Of Games and Public Houses: Barcraft

By Adam Smith on August 26th, 2011 at 8:16 am.

This is not photoshopped
If you’d asked me three days ago, “how many bars in America do you think screen live games of Starcraft II?”, I would have said “none of them”. Then the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Starcraft II matches being shown in sports bars “across the country”. That makes it sound bigger than it is, like some sort of craze sweeping the nation. In reality, as the article later makes clear, there are “more than a dozen” bars screening live games. More than a dozen probably means thirteen but it’s still a lot more than “none of them”. I don’t think this sort of thing happens on these British Isles yet but it did make me think about the different ways we enjoy this grand old hobby.

Multiplayer gaming used to involve people being in the same room as one another. Whether on a couch, on a home network or at a LAN Party. Now, we’re all connected and someone is almost definitely tapping your phone while rifling through your hard drives. But connectivity does mean that we can play with people on the other side of the world. We can also watch live feeds of people playing games competitively. We can even watch people programming games live (obviously no longer live, but archived). So many possibilities but many of them involve me being at my desk, at home. It makes sense that people would want to take those experiences into social spaces, to share them with others and celebrate them. It’s one of the reasons people are travelling from far and wide to be at PAX right now.

Gathering in a bar to watch games on a big TV is different though. It takes the game into a space where it is not part of the dominant culture. Starcraft 2 is as unfamiliar to someone without an interest in games as legendary shortstop Marty Marion is to someone without an interest in legendary shortstops. There should be no problem with baseball fans watching baseball together and Starcraft fans watching Starcraft together. And there doesn’t seem to have been. The Wall Street Journal unnecessarily implies conflict in its headline, “Geeks Beat Jocks as Bar Fight Breaks Out Over Control of the TV”, but there’s no unpleasantness mentioned in the article. Just one man who asked for the feed to be switched off, which is fair enough if he was trying to have a quiet drink. There is a patronising tone in places, though the whole thing is positively angelic compared to this coverage of Gamescon.

Barcade, Brooklyn, NYC

Maybe it’s just hard to transcribe things from the commentary such as “It’s a drone genocide! Flaming drone carcasses all over the place!” without sounding somewhat bemused. There is something inherently comical about describing the action in games and that’s not limited to the electronic world. Sports commentaries have long been a cavernous and untapped goldmine of comedic nuggets, particularly when they involve protracted clichés and metaphors. The very act of ascribing deeper consequence to an activity that is essentially ‘play’ always risks becoming unintentionally comic.

I’ve never watched someone else play a game live, except over their shoulder, and I’m not particularly interested in professional gaming. However, I’ll gladly watch or read a ‘Let’s Play’ of a game I enjoy. Dwarf Fortress and pretty much any of the Paradox grand strategy titles are particular favourites. It’s the intellectual fascination of seeing how differently things can work out within a robust simulation, especially when the people playing the game often approach things so differently to the way I tend to play and often with more skill.

The Kyoto Lounge, Manchester

The Kyoto Lounge in Manchester is a gamer bar, much like those Gamerbase things dotted around but with a more pleasant clientele and alcohol. Some of you may know it. Kyoto Lounge is a place to play games publically though, not just to watch them. I can see more places along those lines springing up as people realise their attraction. I wonder if there is a demand for more social gaming centres; perhaps bars can become the new arcades. Would you want to play games in public, with friends or strangers? Would you show up just to watch in company?

We’re forever being told that gaming is becoming more mainstream and it can feel like that’s the other sort of gaming: the stuff of consoles, tablets and Facebook. It’s also Kanye West performing at the Call of Duty XP. But if PC gaming moves into social spaces where it has been formerly unrecognised, is that not a sign of a move toward the mainstream? If anyone has ever been to a Barcraft event or anything similar, do share your experiences.

