In the popular science fiction short story Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the future of the human race is dominated by struggle with an insectoid alien race – the consequence of which is that humans have concentrated their intellectual capital into an elite training program for gifted children; in which advanced strategy games are used to produce an invincible tactical intelligence in the form of the child Ender. While the story is significant and presents enduring ethical themes (Ender’s Game sits on the U. S. Marine Corps professional reading list), my interest is to show that (as is the tendency in science fiction) Ender’s Game was predictive. The rise of competitive mental sports akin to the kind described in Ender’s Game is becoming reality, perhaps as a consequence of our gradual social and economic migration from physical to mental activities and work, and of those emergent “e-sports” the strategy game Starcraft 2 reigns virtually supreme.
Likewise in Starcraft 2, humanity is threatened by an alien race possessed of collective sentience (a “hive mind”) that utilizes rapid, targeted evolution in place of technology. Likewise, a great deal of intellectual capital has been invested in understanding the game. For Ender, victory in the game came with the revelation that, far from being a simulation, his input to the game had been translated into actuality and his moves had resulted in the death of an entire species. While the stakes are perhaps not so high for the growing pool of professional Starcraft 2 players, the size and number of events are growing internationally (along with prize pools). Events by one of the preeminent U.S. organizers, Major League Gaming, are consistently garnering stream views of around 35 million with 20,000 live viewers and a $50,000 prize for the yearly grand champion.
As the successor to the heretofore most successful esport in history, Starcraft: Brood War, Starcraft 2 has had large shoes to fill. The original scene developed largely in South Korea, which still boasts professional Brood War teams competing within a well-organized association for professional gamers. Although the Brood War scene has been in gradual decline since the release of its sequel, it is likely that the most exciting days are still ahead as the incredibly dominant Brood War champions have indicated the beginning of their transition to the new game.
The game itself is a real time strategy game in which each player must manage an economy, create buildings, and build the appropriate military units in order to defeat ones opponent. Control over resources and strategic terrain is essential to victory, along with discovering and countering the moves of the opposing player. Comparisons have been made between Starcraft and chess, but while chess demands high functionality in one particular domain (high level strategy, or staying a move ahead of your opponent) Starcraft demands that these decisions be made under the duress of real time and while a large portion of a players mental capacity is occupied with “macroing” or optimally managing their economy.
The e-sports concept seems to be reaching a turning point; viewership is high enough that some organizations are rumored to be in talks with stations like ESPN concerning bringing Starcraft to mainstream television, and into direct competition with physical sports. Regardless, the future of e-sports and Starcraft is uncertain. An increasing number of companies have come forward to sponsor Starcraft events and advertise to the valuable young male demographic, but the long term effect of industry on e-sports remains to be seen. Traditional sports, by virtue of their gradual rise and the powerful regulatory institutions they developed, could normalize outside influence on the game. Professional e-sports, while organized in Korea, is largely an unregulated international scene in the rest of the world and, at the moment, is wholly subject to the whims of sponsors.
The way in which the e-sports scene goes in the next few years will determine if current generations are ready for a wholly mental sport. Regardless, the trajectory of history favors e-sports insofar as technology will likely continue to subsume the physical aspect of human life. In light of this, Starcraft 2 will at least, if it fails to capture the imagination of the public at large, serve as one of the vital approximations that underlie the final transition from the physical to the mental in sports.