Saturday, April 2, 2011

The spectacle of battle

The clashes of nations in battle have always been spectacular events.  It must have been striking to behold Iron Age armies at combat; a sea of colorful uniforms common in their enlarging display of red, sword and spear glinting in the sunlight, the air filled with the chaotic rhythm of clashes of steel, grunts, and war drums.  Today, high tech fighter jets, enormous naval vessels, and massive explosions are no less theatrical, although the days of large armies engaging in melee combat seem to have passed.  Battle is a large part of the history of all powerful nations.  It is therefore not surprising that celebrations of battle for entertainment have been similarly common throughout history.

The Roman naumachia. Source

The Romans in their re-enactment of naval battles in the naumachia were perhaps the first peoples to simulate battles on a scale resembling reality.  The first known naumachia was held by Julius Caesar in 46 BC as a celebration of victory in battle, as became typical of the grandiose (and costly) events.  Caesar had an artificial lake dug to create an arena large enough to hold warships and allow them to maneuver.   He then stocked the lake with warships manned by 6000 prisoners of war and made them fight to the death.  Later naumachiae were larger and grander. Beginning with the reign of Nero, massive amphitheaters were constructed for their purpose.  Typically, the combatants would be assigned identities of contemporary maritime powers, for example the Egyptians and Tyrians during the time of Caesar.  Unlike the small-scale skirmishes of gladiators and wild beasts in the smaller Roman amphitheaters, the naumachia was performed on a grand scale, worthy of the historical battles it sought to replicate. 

A modern incarnation of the Roman amphitheater: Beaver Stadium at Pennsylvania State University.  The stadium has a capacity of 107,282, making it the fourth largest in the world.  Source

The spectacle of modern sports bears many resemblances to that of ancient arenas.  Fans flock in the tens of thousands to arenas to see teams representing their state or nation defend their glory, and hundreds of thousands more watch on television.  Sport uniforms are often as colorful as ancient military uniforms, and many sports can draw blood.  The rhythm of the sounds of helmets clashing and men grunting in American Football is primal and chaotic like the sounds of battle and the teams display a level of organization and training similar to a military squad.  Sports such as football are very much a celebration of battle, although in a disguised and toned-down form.

A crowd gathers to watch a Starcraft tournament in South Korea. Source

Today, fans of real-time strategy (RTS) games celebrate the art of battle with a level of interactivity and on a scale beyond anything seen before.  RTS games situate the player in a bird's eye view of the battlefield, where he orchestrates the collection of resources, construction of military and technological facilities, and the movements of troops.  The games can simulate vast battlefields with hundreds to thousands of troops, ships, and vehicles, beyond the scope of the naumachia or modern professional sports.  Some RTS games are ultra-realistic simulations of ancient armies while others feature futuristic armies with advanced technology and capital ships.  The genre is to date the most flexible media created for simulating battles for entertainment.

A Korean Starcraft match featuring "The Emperor", Lim Yo-Hawn, AKA SlayerS_`BoxeR`

A television commercial featuring Boxer, who at his prime received an annual salary of approximately USD $300,000

When Blizzard Entertainment's Starcraft was released in South Korea in 1998, it took the country by storm and the popularity of the game and its 2010 sequel, Starcraft 2, has only increased since.  South Korean fans fill arenas to see their favorite players compete in televised tournaments for glory and monetary rewards.  Korean Starcraft progamers can achieve as high of a status as celebrities and professional sports players can here. Appreciation of the game is not limited to males; female fans are abundant in the stands and can even be seen crying when their favorite player loses a decisive battle during the game.  Watching players duke it out with massive armies featuring capital ships and other futuristic and alien military technology with thousands of fans cheering in the stands must be very much like attending a modern naumachia.  Even non-players can enjoy watching RTS games because of how visual the action is.   

 A demonstration of the virtuous control of mouse and keyboard required to play Starcraft professionally. 

Starcraft and other 'e-sports' are achieving increasing mainstream acceptance in the west, and I believe that it is only a few years before we see televised tournaments in The States like those currently held in South Korea.  A number of progamers from the western nations including America, Canada, and Germany compete in Starcraft 2 tournaments in Korea and are among the best players in the world.  Matches in western-based tournaments such as the TSL receive tens of thousands of viewers over the Internet and have cash prizes in the tens of thousands of dollars.

For recent Starcraft 2 matches, I recommend GOMtv's coverage of the GSL.  GOMtv's casts feature English commentary from Tasteless and Artosis, who are probably the most entertaining commentators I have ever heard.  The Code S final from the last season of GSL featuring oGsMC and ST_July, both considered among the best players in the world by many, can be found here.  Skip to ~44 minutes for the actual match, but I included the video because it has good depictions of the whole spectacle surrounding professional gaming in Korea.


  1. All in the name of "How to enjoy violence without going to jail." It's interesting to see how different cultures and time periods chose different venues for that catharsis. Many Americans would not consider a Starcraft tournament attractive, much like how Americans would consider Roman entertainment too gratuitous and cruel.