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56 Comments »

  1. Tei says:

    The years 2001-2006 I played a lot inside a cybercafe, with other gamers. You meet ridiculous strange cool people in a cyber. Most people was playing either DOTA or Dark Age of Camelot… if I remember things correctly. Is nice to share a place with people you have a lot in common, and you can quickly find something to talk about. I can imagine mixing that with drinking could be glorious. In 5 years sharing a space, I don’t even remember talking to a DOTA player, these people are elitist. The DAOC players where awesome, I would give a hug to all of then.
    My other favourite place was universities computer room / computer laboratory. You enters there, and you browse the web, or do some practical hacking. I made friends with nice people there too.
    At some point I managed to have accounts in mainframes from some university, a lot of friends in others, I was part of a students driven company in other, my access to internet was cracked thanks to a hacker friend, I was writting html with telnet with 6 seconds lag. I managed to teach other people how to program in C, and one of my students was a professor of the university.
    I also have visited students rooms, students floors. Students and networking are a fun mix. Students don’t give a rat ass about a lot of things, and you see people netwoking his computer to play LAN with lots of RJ45 cables in the floor in the corridor. I can’t imagine how these people clean the floor, maybe no one cleans the floor.

    tl;dr:
    yes.
    - cybercafes (awesome poeple, awesome place)
    - computer labs (awesome people, awesome place)
    - students rooms (awesome people, dirty infested hole of poor networking, happy happy lan party)

    I have also heard about Counter-Strike lan parties at people offices, late at night. And office car races. But I have never seen or participate of that. I think Office Chairs Races sould be a Olimpic Sport.

    • Dreamhacker says:

      “…I was writting html with telnet with 6 seconds lag…”

      Whu-? Why didn’t you just, you know, write it all in notepad and then FTP/SSH it to the webserver?

    • d32 says:

      Oooh, good old times on university, rogue illegal cables everywhere, connecting us to computers connected to lan connected to computer connected to university network, which had internet access!
      And also, lots of multiplayer gaming (Quake 3 ruled at the time).

    • Bilbo says:

      I used to want to stab the arseholes who sat playing counter-strike in the computer room at my uni. While I was trying to work. And shouting at eachother. I think I might’ve been less bothered had they been playing something less derp but they thought they were hot shit and it got right up my nose.

    • DrGonzo says:

      The fact that the sound of other people enjoying themselves pisses you off doesn’t surprise me you arrogant bigot.

    • studenteternal says:

      @Dr. Gonzo: My life got a lot better once I blocked all of bilbo’s posts :)

    • Rhin says:

      In his defense, this is a university computer lab we’re talking about.

    • Waltorious says:

      @Bilbo,

      If you had played Counter-Strike with them, you could have stabbed them. Virtually.

    • Tams80 says:

      At the university I go to, I have the complete opposite experience.

      The tech people actually know what they are doing, but are not nice enough to allow gaming (though some of the professors are avid gamers). We use JANET, so we get a great connection, but the university has blocked everything, but RuneScape (all that I can be bothered to find to play). I might rent a server next semester though.

      As for illegal cables. They don’t even like posters on the walls (at least where I’m staying).

      The computer science labs and regular computer labs are silent and dull, though to be fair they are for work. The comp sci lab was fun at first, but soon “ah ****, I have to spend the next 8 hours here finishing my project and then it will be dark outside” soon eroded that (there is NO natural light in the sub-honours lab).

  2. RF says:

    That bastard Kyoto Lounge stole my idea. D:

  3. jon_hill987 says:

    I don’t get this, surely live StarCraft II (when you are not playing) is even more boring to watch than football.

    I guess that is why sports are often watched in the pub with beer in hand.

    • ix says:

      It’s hard to explain what is so interesting about it to someone who’s never watched or simply doesn’t enjoy it. But it is definitely at least as interesting as football (which I usually have to be drunk to watch). Different tactics, lots of ways to perform micro (controlling your troups in a battle) and lots of way things can go (often hilariously) wrong.

