The Idle Thumbs Podcast, one of my favourites, for a long time held a running joke based on a rather ambitious claim made by video game enthusiast and occasional filmmaker Steven Spielberg: the “countdown to tears.” The whole point of ridiculing the statement was to poke fun at the idea that video games as a cultural medium had this definitive end point (or point of transition) wherein games became inviolably identifiable as “art.” Much like the “Citizen Kane of games” moniker that invited similar ridicule, the concept of there being a golden moment in video games’ narrative development that caused people playing games to burst into tears because of a profound emotional reaction and thus caused a clear point of evolution was itself limiting. Perhaps people have already been crying while playing games? Perhaps it depends on the individual player. Who says that crying is a decent barometer of a story’s emotional impact in any case? Not to mention the question of whether a video game needs a clear narrative component to be considered a great game (and not just a good game) or even an example of “art.”
Last night I had my own personal countdown to tears. That’s how it seems to me now: a personal moment. The relevance of it is tied to my own experiences. I was moved to tears not by a plot point in a well written game, but by a multiplayer game. I was moved by a moment in Starcraft 2 professional play. I've written about Starcraft 2 and eSports' wider relevance before. This experience really has me thinking about how eSports coincides with our modern experience of watching sports and how sports are presented as a form of spectacle.
I woke up in the middle of the night in the kind of mental limbo I absolutely hate: despite getting all of my good work done in the morning, I am never able to work in the middle of the night when I wake up abnormally early. Instead, I’m locked in a weird space where I know I won’t be getting back to sleep for a while but where I also don’t want to commit to something I would otherwise happily start in the morning such as a piece of writing, reading (for work or for pleasure) or even a lengthy single-player gaming session. I turned on my computer and saw on twitter the the World Championship Series Korea finals in Korea were still ongoing. Soulkey, a 21 year old Zerg player, had actually clawed his way back to a 3-2 deficit, having been 3-0 down to the best Terran player (and arguably best player overall) on the planet, Innovation. I hadn’t seen a Korean final in two years. It seemed like a good idea.
I switched on in time for game six, and saw Soulkey hold off a bit of “cheese” by his opponent: an aggressive strategy that if executed well would have placed Soulkey in an impossible situation but that if discovered early enough would likely sacrifice the game. Soulkey saw what was happening and held his opponent off with the kind of multi-tasking and swift mouse clicking that convinces me there may well be a physical reason that not many top players go on past their early to mid 20s. It was an exciting game and a short one; we were on to game seven.
Game sevens intrigue me. I’m a sports fan, but not an American one. The concept of competitors playing a best of seven series is relatively new to me. When watching soccer, I am a pure believer in the mostly irrational concept of momentum trumping talent and ability. Generally speaking, for example, when watching English football league playoffs I will favour the rising team that just got into the playoff places with a strong run of form against the team that had been dominant for months and recently slipped back into those same playoff spots. Game sevens are a little different. There is no mathematical reason that Soulkey had any greater chance of winning game seven than he did of winning game four, five or six. The commentators (the excellent Tasteless and Artosis)reminded us at home (well… informed me) that this had happened twice before but that in both cases the comeback had failed at the fourth attempt, that the player who had crafted the 3-0 lead had regained the series at the last. I couldn’t help but think this myself, that truthfully Innovation was going to reassert himself and win the seventh game.
So much of this reminded me of my experience watching sport. In soccer, I spend a lot of time during penalty shootouts looking at the demeanour of individual players, convinced that I can ascertain their confidence and thus the likelihood of missing the shot. Penalties in soccer are only nominally about skill; they are exercises in handling pressure. If you do not handle the pressure well, you will miss the kick. It’s that simple. Those eighteen yards feel like a hundred yards or a mile if you’re nervous. I was looking at the two Koreans in their sound proof booths looking over the replays of the previous game. Did Innovation look like he was going to crack? Did Soulkey look like he believed he had this? What was going to happen? I wrote a post recently on why Starcraft 2 interests me in terms of the history of sport and the evolution of sporting culture. This dramatic match, this game seven, evoked so much of the imagery and atmosphere that surrounds modern sport fueled by media coverage. The hall in which the two men played was packed full of fans, some of whom had brought the plastic soundmakers one often sees at cricket matches. Fans held up signs in support of their favourite player. The players’ mothers sat in the crowd to show their support. If one was to define modern sporting culture not in terms of the physical aspects involved, the rule-set or the social function but by the level of participation by the wider public or specific community around the activity, then it must be said that Starcraft 2 (and by extension eSports in general) are much closer to our modern model of sports than perhaps you would think.
The seventh game began and Innovation erred at a crucial point. The contest went on for another few minutes but in truth it was over. Soulkey did it. He came back from four down to win the series by four games to three. It had all the hallmarks of a striking sporting comeback. A crestfallen opponent, a stirring comeback, an enervated crowd. A clearly shaken Soulkey emerged from his soundproof booth for the post-match interview, bowing slightly towards the crowd in general. His mother wiped away tears as a younger woman (I presume Soulkey’s sister) handed her a steady chain of fresh tissues. That’s when my own personal countdown to tears ended as well. Soulkey’s teammates took to the stage and grabbed the winner, who at first I thought might have fainted, and threw him into the air several times before retreating to let him return to his moment. In his interview he talked about how worried he was that he was letting his team down when on the brink of a humiliating 4-0 whitewash (how Confucian) and thanked his family for their support. His mother had at this stage given up on trying to maintain her composure. I was doing better, thankfully, as the idea of crying in a room on my own at 4am feels rather unsettling, but I was definitely shaken. It was a wonderful moment.
Of course, I was moved by the people and not by the game itself. Starcraft 2’s single player campaign is silly to the point that it’s well beyond parody and it’s littered with sexist imagery. I don’t see myself being particularly moved by Blizzard’s narrative in the third installment either, whenever that might finally arrive. This eSports culture that continues to thrive around the game, however, creates fundamentally human moments. It creates the “drama” ESPN craves so much that we are constantly inundated with stories of athlete’s character and the adversity they’ve faced in their lives, a tendency in American media brilliantly parodied by The Onion. This was a personal moment. Because I have a mother. My parents have made sacrifices, because they believed in me. I’ve been a son that has felt a sense of gratitude so immense I have no clear idea of how to deal with it let alone to express it. I still am that son. Last night Soulkey was such a man, too. In that sense we were connected. Increasingly, I am of the belief that sports as performance and sports as experience must be understood as two separate social historical processes in the modern world. Last night was the moment I became convinced that in the latter regard at least, the barrier between eSports and sports is nowhere near as imposing as many may assume.
Edit/Update: Thanks to Dinotramp in the comments for pointing out that I erroneousy conflated the World Championship Series Korea League with Korean Major League Gaming in the original post. I'd like to say it was a slip of the typing fingers, but actually I find the WCS and MLG (and the area between) a little confusing.