being necessarily skilled.”
In keeping with their vision of StarCraft as an NFL-, UFC-, or WWE-level sporting event, Gienow hopes to bring what they call “Barcraft” to Regina. The hope is they will be able to stream live StarCraft games in local bars.
“It’s a growing trend in the e-sports world,” Gienow said. “If you can get a licensed establishment with at least 20 or 30 people to host this regularly, they’ll send out Barcraft kits that have like door prizes, posters, and all that other crap.”
“With this whole e-sports thing, I see [Barcraft as] the final step to get the e-sports to what we view as a traditional sport,” Nelson said. “If a hockey game’s on, you go to the bar and have a beer with somebody. It’s the same thing with StarCraft. It’s really picking up and gaining speed. It was like that in [South] Korea, but now it’s coming overseas.”
“[StarCraft is coming] out of the basement,” Gienow said.
And, though StarCraft may not have the same cultural presence as the sports Gienow is comparing it to, with the club holding matchup streams every week and averaging 40 people per event, it may not be long before StarCraft indeed moves out of the basements and into the homes and bars of Regina.