StarCraft II is a fast-paced real-time strategy game that demands physical dexterity, mental acuity, and immense tactical acumen. Professional StarCraft players spend years honing their skills in order to be the best; pros competing in the StarCraft II scene are often people who played the original StarCraft title at a high level and then transitioned into its sequel. StarCraft is not something that can be picked up and mastered overnight.
Luckily for spectators, watching StarCraft II isn’t quite as difficult as playing it. However, new viewers are often overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information that’s being thrown their way due to the speed of the game and the density of its commentary. A bit of baseline knowledge goes a long way toward making the experience more enjoyable (and making it easier to understand why matches turn out the way they do).
With that in mind, here’s a basic breakdown of the core elements of a StarCraft II match:
In most cases, StarCraft matches are strict one-on-one affairs where the goal of each player is to control the map, claim its resources, and use those resources to build an army capable of destroying the enemy player’s base (or forcing the player to surrender). Every unit on the screen can be individually controlled by the player (this is called “micro”) and high-tier StarCraft players are capable of completing hundreds of actions per minute (APM) as they manage their forces and build out their strategies.
Strategy in StarCraft is layered due to the game’s inclusion of three playable races each with their own distinctive styles. Protoss use alien technology to create fast, powerful, and expensive units. Terran rely on flexibility of base design and specialized units to find an advantage. And Zerg aim to overwhelm the enemy player with sheer numbers before he or she can mount a successful defense.
No one race is considered more powerful than the other. Instead, each race has strengths and weaknesses that must be harnessed or exploited by the player. Pros tend to stick with one specific race but this is not a requirement of the StarCraft scene; in competitive matches players are free to choose whichever race they wish to use and it’s perfectly okay to have Terran vs. Terran or Protoss vs. Protoss.
In StarCraft, players are responsible for building structures and units. The order in which the player builds is one of the most important factors in a game, as different structures allow for different units or more advanced versions of existing ones. Each build order indicates a set of player priorities and there are many common build orders known by all players (think of them as parallels to chess’s gambits). For example, a common Terran build involves rushing a base expansion (building a second base) and focusing (or “rushing”) on unlocking Widow Mines, giving the Terran player significant map control and power while still accounting for the need to defend. It’s strong against some build orders and weak against others.
What happens in the midst of all the building is what truly makes StarCraft’s meta competitive and infinite. A player must scout the enemy’s base and keep track of what he or she is building, use the available information to predict where the build is going, and develop and execute a counter-strategy. All of this must be done in real-time while building and managing units. The player that does the best job of scouting, predicting, and countering will win. Game knowledge, technical skill, and creative thinking all factor in to a victory or defeat.
One of the best things you can do if you’re looking to get into the world of professional StarCraft is take a few days to learn about the three races, their major units, and a few common build orders. What is most important is not knowing what a player is building, but why that player is building it and where that player is likely to go next.
It takes time and a bit of research, but with some build orders and unit knowledge under your belt you’ll be ready to assess a player’s performance and understand why that player is winning or losing. Once you understand the win conditions, you’ll feel more comfortable making predictions.
The heart of professional StarCraft is, of course, the players who train hard to reach the upper echelon and then compete with one another for fame and fortune. StarCraft II is a wonderful game, but without exceptionally skilled players, massive professional organizations, attention and encouragement from the game’s developer, and a thriving behind-the-scenes community, it wouldn’t be the eSports juggernaut that it has become. When thousands of people fill a stadium and millions turn on a livestream to watch a StarCraft championship, it’s not just the game they’re looking at.
Diving into the world of professional StarCraft requires a bit of background on the people and organizations that keep the sport running smoothly and in the community’s vision.
Blizzard Entertainment, now known as Activision-Blizzard, is the company that made both the original StarCraft game and its successor, StarCraft II. Blizzard also maintains Battle.net, the online service that powers StarCraft matchmaking (along with a few of other little games like World of Warcraft, Diablo III, and Hearthstone). Most importantly to the pro scene, Blizzard runs the Battle.net World Championship Series (WCS), the biggest StarCraft league on the planet.
The WCS world championships offer the largest prize pool in professional StarCraft, with 2012 and 2013’s grand finals boasting a pool of $250,000 each. 2014’s pool has yet to be announced, but with games like Valve’s Dota 2 (originally a WarCraft mod, speaking of Blizzard) upping the ante to over $10 million, it will be interesting to see if Blizzard follows suit with its eSports gem. As it stands, WCS offers only the 25th highest prize pool in eSports, far behind games like Counter-Strike, League of Legends, and even Halo 3.
Professional StarCraft players naturally can’t rely on winning a WCS world championship and thus compete in several leagues simultaneously. The Global StarCraft League (GSL) and SK Planet Proleague are two major competitive brackets, both controlling prize pools of around $180,000. One-off tournaments are also an option; Major League Gaming (MLG) has hosted several StarCraft II events and Red Bull is currently in the middle of its Battle Grounds series of eSports tournaments with competitors pulled from both local LANs and the professional world. There’s also DreamHack, the HomeStory Cup, IEM, and more — StarCraft II is almost always in season.
Like any sport, StarCraft has its stars. There are famous players, famous commentators, famous statisticians and analysts, and famous community members. The world of eSports is one where anyone can build a fanbase by contributing to the community, even if they’re not necessarily a professional player. For instance, RotterdaM and Day are both known as successful StarCraft announcers and show up frequently to commentate professional events.
SlayersBoxer is perhaps the most high profile StarCraft player in history and is considered by many to be the first eSports “celebrity,” but new players continually rise and the launch of StarCraft II significantly shook up the pro scene. The top five players in terms of estimated professional earnings are MC, Mvp, Polt, NesTea, and MMA, all from South Korea. The first non-Korean on the winnings chart is France’s Stephano at position 8, and the next is Sweden’s NaNiwa at position 16. Though SCII is growing in the west, Korea remains the dominant nation in terms of competitors and viewers. As an aside, the first American on the earnings list is IdrA, landing at position 58. Prize money is about evenly split between Protoss and Terran, with Zerg coming in last.
Overall, StarCraft’s rotating stable of pros and community members helps to keep the scene vibrant and compelling, even if it can be a little hard to follow from time to time. Picking a favorite player is easier than picking a winner, but you’ll get the hang of things as you go.