I’ve watched professional video gamers duke it out long before “eSports” had any awareness outside of a small niche, and when a company like Amazon spending close to $1 billion to buy a videogame streaming service (Twitch) was essentially unthinkable. While I’d seen the occasional televised Starcraft 1 match that aired on Korean TV, this started in earnest in 2010 when Starcraft 2 first came out – I was an early GSL subscriber and have watched consistently since then. But I’d never had the chance to attend a live event – until Heroes of the Dorm, an annual collegiate Heroes of the Storm tournament, came to Seattle the weekend of April 9th. Fortunately, my two kids are also fans, and the game itself doesn’t have a following the size of League of Legends or DOTA 2, so getting tickets wasn’t nigh impossible.
Unfortunately, although the University of Waterloo (my alma mater) was highest seed in their division, and the University of Toronto was second in theirs, they both went out early, so the event was between four schools I didn’t know – UT Arlington, UConn, Tennessee, and the ultimate winners, Arizona State.
The event itself had great production values; Blizzard clearly invested well beyond the direct economic value of the event, likely as part of an effort to bring eSports further into the mainstream, and to establish Heroes as a competitor in a genre that earlier Blizzard games (Warcraft 3) spawned, but that Blizzard is a distant third in by player or viewer base. No doubt, they had to guarantee a decent level of quality since the finals were televised on ESPN2! No matter the justification, the event held up to the high standards of quality that Blizzard has consistently held to (they’ve cancelled essentially finished games that weren’t fun enough and eaten the cost).
They had quite a few Blizzard staff on hand to meet with fans and sign posters – like Chris Sigaty (front) and Dustin Browder, who also had key roles on Starcraft 2:
The stage setup was pretty cool and highly custom, yet still reasonably intimate – making good use of the space in Seattle’s CenturyLink Event Center:
My favorite casters were on hand to cover the action! I’ve watcehd Tasteless and Artosis (left) cover Starcraft 2 including the GSL for more than five years, and they’re the best duo at it out there. Gillyweed, right, is a great Heroes of the Storm caster, who was also charming in person when we got to meet her after the event. It’s great to see women in gaming, especially with my daughter Olivia already feeling unusual for being a girl that likes videogames – and Gillyweed’s insight into the game is very often the best among those on the panel.
Blizzard’s co-founder and CEO, Mike Morhaime, was also on hand to congratulate the winners:
It’s ironic that the matches aired on ESPN (as opposed to YouTube or Twitch), since as cord-cutters, this means we wouldn’t actually have been able to watch the finals live if we hadn’t shown up in person. This was doubly ironic, as the camera crew probably found the presence of my kids to be amusing, and used them in one of the shots of the crowd – so we were on TV!…. that we don’t even have access to. Fortunately, the VODs were ultimately posted to YouTube, allowing us to find ourselves at 1:04:56:
Especially if you’re into the game, there were lots of goodies to go around; they really rewarded those who showed up. There were lots of in-game heroes and skins, t-shirts, high quality mini figurines, and other items. I got the Arthas and Stitches mini-figures:
Olivia (who got first pick, as the tickets to the event were a part of her birthday gift), chose Nova, and Cloaked Nova. She made a bed for them, in which they almost look like regular kids toys – if you ignore the barrel of the sniper rifle peeking out:
I’m told that these accommodations simply won’t do, though, and that we need to make them a bunk bed, out of actual wood!
To say that I’m a long time fan of the Final Fantasy series would be putting it mildly; I’ve played every non-MMO iteration in the main series except for Final Fantasy 2 and 3 (though I did not play 1 or 5 through to completion when I did finally play them a decade after their initial releases). I’ve bought many of the original soundtracks, piano sheet music I can’t really play, and various figures, stuffed toys, and other collectibles. When the first North American performance of music from the series was scheduled – for a single performance – Valerie and I went to Los Angeles to see it. Nobuo Uematsu and Hironobu Sakaguchi were there in person! The music of the series has always been the high point for me by far, but still, it’s safe to say that I’m a fan.
Final Fantasy 13 wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea. It was incredibly linear, even for an FF game, and it wasn’t till you were about 3/4 through the game that you actually had the opportunity to experience the full extent of the gameplay that it offered. Others were put off by some fairly questionable character design elements (leading some to hope that that ‘-2’ meant ‘minus two’ of the characters they found annoying). While these concerns were legitimate, I still enjoyed it overall. Though character development options were somewhat fixed/limited, many fights that seemed impossible were actually surmountable not with grinding but with a highly tailored strategy in which you’d set up exactly the paradigms and equipment that you needed to survive that particular battle. You didn’t have to do these things, or you could just power up and come back, but it was very rewarding to get beaten 10 times, and then finally – with exactly the same party and equipment – find the strategy that allows you to prevail.
This is my first post in a month in part because I’ve been working through the sequel, FF13-2. I’ll get the good out of the way first, because what follows is mostly my astonishment and disappointment at the things I felt they did wrong. I still think it’s a decent game, and don’t regret having played it – but it had far too many moments where I just couldn’t believe what seemed like ineptitude in game design.
