Thursday, February 03, 2011

Nerd Nationalism

For several years cricket was my only way of wasting large amount of time watching some sort of professional sporting event. Well, unfortunately for me, being in both Guam and San Diego, the actual watching of cricket was regularly impossible, and so I had to settle for reading bulletins and watching written play by play commentary. In the past few months I've begun following Starcraft 2 as a new distraction, which I both play on my own time (although I am not very good), but I also follow as my new sporting waste of time. It might be surprising to some that video games have now reached the level where they no longer only have people who are good at them in the sense of being the best player of Street Fighter II in your family, but rather people who are good at a professional level, or people who are good at the global level. For a few games such as Starcraft 2, there are actual cash prizes for winning tournaments.

As I've written about before on this blog I starting playing and following Starcraft because of my brother who is pretty darn good at Starcraft 2 and even ranked #108 in North America last week. But the more that I played and followed the game, the more certain aspects began to intrigue me, such as the ethnic and national dynamics of how the game is unfolding.

One of the things I find very interesting about Starcraft and Starcraft 2 is the way that the world, which we tend to think of as having European or "white" nations at the top, becomes remapped around a completely different cartography with South Korea at the center, pretty much dominating all others. Of all countries Starcraft games are the biggest in South Korea. They have the most difficult ladders there, the best players and the best prizes and competitions. As a result of this, peoples and places which are used to being the normal and the center become marked as "foreign," and the clumsy, laughable and backwards other.

For Starcraft there was never any real challenge from the rest of the world to South Korean dominance, and as the game is more than a decade old now with its sequel out for half a year already, that dominance is unlikely to ever really be contested. But there seems to be a concerted effort to try and make sure that the center of Starcraft 2's world is not South Korea.

In GSL Open Season 3, which was a massive tournament of professional SC2 players, it was historic because five "foreign" players made it into the initial round of 64, the largest yet. Haypro was taken out very quickly, Sen, Ret and Idra made it to the next round of 32, but only Jinro from Team Liquid made it any further, although he did make it to the round of 4, the further ever by any foreign player. He would later duplicate his feat in the next GSL tourney, the Code A and Code S matches by again making it to the round of 4. Jinro was clearly a great player, but it was interesting how the conduct of other foreign players contrasted with the commentary of the "foreign" commentators of Tasteless and Artosis for GOMTV. Both of them are huge advocates of expanding the global influence of Starcraft 2 and getting more people playing and watching the game, but it was interesting how sometimes there would appear to be a huge gap between their judgement or assessment of a foreign player's skills and then his weak or less than stellar performance in the GSL. Tasteless and Artosis are part of a group of foreign players who are working on not only playing Starcraft 2 at the global level, but helping advertise and building that globality and so sometimes their casting reflects more about their hero-making in the name of foreign players (who are usually their friends) as opposed to sober commentary. So many times as I was watching certain matches or hear them discussing certain players, Tasteless and Artosis seemed to be clearly carrying the banner of foreign players in Korea and so they would often speak the hyperbolic glories of a player right before and in the middle of him being flayed alive by some Korean player with far less of their talent or potential. It is hard to tell whether or not they are good since the commentary comes from either a place of horizontal fraternity or of wishing for vicarious victories.

This drama makes it more attractive to non-Korean players who watch the tournaments with an unconscious nationalist bent, who see themselves as involved in some mental battle for world supremacy. Even if people don't articulate themselves in such way, they draw from imagined cultures, countries, civilizations and so it becomes an epic war where countries that are used to be at the top, are now the new underdogs. You cheer for people who in another situation you might see little connection to except for a love of SC or SC2, but in this moment you become the eager coalition of non-Koreans, a gosu group of rebels seeking to topple the gosu Galactic Empire. For those who don't like sports, which is the usual way (other than war) that nations compete and challenge each other for illusions of supremacy and superiority, professional gaming such as Starcraft 2 is a new arena for nerds who want to play around with nationalism and national rivalries.

GOMTV, even opened a foreigner house recently so that overseas players can have a place to sleep and practice while they are in South Korea trying to qualify for a tourney and whittle away at the South Korean Starcraft behemoth. This issue of nations and national identities competing is something which will keep me watching Starcraft 2 for a while, and so that's why it is exciting to see GOMTV stepping up their efforts and globalizing Starcraft 2 and making it more foreigner friendly.

If you're interested in following how foreigners are doing in SC2, someone who is following it very carefully is Artosis and has uploaded over the past week several videos of interviews with foreign players who have been coming into Korea from Europe, the US and Australia to try their hand in the GSL.

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