      Perhaps it is more of a sports crowd thing. Aside from the fact that this is played by some guys on a computer and not on a field somewhere, there’s nothing particularly geeky about a SC2 match.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      To clarify, when I say “more boring that football” I mean to say that I find football fairly mind numbing to watch as well.

    • AbsoluteDestiny says:

      Significantly more interesting to watch than football, imo, thanks to the strategy component. The playing field in footy rarely changes – a substitution here, a sending off there – so there is a strong reliance is on set pieces (corners, free kicks, penalties) and (of course) skill for tension building. Modern UK footy is so mind-numblingly safe that good games are rare and even then can have very long dull periods. With sc2 you have skill (plenty of that) but instead of sudden set pieces you have different maps, different races and building tension due to competing identifiable strategies, especially when you as a viewer knows that one player is doing something really risky that the other player doesn’t yet know about. Knowing a little about the game gives a decent investment in the strategy and anticipation of that working or failing. It’s the kind of meta-knowledge that makes games like Cricket and Baseball actually watchable to those who are really into it but sc2 has a much quicker development of that knowledge into a tense setup (minutes instead of hours).

      That and it’s faster, with shorter more varied games and the first to 3 or 5 wins setup adds for extra pressure on particular games. You have to be pretty invested in a footy team to understand the wider significance of some random mid-season away match, it’s much easier to be invested in someone who is making a magnificent comeback to draw 2/2 and then the final game is everything to play for – starcraft tournaments allow for that a lot.

      Personally I watch more SC2 than I play and think it’s a fantastic spectator sport.

    • luckystriker says:

      I’m an avid fan of SC2′s progaming scene. For me, it’s just another competitive sport I follow, along with football and tennis. I recently paid-up to watch the NASL grand finals, and by god was it awesome. Great games, but more importantly a few thousand people creating an absolutely electric atmosphere. If I lived in the US and the event was held within 200 miles, I wouldn’t hesitate to go.

    • sneetch says:

      Well, it seems to me like you just don’t like “spectating” Jon, that’s not intended as a criticism or anything, it’s just some people don’t like it and can’t understand why others’d like it. I would, getting together with a bunch of like minded people to watch a SC2 tournament could be great craic.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Significantly more interesting to watch than football, imo, thanks to the strategy component.

      Erm. Tactics are vitally important in football, though they may not be readily apparent if you know little about the game. It also helps to go to the match, rather than watching the zoomed-in TV view.

    • BobsLawnService says:

      I too felt the same way and then one quiet, boring Sunday, when the wife and kid was away, after I’d had my fill of PC gaming and pornography I fired up the HDStarcraft channel on Youtube for something to watch and I actually rather enjoyed it. I can’t play Starcraft 2 for shit but what little knowledge I do have means that I rather enjoy it.

    • jon_hill987 says:

      @sneetch: Oh no, it’s not that. There are plenty of things that I do like watching, motorsport can be very entertaining for example.

    • SLeigher says:

      If you don’t like watching normal sports already you’re never really going to get in to Starcraft II, competitive SC2 has more in common with football than gaming.

    • Fumarole says:

      after I’d had my fill of PC gaming and pornography

      Impossible!

    • etusa says:

      I think its a great idea and proof to that is the fact that many people that don’t own the game or have never even tried it watch commentaries on youtube on a regular basis. I myself once randomly wandered to a commentary by HuskyStarcraft. At the time I had only heard the name Starcraft and knew it was RTS. I watched the match, I watched another, I watched many and bought the game.

    • Carra says:

      I hate football, love SC2.

      It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    • imirk says:

      Beholders can watch them all.

      So many eyes.

  4. MiniMatt says:

    “There is something inherently comical about describing the action in games and that’s not limited to the electronic world.”

    To misquote Alan Minter, “sure there have been genocides in Starcraft, but none of them serious”.

  5. Flukie says:

    Bleh, I couldn’t imagine the types in England watching anything like StarCraft 2 in a pub.