I wrote a post back in July, titled “Is it always better to get better?“, in which I wondered why we try and improve even at meaningless things that don’t have actual value. In my case, the example in question was Starcraft 2, a real-time strategy game I spend far too much time playing. Despite the utter lack of value or meaning, I nonetheless set a personal goal of making it into Diamond league, which is approximately the top 20% of active 1v1 players. Being in the top 20% of anything you set your mind to really ought not to be that hard (well, unless you pick a goal around height or some other relatively immutable property), and there’s many thousands of Diamond 1v1 players in Starcraft 2; nonetheless, it took till tonight for me to finally make it.
It’s certainly been more difficult than I anticipated it to be. For a long time, I was really just playing the game, and not actively thinking about how I was playing, and what I needed to improve. I might go in with a plan, but once the actual back and forth combat phases started, I’d just focus on playing things out – and not on what I was trying to do better. The other challenge is that everyone still actively playing the game more than a year after it’s release was also pretty serious. Strategies evolved, things that used to work ceased to, and sometimes even when I felt I was playing near the peak of my ability, I’d take a string of losses.
As I wrote the prior blog post, hitting Diamond was the very last thing I expected. Starcraft 2 runs in seasons; at the end of each season, you’re locked into your current league, and when a new season begins, you’re slotted into a league for that season based on your cumulative performance to date. It should be harder to get promoted into Diamond than to be placed into Diamond at the start of a season, because there’s a threshold designed to prevent you from ping-ponging between adjacent leagues every few games. The last game I played yesterday wound up being treated as my first Season 5 match, and I was slotted back into Platinum. That really felt appropriate; I had been facing fewer diamond players in recent games, as I’ve been a little sick for about a week. And if there’s one place you really notice when you’re not at 100%, it’s playing something competitive and mentally intense.
Still, with today being the first day that I’ve felt mostly back to normal (after a really full night of sleep yesterday), I decided to play one last game before heading to bed. I’d won a reasonable string of games prior to the earlier blog post, perhaps on account of being back to normal, so I could still lose and not be too bothered about the day’s games as a whole. It’s harder to sleep after going 3-8! As it turns out, that final game earned a promotion to Diamond. It was a lucky win at that; a Protoss vs. Protoss where he was going for colossi off of one base; I’d anticipated a 4gate and didn’t expand either, but had no robotics support bay (i.e. far from having colossi of my own); I’d have died in a straight ground engagement, but just managed to get enough void rays to hold off the attack, retain my expansion, and win from there off of better momentum and economy.
I’m still by no means great at the game. There was an internal Google tournament (for fun, but I can’t enter due to timing with the kids), and about 20% of players were Masters level – that’s the top 10% of Diamond, i.e. the top 2% of all players; they’d likely beat me with one hand. But now that I’ve finally got to this entirely meaningless and pointless milestone, I’ll probably finally get to playing other equally pointless but high quality games, like Uncharted 3 and Zelda: Skyward Sword!
If you compare this image to the earlier post, you’ll see that it took me a ridiculous 740 wins – meaning roughly 1480 games (though some of that was 2v2, not 1v1) – between setting the goal and reaching it. That’s a lot of wasted time (probably 400-500 hours) and I’m sure I could have used it for something much more constructive. But at least I got a shiny icon!
In an earlier post, I wrote about NE-SE, a new e-sports organization that was trying to encourage players of all levels to enter their tournament – so that they could raise the cash necessary to pay the ~$50k in prizes that they committed for a live finals. However, I got one critical point wrong – they are charging $20/person as an entry fee, not $10/person. That means the payouts are what I had described ($498,560 per tournament), but what they take in is $1,024,000 instead of $512,000. That makes it a spectacularly good deal for the tournament organizers, if they can get enough people to sign up. Unfortunately for them, especially at $20 instead of $10, you can be pretty sure that they’ll get nowhere close to the numbers to make their scheme work. And with the numbers this much in their favor, I’m really surprised that Blizzard endorsed them.
That being said, I’m definitely a big fan of e-Sports in general. If you haven’t heard the term, it generally refers to competitive gaming and while I suppose it could refer to any competition between people, online or offline/LAN, it’s usually used in the context of professional individuals or teams competing against each other. In North America, e-Sports is still in its infancy, though it’s grown rapidly over the years. South Korea has had a robust e-Sports scene for a decade, ever since the original Starcraft established the phenomenon a dozen years ago.
In Starcraft 2, the best players in the world still hail from South Korea, without question, and the premier league – the GSL (individual) / GSTL (team) – is played there. North America has several organizations trying to establish themselves, but at this point in time, Major League Gaming (MLG) seems to quite clearly be the best. While MLG got off to a bumpy start, the most recent event (MLG Anaheim) was great to watch – and was the first event I tuned into a good bit of live, sending me over my Rogers bandwidth cap for the month. Europe has high level play a well, but I’m less familiar with it. Some bars in North America have even started airing live games from the GSL/GSTL on certain nights of the week (a phenomenon known as Barcraft)!
