Most Americans watch the Superbowl and have some skin in the game whether or not they have ever played football. The World Series is the cornerstone of “America’s favorite pastime” not because people love grabbing 17 of their closest friends for a game, but because the televised event speaks to our national soul. Even though the mainstream audience can’t play them, people not only watch these sports, they buy jerseys and memorize player’s stats, investing in the game.
I believe StarCraft did that for esports because StarCraft is still one of the hardest RTS games to play. By any means, Starcraft isn’t a game you can just “pick up the controller and play.” It takes years of dedication and mastery of the craft (haha) before a regular player can get anywhere close to what a pro can do. StarCraft also got people to pack in and watch games on a massive scale that was previously unseen. So while Fortnight and League of Legends might be more popular now, StarCraft Brood War and StarCraft 2 are still regularly streaming both 20 and 10 years after their original releases.
In 1999 StarCraft: Brood War was steadily gaining popularity in Korea especially through PC Cafes. This was because broadband internet wasn’t as widespread as it was now, so people flocked to these cafes to play. The first Starcraft boom in popularity was when cartoon channel Toonverse wanted to have some more adult programming later at night and decided to televise a StarCraft: Brood War tournament. You can even watch it in all it’s retro glory on YouTube here.
The game continued to gain popularity in Korea and more tournaments were developed. Toonverse’s parent company On-Media decided to create a TV channel dedicated to gaming content called Ongamenet (OGN), which also spawned other competing gaming content channels in Korea. But the thing that really made these tournaments stand out from giant LAN parties was how exciting they were for people who didn’t even play the StarCraft. Without having ever even played the game, fans en masse started to buy tickets to watch it in arenas. This was the moment that the esports behemoth as we know today started to take shape.
Once people started buying tickets, capitalism swept in to help fan the fire of the esports industry. More and more companies wanted to be involved and started putting investments and sponsorships into StarCraft teams. Companies like Samsung started team sponsorships, which helped legitimize esports and add visibility to the industry. These competitions and broadcasts from Korea also inspired two kids from America that there was a possibility of bringing these televised StarCraft matches to an English speaking audience. Tasteless (Nick Plott) and Artosis (Dan Stemkoski) were competitive StarCraft players that were teetering on the edge of going pro.
At the 2005 World Cyber Games, Tasteless was knocked out of the bracket early and ended up watching the rest of the matches up close. Eventually, the caster who was responsible for casting all the games at the WCG was unfamiliar with StarCraft, and Tasteless offered to help offer his expertise to cast the matches. This was a huge success. Tasteless’s acute observation and knowledge of the game and ability to perform on the spot was instantly apparent and led to him being approached by a Korean company, GOM TV, to provide commentary for their English language broadcasts. Tasteless then dropped out of college to pursue StarCraft as a full time career in Korea.
Eventually Tasteless and Artosis met in Korea and became friends. This paved the way for them to become a casting duo once StarCraft 2 was released. The two casting together as “Tastosis” is one of the most dynamic and fun parts of watching competitive StarCraft matches. Once I saw Tasteless and Artosis commenting on games and grew to like them, I had my “aha” moment and realized why people care so much about legendary sportscasters like Harry Caray. I finally got it.
Obviously there were many other players, games, and casters that helped bring esports to where it is now. But you can’t deny that the early days of StarCraft tournaments helped build the infrastructure that let esports explode once gaming and ‘nerd culture’ entered the zeitgeist in the late 2000s. StarCraft Brood War and StarCraft 2 are games of strategy like chess and of intricate gameplay like basketball or football. Players are still finding new ways to innovate gameplay and put their own spin on the games, which is why tournaments are also still streaming to this day on AfreecaTV and other places.
Even if you don’t play the game, it’s important to respect the path in history Starcraft paved. Only after we understand where the esports industry boomed from can we understand how it will grow in the future.
TL;DR: have fun and good luck.