I’ve already attended several Starcraft 2 events, even helped organise some, but I didn’t feel like I met a player until today. What I’ve never realised is how many of the players lurch from one event to another, weary with the weight of expectation and exhausted from keeping up with the fluctuating criteria of what constitutes “professionalism”, doing so under a veneer.
Their outward projection is rarely who they are and those who deviate from this generic behaviour are readily kicked and stomped by the mob. No wonder then you’re never quite sure where you stand with them.
The HomeStory Cup has been a different kind of setting to the usual tournament and as such being a member of the press here has been illuminating, providing genuine insight into some of the characters that we believe ourselves to be familiar with. Think of it like the difference between seeing animals in a zoo and witnessing them in their own habitat. The comparison is accuarte in more ways than one… On my arrival I was eyed with a lot of suspicion. They knew I was press but also unknown, not e-famous and therefore not capable of showing anyone a good turn. I have no cards to deal in that respect. This made me “not belong” on two counts and when walking into the back room where the players were playing poker or grabbing a few drinks they would stop talking and look up, like that scene from that movie where the jukebox suddenly stops…
Now, the day of the party, I’ve blended in to the background, that guy from that site, seems OK and now the conversations flow a little easier in my presence. For all the talk of the privileged position that these guys have, and there’s no denying they are the closest thing e-sports has to real stars (arguments about the importance of commentators not withstanding), it must suck having to be so guarded at all times, only being yourself around your fellow competitors because you’re all in the same position.
Here in Krefeld the players finally can relax, enjoy the game for what it is aaway from legions of fans and hundreds of journalists constantly hassling them for a slice of their “free time”. That commodity is limited… The lucrative nature of streaming means that players justify their salaries and generate their own income through hours and hours of constant play and video content, and as the “market” for such content becomes saturated players have to do longer hours, do more and more to attract a limited number of fans. Here self-promotion pretty much amounts to sitting on a couch with friends, drinking beers, shooting the breeze and forgetting the cameras are even there.
Take for example the divisive figure of Greg “IdrA” Fields, someone I’ve met briefly on a few occasions although I doubt he’d remember the brief encounters. The Starcraft community seemed in two camps – one set of people holding burning pitchforks every time he says anything, the other contending that he is simply a “straight shooter” who speaks his mind and should be commended for his honesty. Although neither sets know the full story, the intelligence in straddling such a position can’t be disputed. Whatever he says people will flock to it to share their opinion and argue about what it all means, is it all real… While that happens the attention turns to revenue and status.
Of course it also deflects from poor results, which isn’t a bad strategy either. A player quick to be critical of others stands on shaky ground without a string of wins to boast about. If you’re already on the warpath about something else those who would have the faculties to point this out are too busy typing about “BMBMBMBMBM” and other such objections to put any coherent criticism together.
I’ve seen both sides of one of the most talked about players up close and personal. At ESWC 2011 he was a model professional, granting us an interview outside of the designated press conferences even though he knew it’d be viewed by only a few thousand and we’d be doing more trading off his name than vice versa. At the most recent IEM final it was different, stringing us along for an interview before an accidental flash from our photographer fired him into an apoplexy of rage. The interview was cancelled and we took a stern lecture on the nature of manners and respect.
Of course, I know why it went down the way it did at IEM. It was mainly because he was fucking miserable. EG were taking another virtual kicking in cyberspace, poor performances from their players a subtext to the furor surrounding perceived racist comments by one of their casting team. The hotel conditions were cramped and Greg had said so, as always, quite publicly, generating the predicted amount of ire and causing e-sports journalists to want to talk about no-one else. There was no player area to relax, nothing but a cordon separating throngs of rubbernecking fans from him, a distance of about a metre. Throw in the early exit from a player who has publicly stated that winning is “everything” to him and he’s obviously going to want to remain insular.
Here in Dennis “TaKe” Gehlen’s apartment I saw him again and wasn’t sure what I was going to get. People said if I could get a photograph of him smiling I should upload it to Reddit and I’d become some sort of sensation. In reality it wouldn’t prove so hard as it’s all he’s done. Politely going up to Dennis and asking if it’s OK to take down a bottle of spirits in a muted voice, or just laughing and joking with other players in the back room. It’s a different person to the one I’d seen before. And off the back of this would I suddenly profess to know the “real” IdrA? Fuck no. Chances are though this is closer to the truth than any of the other personas that come with the territory he has chosen to occupy.
I had a similar worry about Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson before we went to do our interview. I was familiar with the brash and opinionated figure that everyone else was and had seen enough to realise this was a genuine projection of himself. However, what became clear privately, off camera, was how much losing actually hurt him, that someone pointing to his disappointing performances would cut deeper than the pathetic jibs about a fictirious weight problem. That much was clear from his reaction when his fellow players would come up to him and ask what happened. He had no answer, he had worked hard and still he had lost. There is no bigger critic of his game than him and yet his real fear, which is ironic for a person with his particular monicker, is that he may just be powerless to force an upturn in his fortunes.
With all this in mind the player who talked to me on camera was much the same as I had seen before but armed with this knowledge it was easier to warm to him, to acknowledge my preconceptions had been utterly wrong and – as a journalist rather than a fan – I’d been wrong to even have any. I usually take people as I find them but the mythology that surrounds some players precedes them, Most of the time they want it this way and that says a lot about operating in this e-sports bubble.
For me, as someone slowly learning about the scene I feel coming here was the best possible lesson and the best place to start. As an outsider there was always the benefit of having an open mind… so much as anyone can have. I’d talked about how the HomeStory Cup was a unique event because it was in someone’s house but really the venue doesn’t mean anything. The unique quality lies in the way everyone interacts, the way the fans respectfully wait outside in the courtyard for signatures that might never come but never even think about crossing the threshold to the apartment even though there’s nothing stopping them doing. It’s there in the way the press get what they’re after without having to queue up or hassle anyone.
It is a reminder that as big as any game gets these are the roots from which all of e-sports came and that no-one is too big to “regress” to that. If they felt that way they don’t get invited. And for people like me it’s a reminder that the players have to be many different people at different times because of the pressures placed upon them. When freed from that you realise they are the same as the rest of us and whatever you thought you knew is probably wrong.
As I wrap this up the party looms. Players who are out of the tournament are already well on their way to drunkenness, the sound of drinking games and banter droning out the casters. I’m invited and expect to learn a little bit more about these people I have to write about. There’s a veiled request not to film… It might just give away a bit too much.