Beyond top-level professional play, the online nature of the game has given rise to other interesting leagues – like the After Hours Gaming League (AHGL), which features 8 high tech companies (this season, anyways) battling it out. The AHGL started at Facebook, but expanded to 8 other companies, who are competing for the charity of their choice… and a significant amount of pride, since some of the companies are fierce competitors. Fortunately, three of my favorite tech companies are currently in the lead:
On one Youtube broadcast I was watching recently, one of the commentators (HD Starcraft) said that with games being so much more interesting to watch than regular sports – a comment I actually agree with – that e-Sports was really the future. That, and a bit of analysis on the chart above, are actually very interesting topics…
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m really quite into Starcraft 2 – despite my continuing inability to make it as far as Diamond league in 1v1. Fortunately, the game is pretty fun regardless of what level you play it at.
The first thing I though worth mentioning is that a free “Starter Edition” is now available; it provides some of the single player content, as well as limited multiplayer. You’re basically restricted to playing as Terran in all cases (as if Terran weren’t doing well enough at high levels of play right now), and can only play on a handful of maps, but it’s still a great way to try things out if you’re not quite ready to quit your job, move to South Korea, and train as a professional gamer. The image below links to more information on this.
The second thing I found interesting was the announcement of the “National E-Sports Event” (NE-SE) on Blizzard’s main Starcraft 2 news page. NE-SE is running a SC2 tournament, available to players of all skill levels, with a US$30,000 prize for the ultimate winner. However, the reason I found it interesting to comment on this is because of the way that this tournament is structured:
We go through nearly our entire lives trying to be better at doing something. From early childhood, our parents strive to ensure that we achieve our maximum potential, whether that’s getting better grades, making a sports team, learning to play an instrument, or some other endeavor. Of course, that’s just the beginning; after we finish with the degrees and diplomas, which ostensibly demonstrate progress in something, we then move on to what’s often a 40 year slog to improve our careers, and our financial standing. Even once we’re well into this, if we have a little free time, we might still take up a new language, or head down to Home Depot in order to change than vinyl flooring into ceramic tile. It’s ingrained in us that we need to do better, be all we can be, aim higher, etc.
But when does this actually make sense? In our jobs, certainly – you can either spend 40 years doing the same thing over and over, or you can constantly strive to improve and learn giving yourself much better odds on finding diverse, interesting, and challenging work. Further, in our capitalist society, work is the one place where we truly do compete for survival – the comforting nature of a bi-weekly salary often hides the fact that sometimes even with a single contract, one company will win and secure its future, while others will lose and may need to fire some or all of their staff as a result. I think early education is clearly another; while the value of advanced degrees is under fire these days, it takes a decent amount of achievement to reach a level where you’re a candidate for a job that you won’t hate for the rest of your life, and that can at least put food on the table.
You probably haven’t scrolled through – much less read – the (still unfinished) list of games that was most memorable to me, but if you did, you’ll note that one of the oldest games I mentioned was 1987’s “Legend of Zelda” for NES. It was awesome and raised the bar in so many ways! But equally memorable, for all the wrong reasons, was the incredibly stupid ad that aired on TV for the game, which I saw while on summer holiday in Canada.
Like most incredibly stupid things, the ad is immortalized in all it’s glory on Youtube. If you like the Zelda series, you may not want to watch this, as you may never see the series quite the same way again:
Amazingly enough, I found a second ad that was equally bad; if you want more punishment, it’s here.
Video game ads – and advertising in general – have (thankfully) improved greatly over the years, to the point that if you gave a random person on the street a camcorder and $500, they’d come up with a better ad than the above. Still, game ads all tend to be about the same, though; show a few cutscenes, some in-game action footage, then cut to a title and release date. So it was incredibly ironic that not more than 1-2 days after I wrote the disparaging comment about the original Zelda ad, I saw this awesome ad for the Nintendo 3DS remake of 1998’s “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” (widely considered to be the greatest game ever made):
At first, I thought it was just a funny ad, maybe based on a co-incidence in naming. A little Googling revealed that no, indeed, the claim in the text at 0:23 wasn’t a marketing ploy, and that Robin Williams is just more of a hardcore gamer than I am. Or, for some reason, his wife didn’t auto-veto all gaming-derived name suggestions like my wife Valerie did!
Although I seem to write disproportionately about photography, I’ve still spent more of my life playing videogames than taking pictures. It’s easier! I just don’t post anything on this topic because I don’t think I have any insight of value. Not that I have insight about photography, but at least on that topic, I think I come at it from a different angle than most of what I see out there.
But since I’m already on the verge of forgetting some memorable gaming experiences that I’d rather not lose with my memory, I started writing down all the games I’d played that were particularly memorable to me. I’m not actually finished with that process yet – I’ve added about 39 games to the list, and have at least 14 to go that I can currently think of – but after a month of occasionally adding one or two more titles to the list, I’m just posting the page with the TODO list at the bottom.
If you’re one of those people I spent lots of time playing games with, and I left something off the list that deserves to be there, do let me know!
It’s on the top header menu, or you can find the page here.