FeatureOctober 27, 2011 at 7:00 am

Game On

Penn's competitive gamers balance school and StarCraft.

Every Sunday, just before 4 p.m., about seven guys get ready to compete. During the week, they spend hours training, strategizing and watching film, all in preparation for the ensuing action. Each has his own pre–game routine. For Anders Miltner, Engineering junior, the moments before four o’clock mean sitting down cross–legged on the floor in the middle of his room, computer and mouse balancing precariously on two chairs, with a perfect view of the flat–screen TV that serves as his computer display.

He settles into his spot a little more, logs in and checks for his team. They’re all logged in too, excited and ready to play. The order for the match is set — Anders is slated to play first. He checks in with the captain of the opposing college’s team and exchanges the requisite niceties. His foot taps with anticipatory energy.
It’s game time.

The timer on the screen counts down, and when it reaches zero, the loading screen gives way to a magnificently detailed virtual world. In a fraction of a second, he lets fly a hurricane of clicks and keystrokes, christening the match in earnest. It’s Anders, representing Penn, versus “auraCow,” representing NYU. It’s week five of competition in the Collegiate Star League, and the game is StarCraft II. To millions of gamers around the world — and the two locked in virtual battle right now — this is the greatest computer game ever made.

There were days when the stereotype about the socially and hygiene–challenged gamer held true. Today, this generalization seems outdated, thanks to video gaming’s successful march into the mainstream. The video game — especially to younger generations — has become a prominent component of culture, sometimes mentioned in the same breath as music, film or art. And to the enormous community of gamers worldwide, gaming is a vital part of day–to–day life. Anders is no different. He maintains a heavy engineering courseload and is a member of a fraternity, and if you saw him walking around campus, you’d probably never peg him as a dedicated gamer.

“Dedicated” might not be a strong enough word to describe Anders’ relationship with StarCraft. He’s played StarCraft since high school, but became much more serious about it with the release of StarCraft II in 2010. He was a Beta tester — one of the select few chosen to help test a game before its release date. He’s as familiar as one could be with the intricacies of StarCraft’s gorgeous game world and its setting: a massive intergalactic conflict set in the 26th century.

The game revolves around waging war, so each player is at the command of his own virtual army. It’s commonly classified as a real–time strategy game (“RTS”), a specific game genre that emphasizes rapid strategic decision–making. Anders describes it as “similar to chess, but much quicker” — it’s not turn–based like other strategy games, which means that it’s “basically one of the fastest games out there.” These qualities make StarCraft ideal for player–versus–player competition, where players connect online and pit their armies against one another. The point: “To completely destroy your opponent.”

Judging by StarCraft’s sales figures, the total obliteration of foes doesn’t just appeal to a paltry few. The game sold over three million copies in its first month alone and over five million total. It’s widely played in America, but as Anders half–jokingly says, “It’s sort of the national sport of Korea.” In South Korea, StarCraft matches between top players are streamed on multiple cable channels, usually with hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. Korean players so dominate the sport that in competitive circles Americans refer to themselves as “foreigners” — the StarCraft nomenclature for a non–Korean player. For those college–age “foreigners” without aspirations of the Korean big leagues, the Collegiate Star League (CSL) is more than sufficient.

The scope and sheer size of the CSL is nothing short of staggering. This is no handful of random schools grouped together haphazardly — it’s the NCAA of gaming. It boasts 240 member schools, broken up into four conferences (East, Central, North and West) which are in turn broken up into several divisions with names like “Andromeda,” “Executor” and “Leviathan.” The CSL, to a greater degree than the NCAA, represents the diverse spectrum of higher education institutions in North America. Just about any type of school you can think of is represented, from Harvard to Berklee College of Music to Mercer County Community College in New Jersey.

The Penn CSL squad is made up of 18 players, all male, who are recruited via word of mouth. During any given match, no more than five players can compete. Those matches — head–to–head competitions between college teams — occur every Sunday, and usually last no more than an hour and a half. Sometimes they’re as short as 30 minutes, if the foe is really bad or exceptionally good (the latter tends to be the case). Penn is in the “Aleph Division,” where the team dukes it out against traditional Ivy foes such as Brown, Columbia and Dartmouth as well as more unfamiliar competitors like the University of Tennessee and the University of Central Florida.

Anders makes it clear that competition is incredibly stiff. Some players on the most elite teams, like division powerhouse NYU, may have experience competing with professionals in Korea — giving them intimidating, almost mythic reputations. At season’s end, when the playoffs begin, Anders tells me that competition between these types of squads can be incredible to watch. What’s at stake in the championship rounds? Not thousands of dollars or shiny trophies, but “bragging rights,” Anders tells me flatly. “That’s it.”

It’s hard work to even keep up with such cutthroat competition. StarCraft’s highly competitive nature means that it has “a relatively steep learning curve, and it doesn’t plateau, because everyone is always getting better.” As a result, Anders devotes five to ten hours per week practicing the game itself, and five or six hours more doing his “homework.” “There’s a lot more than just the game,” he tells me: there are streams (videos of past matches) to watch, strategies to read up on and forum discussions to participate in. “It’s not easy to get into the mindset required to play at the highest level,” he adds.

For him, it’s “kinda like work” — mentally stressful and  demanding. When talking about StarCraft, he sounds like an athlete talking seriously about his sport. “You can play lightly for fun,” he tells me with certainty, “but you’re going to lose if you don’t play it hard.” When asked about others’ feelings toward his gaming habits, he tells me, “The most common reaction I get from people is like, ‘Oh, I lost a friend to StarCraft — they started playing and I don’t see them at all anymore,’” he adds with a laugh.

