Here’s a mystery: why has Super Smash Bros. Melee, a videogame from 2001 with zero developer support, outdated graphics, and a minuscule player base, outlived so many much younger, better-promoted esports?
Games that achieve both widespread popularity and lasting tier-one-esport status are rare. Often, as with Super Smash Bros. Melee, they are flukes: games that were never designed with competitive play in mind, but became just popular enough for players to stumble across their dizzying depth. StarCraft: Brood War is another prime example of an accidental esport. Like Melee, it was abandoned by its developer in a state of precarious near-balance. There were no patches to keep its metagame fresh, as modern esports like Dota 2 and League of Legends require. Like Melee, Brood War was made beautiful by a serendipitous mixture of bugs and engine restrictions. In Melee, players manipulate glitches to slide around the stage and perform attacks much faster than Nintendo ever intended; in Brood War, they abuse pathing eccentricities to stack units on top of each other, or manipulate quirky AI to eke out a tactical advantage.
Brood War was made beautiful by a serendipitous mixture of bugs and engine restrictions.
StarCraft II, Blizzard’s effort to recreate the success of Brood War, would have been considered a resounding success in any other series. But Brood War had by 2010 ascended to the level of national sport in South Korea, filling stadiums and aircraft hangars with screaming fans. It had inspired a level of esports enthusiasm around the world that at the time was almost unmatched.
Competitive Brood War enjoyed twelve bountiful years. StarCraft II, with all its expansions and Blizzard-sponsored tournaments, is struggling to reach seven.
One explanation for StarCraft II’s smaller impact is that the scene today is much more crowded. This is true. League of Legends essentially ate StarCraft II’s lunch. But what’s also true is that many of the things that made Brood War so hard (and therefore interesting, from a competitive perspective) were removed from the sequel. Blizzard hypothesized that these mechanics would not be palatable to modern audiences. In Brood War, engine restrictions prevented more than twelve units from being selected at any given time. Likewise with buildings: no more than one could be selected at a time. And unit pathfinding was abysmal, leading to legendarily frustrating army control. You also had to manually tell new workers to mine minerals, or they’d sit beside your base forever, twiddling their little thumbs. What casual player in 2010, weaned on increasingly user-friendly Command & Conquer and Age of Empires games, wanted to deal with any of that?
Thus, StarCraft II did away with all the mechanical annoyances. Any number of units or structures could now be selected. Units behaved themselves, sticking close to one another in neat “deathball” armies. Workers could be rallied onto mineral lines to begin mining automatically. And the results, from a sales perspective, were fantastic: one million copies flew off the shelves within the first twenty-four hours. StarCraft II was the fastest-selling strategy game of all time. So why is it down beneath Runescape in today’s list of top Twitch streams?
Because the game was harder, it was more impressive when somebody was good at it.
Good “macro” (building an army) and “micro” (controlling it) meant a lot more in Brood War than in StarCraft II, because you had to battle the game itself. You had to command 100 brainless units 12 at a time. You had to micromanage fights that spanned multiple screens because your stupid army refused to clump together. You had to click every single worker and tell it to mine. Because the game was harder, it was more impressive when somebody was good at it. Because the game was harder, the best players were whole planes of existence above their competitors. Because the game was harder, it was arguably a more interesting esport.
Still, for all its complexity, depth, and popularity, Brood War eventually died off. Some small tournaments continue, mostly in Korea. The graphics, even more dated than Melee’s, are too much for modern viewers to bear. Enter the Korean site iNews24, which recently reported that Blizzard intends to release an HD version of Brood War, keeping the original gameplay intact. You’d expect StarCraft fans to be thrilled, and many are. But the prevailing atmosphere is guarded and cautious. Even as small a change as increasing screen resolution could completely upend the way Brood War is played. And a Brood War built in the modern StarCraft II engine, with its tight unit spacing and quality-of-life changes, would hardly be anything to celebrate. StarCraft II mods have already done that, and the results were hardly a competitive renaissance.
But there is, in fact, a chance. If Brood War HD changes nothing but graphics, keeping the quirks that made the original a competitive classic, it’s not so hard to imagine it assuming some of its former glory. After all, if Melee is still going strong, breaking viewership records fifteen years into its tenure despite huge mechanical barriers to entry for the average player, why couldn’t a rejuvenated Brood War do the same?