  2. I would argue that the appeal of Starcraft isn't so much the theatricality of the simulated battles that take place, but the surprises that a championship caliber player is able to spring on his opponent. At least for me, the novelty of watching Starcraft (or other RTS) is closely tied to the ingenuity of the strategy and a player's ability to salvage victory from sure defeat through the efficient management of so many variables.

  3. I agree with Hee-Lien, the appeal of Starcraft is the novelty of seeing progamers master a videogame whether observing the action on the screen or their behavior while playing. Seeing what the player sees can be baffling and confusing when watching a Starcraft match as the screen jumps around from place to place on the map. However a Super Smash Bros. tournament can be more exiting for an amateur when seeing a pro reveal the full potential of Captain Falcon or Jigglypuff in a one on one battle.

    Interestingly, watching the player's hand movements is reminiscent to a exorcism movie where his/her hands appear to be possessed. When you see it, you realize that these people are just as capable at their craft as any other professional sports player.

  4. I definitely have to agree with the two posts above. I don't know if it is exactly that Starcraft is a way to express one's violent nature. There are so many other games that are much more violent and bloody, Starcraft is just not one of them. The genius of Starcraft is behind the strategy and the intellectual aspect of the game. Being Korean, I have direct experience playing and being in this environment where all my friends pretty much worship and play it 24/7. I would venture to say that Starcraft is seen more as an intellectual game, which makes a poor comparison to a sport or a gladiatorial match. A better comparison would be a game like Chess. In Korea, intelligence and being smart is highly valued over physical prowess (it's kind of like that in America too, but not so much). I think just out of that simple fact, people invest much more in intellectually stimulating activities like RTS games, studying, etc.

  5. I guess I can see the comparison between games like Starcraft and sports. both require lots of skill and strategy in order to win. The difference lies in the fact that, in order to implement those strategies and skills, athletes must use their body and their athleticism. Starcraft players, on the other hand, implement their plans with the touch of a keyboard. This is where I get a little confused. Both athletics and starcraft use the mind yet people only think games like starcraft and chess are intellectual. I do see how people might not look at it that way since some people just have a high natural sports IQ that allows them to succeed in sports. I just think people should at least acknowledge the work out the mind gets when playing sports.
    ...Although I do think chess and those games are more mentally stimulating, but thats for another blog...

  6. The act of playing Starcraft requires an amalgamation of the strategic thought and planning of a chess player, the hand-eye coordination of a pianist, and the aggressive competitiveness of an athlete. While playing a video game, even professionally, is obviously a different experience from participating in a gladiatorial match or playing a professional sport, I'd argue that there are many parallels.

    Starcraft is a very violent game. While the viewer is somewhat divorced from the action compared to, say, a first-person shooter, the very essence of the game is the simulation of futuristic warfare. Nearly every unit in the game is capable of, and indeed designed for, the infliction of violence on others. Look at the infested terran unit in Starcraft 2: when its 30 second lifespan ends, it places a gun to its head, ending its tortured existence in a shower of blood. The viewer will not see this unless he looks closer than he may be used to, but this violence is certainly there.

    The appeal of seeing progamers display their strategic prowess is very much tied to the nature of battle. Strategic success in Starcraft comes from an understanding of the rules of war within the game; how to place units best to cause maximum damage with minimal casualties, designing an army with proper unit compositions, the balancing act of managing your economy, etc. Every decision the player makes within Starcraft is ultimately with the intention of the destruction of the foe's army and the survival and his own. A military general undergoes the same sorts of strategic thought processes except applied here to the rules of real warfare. I would say much of the same for any game or sport that requires strategic planning: even chess is an abstracted simulation of warfare.

    The spectacle surrounding professional Starcraft matches is very much like that surrounding professional sports of the gladiatorial arenas of the Romans. Here we have people gathering for the explicit intent of viewing a form of combat, digital or otherwise. The crowd of a Roman naumachia would come to see simulated naval warfare between two armies; the crowd of a professional Starcraft match comes to see simulated futuristic warfare between the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss. Just because real lives are not lost during a Starcraft match while thousands could perish in a naumachia does not mean that there are not parallels between the two as a spectacle.

  7. As in war, there are certain rules in Starcraft that are frowned upon if broken. "Cheesing", or using simplistic attacks right at the start of the game as opposed to a well orchestrated and planned one later in the game, is definitely akin to something like a low-blow in a combat sport. You're supposed to say "gg" or good game at the conclusion of every game as a sign of sportsmanship, very much like how two opponents in a martial arts match bow before and after.


    Here's a Youtube video about the current TSL, which is to my knowledge the largest American Starcraft League. The video is brilliant and was described in the Reddit post where I found it as having "the gravitas of a World War II documentary". Watch this if you want to learn about the history of Western Starcraft progamers and get excited about the TSL, which is going on now.


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