Last November a 20 year old Canadian named Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn beat a 26 year old Korean named Bomber in a game of StarCraft II. Hostyn lured a massive army of marines over a few burrowed Banelings. They erupted, the Terran were annihilated and the crowd went as wild as Seattle after the Super Bowl.
It was everything you wanted from a professional StarCraft match, with all the suspense and ambiguity that StarCraft sometimes lacks. It featured one of the most dramatic moments in eSports history, and it had the feel-good narrative of a woman knocking off one of the best StarCraft players in the world—winning big and publicly in a male-dominated field.
But that’s not why the crowd went crazy. This was at Red Bull Battle Grounds, a competition in New York City featuring a mostly American audience. As it stands, Hostyn is one of the precious few North American StarCraft players capable of knocking off top-level Korean competition. By and large, North Americans lose to the Koreans. Any time an American makes noise it’s a big deal to a very specific group of people. Hostyn’s victory was not the norm. She is an underdog by the very nature of where she trains and where she was born. In fact, all of the premiere StarCraft tournaments held last year were won by Koreans. Only one North American, Scarlett Hostyn, came in second.
That’s why we cheer.
North Americans generally succeed when it comes to their own creations. Canadians dominate hockey, Americans dominate basketball and football, and Mexicans are currently undisputed in their stranglehold on charreada. So it’s strange that StarCraft, a game developed in North America and one that enjoys a strong national appreciation, can be so thoroughly dominated by another region.
“It’s not a stigma as much as it is a reality at this point,” says CatZ, boss of ROOT Gaming, one of North America’s leading StarCraft teams. “When StarCraft II came out I felt that North American players were right up there with Koreans. But that’s the not the case anymore.
“Obviously I don’t think Koreans have an innate racial advantage, but I do think they benefit from the infrastructure,” continues CatZ. “PC cafes are so common in Korea. The gaming culture is much more widely accepted. Everyone over there knows who BoxeR is [a retired StarCraft pro.] They’re celebrities, they marry actresses. StarCraft is a sport in Korea.”
It’s a pretty clear distinction. The top echelon of Korean StarCraft players benefits from economic and cultural advantages that just aren’t in place for North American players. They live in team houses, they have coaches and sponsorships and they are unencumbered by the judging eyes of bullies who look down on gaming. eSports is growing in the U.S. and Canada, but “professional gamer” still lands as an absurd term in mainstream nomenclature. Despite a respectful feature by Soledad O’Brien, HBO’s Real Sports panel still calls a League of Legends tournament a Star Trek convention.
That cultural divide manifests itself in clear, unmistakable ways. Xenocider is one of the top American players in competitive StarCraft, and he’s a 16-year old high school student. At last year’s MLG Spring Championship he was eliminated by a 25-year old CM Storm-sponsored Korean named Polt.
“Most of the professional players in America are students, people that are trying to find other ways to make a living,” says Kim Phan, Senior Manager of eSports at Blizzard Entertainment.
In a strange dichotomy, a significant portion of the people watching streams of professional StarCraft are North American (although Major League Gaming has said that they’ve seen a decrease in continental viewers over the last year.) It means a lot of people are supporting an international community, despite the fact that they have very limited top-tier national representation. It’s not unlike the circumstances facing Major League Soccer; while those teams will always carry a level of local glamour, national attention will always focus on the better and more established European teams.
Phan says it’s not for a lack of competition. “The North American scene is very competitive,” she reiterates. “It’s more competitive than most regions. Skill level is different, but not competitiveness. If you look at the number of people participating in StarCraft tournaments, participation from North Americans is always high across the board, from amateurs to professionals.”
Blizzard, players and the eSports industry all have a vested interest in bettering the North American skill level. Nobody wants to see a one-sided playing field, but smoothing things over is a complicated procedure.
“In order for North America to keep up with Korea we need to start doing regional leagues,” says CatZ. “I think North America needs to have its own stars and its own prize pools. With that established I think we can produce players as good as Korea. Some people think that the better players should always win, but to me, I think players over here need to have something to work towards.”
Adam Apicella, EVP of Major League Gaming, concurs. “There needs to be more competition for players to compete against their peers to build up their skills and confidence. It’s the age old psychology of sports, confidence comes from winning.”
It’s hard to tell if we’ll see a balanced StarCraft scene in the future. eSports is not growing in predictable patterns. League of Legends, DOTA 2 and StarCraft are all major players in the same zone, with more games being developed specifically for eSports on the way. Americans might eventually catch up to the Koreans, or may redirect their interest into scenes that give them a better shot at success. Competing in League of Legends doesn’t force you to go against an entire cultural infrastructure.
Still, there are reasons to be hopeful.
“I’m optimistic in general,” says Phan, “We’ve had so many online tournaments in America, we’ve had ShoutCraft, Red Bull just picked it up. People love watching StarCraft, it’s just so fun to watch. The community is not just made up of top level players, it’s also made up of very passionate fans.”
When Scarlett won the crowd was overcome with emotion. With the right infrastructure, perhaps North America can turn that passion for StarCraft into success.
Photo of Scarlett Hostyn by Kevin Chang for Team Liquid.
Luke Winkie is a writer and former pizza maker from San Diego, currently residing in Austin. He writes about music, sports and videogames for The Austin Chronicle, Red Bull Music, Myspace, The Village Voice and Salon.