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What’s up with StarCraft II these days anyway?

What’s up with StarCraft II these days anyway?

I decide to spend Monday evening watching StarCraft II. It’s been a while. In college I played two thousand hours of this game, reached Master league, and founded a club to compete in the Collegiate Starleague. It was an amazing period of my life. I met many of my closest friends through StarCraft II. I even had the honor of getting a (monumentally stupid) Team Liquid thread closed by HotBid himself. But then I—and everybody else who founded the club with me—stopped playing. When we stopped playing, we stopped watching. Many of us migrated to Dota 2. Most of us went on to get jobs in the real world. And StarCraft… well, it went on without us, in a way, although rival esports on the upswing continued to take ferocious bites out of its market share. In 2013, the debate was whether or not StarCraft II was declining; by the time I graduated, in May 2014, it was no longer a question of “whether,” but “how fast.”  

When I pull up Twitch.tv to find a suitable stream, I note that StarCraft II is not on the front page. It is not one of the top 10 most-watched games. It’s not even one of the top fifteen most-watched games. It’s down beneath Skyrim (8,500 viewers) and Runescape (6,000), with a meager 5,500 current viewers. The most-viewed StarCraft II stream of the moment is Avilo, who I remember as an insufferable rage-monster. I (rather magnanimously, I feel) opt to give him one more chance; after five minutes of listening to him whine about maphackers, I can’t stand it any more, and I move along. I scan down the list and land on ROOT.Vibe, who used to be one of my favorite players, because he was an aggressive Zerg with a friendly personality, and at one point that was all it took. Tonight he’s streaming to an audience of 230 and listening to Green Day, or at least a reasonable approximation thereof.

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Somebody in the chat gets Vibe going on Avilo.

“People just like to watch somebody rage,” says Vibe. “It’s funny. It’s funny to watch somebody get mad.” He laughs. “It makes me want to do that: rage every game. Spew about imbalance all day.” Wry shake of the head as his fingers snap and crackle across the keys. “Nah. That’ll never be me.”

There’s something fundamentally rewarding about the basic mechanics of StarCraft II. Even today, years after my competitive zenith, I occasionally boot it up just to play a few games against the AI. Simply building a base and amassing an army, with all the little micro-management tasks that entails, is profoundly satisfying. Watching Vibe hop from base to base, building units, directing workers, splitting his attacking army into vicious toothy splinters, and scattering individual Zerglings across the map for vision, is nothing if not soothing. The soundtrack has migrated from Green Day to brisk, screamy metal, but even that can’t break the trance. I feel like I’m about to slip into a warm, fuzzy sleep, and dream of Hydralisks and electric guitars.

Watching Vibe is nothing if not soothing.

But I don’t fall asleep, mostly because Vibe is talking, and he has what I’d call a forceful voice. One gets the impression that the metal he’s listening to is much louder for him than it is for us. Somebody has suggested that Vibe re-stream and commentate the Democratic National Convention, and he’s not on board:

“I don’t even want to look at that,” he says. “I feel like, on Election day, I’m going to find out who wins, and whoever it is I’m just going to facepalm.”

I don’t know much about Vibe. From Liquipedia I learn that his real name is Dan Scherlong. He is 29 years old. He’s won a total of $33,000 playing StarCraft II, most of it in 2012. He seems like a gregarious guy. He tells the stream his go-to McDonald’s order: a strawberry shake, two large fries, twenty Chicken McNuggets, and a spicy McChicken. I struggle to imagine him eating all that, but then again, Zerg is known to be the most ravenous race…

What I do know about Vibe is this: he still plays StarCraft II. The game isn’t dead, exactly; its championship events still pull 50,000 viewers. But the scene is certainly different than it used to be. StarCraft II was the first of the modern mega-esports, triple-A games designed and marketed with competitive play in mind. For a while it was the biggest, most internationally-popular competitive videogame in the world.

The scene is definitely different than it used to be.

That’s no longer the case.

The fact that Vibe still plays StarCraft II means he loves the game, sure. But plenty of people who loved the game have long since quit. Maybe Vibe stayed because he loved it more. Or maybe he stayed because he’s the kind of person who doesn’t need the crowd to be going his direction to think he’s headed the right way. You might call that recalcitrance. Or you might label Vibe a hipster, someone whose appreciation of StarCraft II grows as its player base dwindles. But there’s another explanation, one that, as I watch him cheerfully disembowel opponent after opponent, strikes me as increasingly convincing.  

Tell Vibe he could pull ten times as many viewers playing League of Legends or Overwatch, and I know exactly how he’d respond:  

“Nah,” he’d say. “That’ll never be me.”

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