Passion for gaming helps build community
By Kjell Wickstrom
EDMONTON — The room is dark. All around is commotion and yelling. Each face in the room is lit by the blue glow of a computer monitor. The players’ fingers move with the urgency and purposefulness of a jazz pianist’s. But this isn’t a concert. This is a proving ground. This is the OverKlocked LAN (local area network) centre, at Kingsway and 119th Street in Edmonton. OverKlocked is where gamers can meet and compete on the centre’s series of networked computers.
“They all want to know how they stack up,” says Tim Cooper, the owner of OverKlocked.
Tom MacPherson is a fairly quiet, unassuming guy, the stoic one in the excitement that surrounds him. He’s at OverKlocked with his wife. They are both playing StarCraft 2, and Tom is patiently coaching.
MacPherson is a key member of this community. He is a master level StarCraft 2 player. MacPherson knows he isn’t going to be able to compete on the world’s biggest stages. Despite this, his love of the game and community still drives him to play and coach OverKlocked’s StarCraft 2 team.
StarCraft is a game that has been around since 1998. The most recent version, StarCraft 2, was released in 2010. The game is based around two players going head-to-head, managing resources, building armies and controlling those armies to destroy the other player. A person can think of it as a very elaborate version of chess, with different pieces and strategies all playing their role.
MacPherson is one of those people who needed to know where he stood. He has been playing StarCraft for five years. And when StarCraft 2 came out, he made the switch and caught the competitive bug.
Competitive StarCraft has traditionally been centred in South Korea, where players compete for sponsorships and play in live televised tournaments. Some players are able to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. In the past few years, since the release of StarCraft 2, this phenomenon has made its way to North America and Europe. The biggest tournaments — North American Star League, Major League Gaming and Global StarCraft II League — have prize pools in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
MacPherson is a masters level player. That means that out of the roughly three million people who play Starcraft 2, he is in the top two per cent of players. That seems good, but to make it to the next level, the Grand Master, a player has to be in the top 200 in his or her server group. Server groups consist of all the players in a region, like east and west North America, Europe and Asia. It is a huge challenge to be able to make that jump. And even harder to break into the professional scene.
The first event MacPherson ever competed in was a LAN tournament in Edmonton called Fragapalooza. The event brought gamers from all over Alberta together to network their computers and compete.
“It was really mind-opening for me,” says MacPherson.
He began entering more tournaments. Over time, he developed a reputation as a player who could steal games from some of the top players in the tournaments. He would be able get a win off of them in what were typically best-of-three series. Defeating these top opponents is what drove him.
In one tournament, he got matched up with one of the top players. It was the first time he had ever played while people were watching.
“I won the series, and the energy from the people around me just got me so hyped,” says MacPherson.
The experience of having people support him in a video game, and seeing that they were excited about the game he was playing, affirmed his passion.
“That blew it up and I was like, ‘I can do this,’ ” he says.
He practiced hard. Along with a full-time job in construction, he played Starcraft an additional 16 to 20 hours per week. He competed in all the tournaments he could get to, traveling to Calgary and Vancouver. The tournaments usually had decent prize pools, some in the area of $2,000, but not enough for a person to live on.
This is one of the key hurdles for people that want to become Starcraft pros. Until a player can make it to the professional level, gaming is not something that can be relied on for a decent income.
The players have to constantly be practicing. “If you take a week off, you fall behind and you lose your edge,” says Cooper.
It took MacPherson six to eight more months to win his first event. He says he was losing to the same guys in the late stages of every event.
“I’d practice so hard because I wanted to beat these two guys,” says MacPherson. “That’s what kept me going.
“If I was winning everything I would have got bored.”
The competition drove him. He won a few more tournaments, winning two in a row at OverKlocked.
But now MacPherson feels he is past his peak as a player. He still loves the game, but now he is driven by the community. He wants to be able to give other players the same opportunities he had.
The community in any esport — as competitive gaming is known — is crucial to the players. It can help players deal with the challenges that come up when they are trying to become a competitive gamer.
“Video gaming is a social form of entertainment,” says Steven Jennings, a member of the Edmonton Gamers, who put on a number of tournaments throughout the city.
“Sitting beside someone playing is so much better than playing on your own.”
The community for competitive games in Edmonton is growing. It gives people the support of having others to play with. It also supports friendships and rivalries, ways that people push each other to be better.
For those who truly want to be successful, having a community to support them is that much more important, because there is a lot of competition.
“You have to want to succeed more than you want to breathe,” says Jennings. “You have a goal and are committed to that goal.”
Jacqueline Geller, an esports blogger from Edmonton, agrees. “Everyone who does it, does it because they love it,” says Geller.
The community is also where players can start to make a name for themselves, as commentators, players, coaches, whatever it may be.
“To truly break into the scene, you have to have something that sets you apart,” says Gellar. “Be young, female, or even just loud and obnoxious.”
Esports are growing all over the world. The online community and the advent of streaming is a major driving force in this growth. In a Major League Gaming Tournament in late March, more than 100,000 people at a time were tuned into the Starcraft 2 matches on Twitch.tv.
Two bars in Edmonton had the Sunday matches playing all day in what is called “barcraft” by the community. At the Rack on Whyte, 120 to 150 people were in the bar to watch StarCraft. Only eight people were watching the Oilers game that was on at the same time.
Watching StarCraft is like watching any other sport. You can see the personalities, and how they clash. You can see the passion and excitement from a win, and the anger and drive to improve that comes from a loss.
This community is what MacPherson hopes to embrace and foster in Edmonton. He wants to get a few more players and introduce people to something they haven’t seen before.
“It’s a passion for something that is not mainstream,” says MacPherson. ”It’s fun helping people improve and watching them grow as players.”