There's something distinctly feminine about choosing to get really good at a game. Unlike the very male experience of playing whatever, whenever, basically playing as much as you can get, basically waddling around the game shop with your trousers round your ankles, choosing to get good at a game requires commitment, or even devotion. More difficultly, it also requires that you choose a suitor.
When I was living in Edinburgh my flatmate and I spent the better part of six months trying a ton of different fighting games. We were searching for something we could play together to settle disputes, a game which might simplify the awkwardness that arose whenever I chose not to pay bills or my grubby cohabitant left toenail clippings on the toilet seat.
Incidentally (since any dedicated PC gamers are unlikely to experience it), as one of the first Japanese games to appear on the PS3 with its new fangled hard drive, Virtua Fighter 5 has the most astonishingly awkward initial start-up sequence of all time. It goes like this:
VF5: Now loading Virtua Fighter 5.
VF5: Would you like to load save data?
You: Uh. Yes?
VF5: There is no save data.
You: Oh, right. OK.
VF5: Would you like to not load the save data that isn't there?
VF5: Not loading save data.
VF5: Now loading Virtua Fighter 5. Welcome, to Virtua Fighter 5.
VF5: There is no save data.
(If this is ringing any bells for you, it's because Penny Arcade got there years ago.)
Eventually Street Fighter IV was released, and my flatmate fell for it pretty much instantly. It had it all- this game was massively sophisticated, it was beautiful, and it even had a sense of humour. We were charmed.
But it didn't stick for me, which was kind of crushing. I'd always told myself that if the right fighting game came along I'd give it my time, and yet here was unquestionably the "right" fighting game- how could anyone get it more right? But I couldn't be bothered to train. Every time my planned special move failed to materialise I felt like flinging the game disc under a truck, and every time my flatmate kicked my ass I felt like flinging him under a truck. I could have done it, too. He wasn't very big.
But there were no trucks. There was only me, and defeat, and the occasional success that would always be chased up by another quick defeat. With hindsight it seems obvious that SFIV didn't hold my interest because I was never any good at it, but I know that's wrong. Sucking at a game isn't a problem. Not wanting to get better at it is a problem, and the idea of getting good at SFIV didn't appeal at all.
I figured out why eventually, but only because I started seeing-- uh, playing StarCraft 2.
Don't think that because it's an RTS StarCraft 2 is somehow softer than Street Fighter IV. SC2 is a fierce, hungry game that demands superhuman multitasking ability and an animal rate of clicks per minute. That it has a reputation for superfast rushes is testament to that. The game is brutal, and I suck, and I love it.
A lot of critics of StarCraft use the word "rush" in a derogatory sense as if the prevalence of rushes somehow makes the game more crude, so I just want to quickly clarify things. StarCraft 2 is only a game about rushes in the sense that Street Fighter IV is a game about punches. Throwing your arms up in despair as your base is overwhelmed by a seemingly unstoppable rush is every bit as idiotic as shaking your head in sad disdain when your SFIV opponent KOs you by playing aggressively and simply punching your face many times.
The actual game of SC2 isn't in those climactic rushes, but in predicting, scouting and defending against them. If you find yourself overwhelmed by a hopeless rush, you lost the match minutes ago. You were just too inexperienced to know it.
To get back on track, going between these two games actually taught me what I enjoy about hyper-competitive titles. The reason StarCraft 2 stuck while Street Fighter 4 didn't is because if I'm looking to settle down with something that brands itself as an e-sport, then I need it to behave like a sport. If I'm going to spend a serious amount of my time on a game, I need it to be a multi-faceted experience that rewards every ounce of obsession I load into it.
Street Fighter IV (and the modern fighting game in general) is all pop and twitch. The mechanics are hopelessly nuanced, obviously, and the game itself remains a completely fascinating construct that excels at drenching individual minutes in adrenaline, but it's less good at giving you everything else that traditionally orbits a sport.
There's a reason Blizzard chose to market StarCraft 2 with the most astonishingly competent and entertaining match commentaries I've ever heard for a videogame, and that reason is because the game supports it.
If you listen to commentaries of SFIV tournament matches, despite the fact that each match plays out much more quickly you still hear the commentators filling seconds by talking about what the players might be aiming for, or what their chosen characters are good at, or simply calling out special moves as they happen. "Oh! Sonic boom! Oh, EX-flash kick! Yeah, Guile's a very defensive character, he wants to keep Balrog way out of range."
It's not their fault, it's just that everything happens so hopelessly quickly. For all the talk of high level SFIV play being like a chess match and any obvious parallels with, say, boxing, there's no escaping that the game is primarily down to honed reflexes.
It doesn't matter how fun Street Fighter IV is. I understand now that that's not all I'm in this for.
When I first started playing StarCraft 2 I couldn't get hypothetical problems out of my head. As a Zerg player I kept thinking about how I could use the Infestor, a complex unit I always avoided, and I wondered about things like potential build orders if I found my opponent was teching straight for Air units. I'd dream up potential solutions while I was walking around town, and in going home and testing them I began zeroing in on tactics that made me marginally less shit.
At the same time I learned the benefits of watching replays of matches where I'd gotten panned, because I'd always come away with some trick or idea (hard not to when SC2 lets you watch how your opponent moved his camera and cursor). By contrast, you can watch a replay of yourself sucking at Street Fighter IV and often see where you went wrong- 'I should have blocked there, should have cancelled my focus attack when I saw my opponent move like that'- but putting anything into practice is a nightmare. Better to just play the game and let skill come to you.
This isn't about one game having a steeper difficulty curve than the other. Both are equally intimidating in that respect. It's about one of these games being better at existing outside of the screen. Playing StarCraft 2 encourages you to talk about matches you've had or tactics, and talking about StarCraft 2 makes you understand the game more. This is before we've even gotten into the social aspect of finding a 2v2 partner or forming a 3v3 or 4v4 team.
As an obsession, Street Fighter IV is less well rounded, contained as it is in its spectacular visuals and sweaty arcade stick. Ironically, it's StarCraft 2 that's more suited to the imagery of being knocked down by the aged sensei and listening to what he has to say.
A few years back I got sent to cover the filming of Sky's (then soon-to-be-launched, now dead) XLEAGUE.tv e-sports channel. It was a bit like attending a circus organised by TV executives and cameramen, with a few gamers being kept in the back like prize freaks.
The whole miserable spectacle had been brought about, I discovered, by the recent transformation of televised Poker into a huge cash cow. A few months prior there had been a high-powered meeting of Sky executives, and they'd decided that if the sedate game of Poker could be compulsive viewing, why couldn't the same be said for videogames? Two years and however much money later, XLEAGUE.tv was closed down. It had failed.
I feel like the difference between StarCraft 2 and Street Fighter IV might help explain why, not least because of StarCraft's televised success in Korea.
Games are designed to be entertaining to play. Sports, broadly speaking, are entertaining to play, but also to watch and discuss, two extra elements that require a very different type of design (design that SC2 leans towards more than SFIV). Of course, existing as they do in the real world, real-life sports have to try less hard- human contact automatically enlivens and expands on any game. Nobody would watch televised virtual poker, for example, while everyone would watch Gears of War multiplayer if it was somehow brought to life, chainsaws and all.
An understanding of this, I think, will be the foundation of whatever causes e-sports to really take off worldwide, or at least what will stop people from continuing to try and drum up public interest when there's nothing to be interested in. Until then, well. Get ready to watch an awful lot more investors wasting their money. If you need me, I'll be playing StarCraft 2.