Not all games are compatible for competitive play in a league like the CSL; however, players of these games are no less serious about gaming. Tyler Brown, a College and Engineering Junior, is one of those gamers. When he isn’t busy fulfilling his duties as a dual–degree student and as Vice President of Penn Gamers Club, Tyler is an avid player of massively multiplayer online role–playing games, or MMORPGs (MMOs if you want to be as shorthand as possible). These types of games, Tyler explains, are very popular among the members of Penn Gamers Club. While the club meets mainly to play high–intensity board games like Settlers of Catan (with sessions sometimes lasting upwards of 10 hours), a great number play computer games on their own time.

For Tyler, the game of choice is RuneScape. Introduced in 2001, RuneScape is one of the oldest, most popular MMOs of all time, and surely in the vanguard of that genre’s meteoric rise to popularity in the last decade. Like other titles in the genre, it offers a massive game world where players explore, fight and interact with each other. As a player, you can cooperate with other players by banding together in a “clan,” or you can fight against others in combat.

Ultimately, there is no singular “goal” in RuneScape — an appealing quality of the game is its nearly endless array of options — but players generally focus on improving their skills (which helps them “level up”) and obtaining armor and weapons (“gear” or “loot”) for their character. It’s an engaging experience that can often become highly addictive.

Without a doubt, Tyler is serious about his gameplay: he’s played RuneScape pretty consistently for about eight years and averages “about 15–20 hours of play in a good week, maybe seven or ten when I’m busier.” His character, named “Nuvonic,” has attained the elite level of 131 (out of a rare but possible 138) and leads a clan called “Instinct.” He tells me,  “There’s some truth to MMOs having an addictive nature,” admitting that he’s “kind of addicted to playing the game.” But, he adds, “There’s never been a time I felt I had to play.”

The famous South Park episode, “Make Love, Not Warcraft,” about World of Warcraft helped to popularize the stereotype of basement–dwelling, acne–scarred and bedpan–dependent MMO nerds. As a veteran of these types of games, Tyler naturally takes issue with that. He finds the popular stereotype of MMO players to be “ironic, more than anything else.” When pressed on that, he explains, “Everyone has a friend who plays video games, so I don’t think anyone actually believes that stereotype.”

At the same time, Tyler feels that while people who play popular games like Halo or Call of Duty are completely accepted, “people who play less popular games, like MMOs that aren’t World of Warcraft, have some stigma attached to them.” He explains that it may “stem from competitiveness, as MMO gamers are more competitive than any other gamers, really.”

Strangely enough, Tyler notes that the most significant stigma attached to players comes from within the gaming community, not from outside of it. Within the RuneScape community, he explains that “higher level players look down on lower levels for being ‘noobs’ and lower levels look at higher levels and go, ‘Wow, they must have no life.’”

Tyler wraps up with an extremely common saying among players: “There’s nothing people who play RuneScape hate more than people who play RuneScape.” Despite all of that, he continues to play proudly, and has generally only good things to say about his gaming experience. Clearly, his many years of gameplay have made him a very successful player: out of the eight million or so RuneScape players worldwide, he ranks in the top 20,000. He has strong relationships with his clanmates, many of whom he has played alongside for upwards of four or five years. To him, “They’re as much my friends as people I know in real life. It’s been a significant part of my life. I’m not sure what it’d be like if I wasn’t playing.”

Wharton sophomore Max Kieff shares Tyler’s MMO expertise: he played World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO in history, on a “semi–professional level” for four years. From the day it came out in November 2004, he says, “my life revolved around World of Warcraft.” At the height of his gaming, he managed to log an average of six hours a day, adding that “an 18–hour day was not unheard of.”

All of that practice certainly did him good: he was very well known on his realm (the server communities the WoW world is made up of) as one of the most difficult players to defeat in player–versus–player combat. “I could have gone pro, for sure,” he says.  A player whom he identifies as second to him in server rankings went to a Major League Gaming tournament and won $100,000.

Max doesn’t play anymore; unlike Tyler, he eventually got bored with WoW, but he has fond memories of the game, despite some existing social stigma: “I tell everyone,” he says with a laugh, “it’s a funny thing to bring up.” He tells me that the worst thing he ever heard was something like, “Holy shit, you’re such a nerd,” quickly adding that “you have to embrace it if you’re going to be a hardcore WoW player.”

If anything, the negativity was worst between players. “I was a total elitist,” Max says. “In the game, being a noob is the worst thing you can be.” The most important thing to remember about WoW, he tells me, is that “it’s totally immersive. Other people aren’t just other players — they’re your friends and your enemies.”

Back in Anders’ room, things don’t go exactly how the Penn CSL squad wants them to. Anders is defeated in the first round. However, in a stunner, Penn team member Nico Mihalich pulls out an upset victory in the second round against an elite “masters’ league” player — eliciting many a “FUCK YA” and “DUUUDE!!” from the Penn side, with a subdued “gg” from the NYU side. The elation at pulling off just one victory against the #13 team in the league lasts through the match, but unfortunately, their luck doesn’t. Penn loses the next two rounds and then loses the match overall, 3–1.

Anders’ first post–game move, naturally, is making sure he’s saved the streams from the match so he can study the footage later. For now, though, it’s off to Van Pelt. He has an exam to study for.

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