    Too old and ignorant to allow such a thing.

    Those gamerbases mind, I went to one in the trocadero and it seemed quite cool but I didn’t stay for long, might go after work someday though. Although i’d love to have one where you could have some beers and play but I guess energy drinks are fine.

  6. Xercies says:

    Sometimes HMVs have fighting games which get a ridicilous amount of people playing it and you do meet people and have virtual fights with them, it is quite fun!

  7. HexagonalBolts says:

    Can we have another meet up in the Kyoto bar?

  8. haircute says:

    I visited two different sports bars tonight and not one was playing a starcraft match. I live in the middle so I figured if this watching starcraft in sports bars craze was really sweeping the nation then it would have certainly swept over me before crossing the Atlantic. This was a report from America.

  9. Lambchops says:

    Having already discussed why watching Starcraft ain’t for me in a comment thread recently i’ve decided instead to share some commentary quotes:

    Murrary Walker (F1): “What’s that? There’s a BODY on the track!!!” Co commentator: “Um, I think that that is a piece of BODY-WORK, from someone’s car.”

    Unknown footy commentator: “There’s Dimitar Berbatov, it’s like he’s playing in a bubble of tranquility.”

    Charlie Cox (Moto GP): “He’s got such bad luck that if he fell in a bucket of boobs, he’d still come up sucking his thumb.”

    Steve Parish (also Moto GP and not to be outdone): “If he fell in a cess pit he’d come up with a salmon on his head.”

    Nonsensical football cliche “He put his shoelaces through it.”

    John Virgo (at least once every match): “In all my years of snooker – as a player, and as a commentator – I’ve never seen a shot like that”

    • Moth Bones says:

      Best sports commentary, now and forever, comes from Sid Waddell:-

      “When Alexander of Macedonia was 33, he cried salt tears because there were no more worlds to conquer… Bristow’s only 27.”

      Surely competitive video gaming has been around as long as videogames?

    • DiamondDog says:

      David Pleat, Arsenal v Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final. Arsenal 1-0 up and Pleat comes out with “and Arsenal really must feel the sight is in end” right before Barca equalise, then take the lead and ultimately win it.

      I don’t think I’ve ever laughed quite so long and hard watching another football match.

  10. hotcod says:

    I hate watching sports. I really do. Yet these days I watching SC2 is a regular part of my week. I’ve now spent more time watching people play then playing it my self and honestly I don’t even have the game installed at the moment..

    So the question is what does watching SC2 give me that watching normal sports does not? Is it from the same root as my tenancy to prefer fiction in my media mainly scific and fantasy over other often equally interesting none fiction topics? Is it that the game and games in general are something that I have a much better understand of and involvement in then I do of sports? I can’t really say, I do think that these things have a influence I don’t think they are what makes watching SC2 compelling. I think SC2 is what makes SC2 compelling.

    I draw that conclusion because I don’t really enjoy watching many other esports. CS or TF2 or LoL or any other “major” esport tend to get rather boring rather quickly for me. This I think is because these games tend to mirrors sports in that one person is controlling one thing and working as a part of a team to in effect score points. While that’s a blast to play and it’s clear it’s a blast for people to watch it’s also very different to what SC2 does.

    AbsoluteDestiny above made many a fine point as to what makes SC2 unique in this respect. Each player has far far more that they have to be doing than in most other esports or sports in general. In most sports and esports the player is only ever tacitly responding to the situation of a sub set of the game that is currently being presented to them. How they respond is often based on the over all strategy the team has but the person in charge be the captain or coach can’t apply strategy directly.

    And that I think is what gets me and it’s absurdly simple… SC2 is a strategy game… The players are both showing skill in the use of macro and each tactical engagement but at the same time they are directly applying, adapting change and adopting over all strategies based on all the information their “side” has. This is fundamentally different to a lot of sports and is what I feel engages me with the game.

    Along side everything AbsoluteDestiny talked about it leaves watching the game a much more for-filling experiences for me because the strategy is simply far more alive and a direct part of the game than I feel it is in most sports and even most esports.

  11. nokill says:

    I wish there where bars near me that did this :(
    I guess I’m not in a place where many gamers live

  12. Wilson says:

    I got into a semi-regular habit a while ago of watching Company of Heroes replays, often during dinner if I was on my own for an evening. Recently done the same for a few Kane’s Wrath replays, but they were narrated, which is good when you have a capable commentator.

    I find it nice to follow a game and think about the tactics involved, but without having to focus on the micro all the time – it gives a chance to appreciate all the prettyness in modern strategy games.

  13. somnolentsurfer says:

    Dammit. This has given me an idea for a punning name for an e-sports bar. I think that means I need to do it. Anyone know anything about licensing?

  14. mihor_fego says:

    For people like me this doesn’t sound strange at all. I grew up while the arcades were the most common place to play games. Even when playing at home, usually it was one among five that had a computer, so most of the time you’d split time with friends watching the others play while waiting for your next turn. Of course this is different from watching a game as a spectacle, but I really think the fact that Street Fighter became a commented tournament game originates back to these days.

    The problem games have is that their level of complexity is far greater than any sport. If you’re new to watching football for example, you can pretty much learn the rules of the game within the first match and then build up to understanding the tactics and intricacies of the sport. With Starcraft, unless you’ve really played the game hands-on, it’s pretty obscure why one decides to create more of one unit than the other or why go for 2 instead of 3 bases, etc.

    Perhaps one of the biggest problems with commentary of such games is the speed in which everything transpires. The frantic pace won’t allow the commentators to actually loosen up and give bits of insight, irrelevant info or plain explanation for the less knowing. Half part of sports is the trivia, an area where e-sports lack at the moment.

    Especially as RTS games are concerned, it’s not like watching a football match, but a one on one coach match. Believe me, there could be people interested in watching the drawing boards of Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wegner split screen for a match to see what’s going on in their heads, but that wouldn’t gather the crowds an actual match would.

  15. McDan says:

    Can’t say I’ve been to a bar that shows games feeds but it does remind me fondly of going to a cyber cafe and having big games of supreme commander or Dawn of war dark crusade, my those were fun. And in my first year of uni we just had cables everywhere for LAN parties pretty much constantly because the uni Internet was a bitch, this year though it’s all wireless, which is nice.

  16. FlashDave says:

    I’ll be attending the london barcraft this weekend & I’m looking forward to it.
    http://www.reddit.com/r/BarCraft/comments/jt9i3/london_barcraft_signupdiscuss/

    This weekend pubs in across the westen world will show MLG a starcraft 2 a $50,000 tournament with awseome commentary that helps explain the flow of the game and build up the excitement. Previous events have been fun to watch online at home but now with barcraft the socialization is really going to add to that excitement level.

    • Rhin says:

      MLG is going to be weathering a hurricane, so I hope their internet connection (which tends to be spotty even sans-hurricane) makes it through the weekend.

  17. mbp says:

    Rofl at the Gamescon report.

    I just realised that I belong that I belong to the faction “which do not regularly use the bath that often” (I take showers).

    • Starky says:

      I’ve not had a bath in something like 8-10 years (swimming pools don’t count).

      Instead I shower in the tears of 40 virgins. Bah, who am I kidding, I live in the north-east, you could find gold easier than you could find 40 virgins.

  18. Sensai says:

    I’d say about a week ago, I mentioned to a buddy of mine that we should start an ‘esports pub’ in the States. As I was describing my idea, it occurred to me that it would fail horribly: the US is more focused on bars and has little interest in esports.

    Then, two days after I told him of this idea (which, I said was sure to be the ‘worst business plan ever, a business bound to fail’) there’s news everywhere about this place. I need to act on my instincts more.

  19. DrGonzo says:

    I find this fascinating. I’m a bit of a casual football and cricket fan, they are fascinating sports. But I just can’t get into competitive gaming. They are impressively good at the games, but I presume that’s more to do with time dedicated to playing it rather than having some kind of innate talent – but that could just be because it’s fairly new just as sports stars get progressively better over time.

    The big problem I have with Starcraft is who cares if a side is very organised when its a strategy game with one guy controlling it all. That’s what is amazing to watch in football and cricket, that these people essentially become one and start thinking collectively as a team. The closest I have gotten to enjoying watching them has been Dota so far as that seems to represent that more accurately.

    • Big Jim Slade says:

      DrGonzo – I assume you’re not a fan of golf, then. A Starcraft tournament is much more like golf than any of the team based sports you mention. Kind of like a version of golf where two players play each hole, but only the winner of each hole advances to the next.

      On a side note, I think that banelings burrowed randomly about the course would make golf a far more exciting game to watch.

  20. Fumarole says:

    Sports commentaries have long been a cavernous and untapped goldmine of comedic nuggets, particularly when they involve protracted clichés and metaphors.

    You should give a listen to Randy Hahn and Drew Remenda when they broadcast San Jose Sharks games (http://www.kfox.com/ when the season starts in October). The pair have spot-on timing and are quite funny together, all while delivering great play-by-play and commentary on the game.

    Were there a pair of equally skilled broadcasters in the gaming world I’d probably be interested in watching competitive games live.

  21. Hatsworth says:

    I’ve always hated watching sports, but I watch quite a lot of competitive gaming. Usually I’ve played it or at least a close relative though, and it’s always 1on1. WC3, SC2, duel fps like Quake, fighting games like SF4 and MvC3. Can’t stand CS or DotA etc. Hard singleplayer games are also interesting to watch, like a great Mega Man Zero run or (less so) a great In the Groove player.

  22. Big Jim Slade says:

    I’ll be at the Boston one of these on Sunday night, barring this crazy hurricane thinger getting too crazy. Anyone other RPS types in the area thinking of going?

    http://www.reddit.com/r/BarCraft/related/jh55t/boston_barcraft/

  23. Jambe says:

    http://www.reddit.com/r/barcraft

    Lots of them are emerging; the Seattle one at Chao Bistro is a regular event.

  24. JayeRandom says:

    The key here is commentary. As long as the action is relatively fast paced, and there is an understanding that personal pride (or money) is on the line, then any competitive activity, regardless of how obscure it is, becomes accessible once it has a voice-over from a knowledgeable play-by-play commentator. To see how this works, take someone who has never watched DotA being played. Have them watch some of the matches from the recent Valve tournament with the commentary turned off, then have them watch it with the commentary turned on. Even if they have no idea what is happening during the game, hearing the commentator get excited when something significant happens makes all the difference in how enjoyable it is to watch.

  25. Freudian Slip says:

    Hey Fumarole, you might want to check out the casting Archon that is Tasteless (brother of the infamous Day9) and Artosis. Former Starcraft 1 pros (they represented America in WCG) who have been friends for years and it shows. They have an extensive knowledge of both SC1 and 2 doing excellent play by play and analysis of the game while both being funny.

    I could listen to Tasteless’ stories of how he steals nerds ladder points all day.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stEqmANV1NQ

    edit: Reply fail ((((

  26. OriginOfBob says:

    My friend Brad sent me a picture as a text message last night. It was a drink menu:

    STIMPACK – 4.25/shot
    VESPENE GAS – 4.25/shot
    CHRONO BOOST – 4.25/shot
    BANELING – 3.25/shot

    In complete disbelief, I begged to know what this madness was, and where. Apparently, a local bar had around ONE HUNDRED PEOPLE watching the replays from MLG’s Starcraft II series. I’ll be there for the next Barcraft event. No doubt.

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