The game has just hit the 20-minute mark and after a brief period of dominance, the player who calls himself Deadhead is not adapting.
"He keeps expanding, but it's not going to change his unit composition," Gustavus Adolphus College assistant professor Choong-Soo Lee says, commenting on the battle as the game is projected on a screen.
It¹s true — Deadhead (real name: Jason Quiram) is on his way to amassing more resources than his opponent. But he continues to rely on tactics that are no longer working. The small lead he¹d built is evaporating.
His opponent, tdrules (real name: Derek Evenson), has fended off the attack, built a well balanced army and clawed his way back into this semifinal match.
"Oh, ohhhh," spectator Cory Ruegg says, wincing. Ruegg helped organize this tournament of the video game Starcraft 2, where players choose one of three "races," accumulate resources, use them to buy attacking units and destroy their opponent.
Ruegg plays the same race as Deadhead, the alien Protoss. Watching his favorite race lose this way, slowly, is unpleasant even when he's not playing.
After he accumulates a big enough advantage, tdrules busts his opponent's defenses down and takes the game.
Evenson's friends, who¹d been watching his games, say afterward he's not the kind of person who plays games to have fun. He plays to win.
"Yeah, that's completely accurate," Evenson says later.
It might seem like a misnomer, or maybe several: a video game that evokes fierce competition, is watched by spectators and challenges intellect as much as reflexes.
“Some parents might encourage their kids to play chess, but they never encourage them to play video games,” says Lee, the assistant professor.
There may be a few exceptions, including Starcraft 2, a game in the real-time strategy genre (as compared to games where each player takes turns). The basic idea is to accumulate resources, use them to buy attacking units and destroy your opponent.
“Not every video game is bad, not just a time waster,” Lee says.
He decided to hold the 16-player tournament during January at Gustavus, a time when teachers are asked to keep their students busy. Keeping busy and playing video games seem like an oxymoron, but not to Lee.
“I’ve heard people say it’s chess on steroids,” he says.
Still, he advises his students to “not play all the time.”
“As everything goes, it’s good in moderation.”
The professionals — yes, the people who play tournaments with five-figure payouts — will often play at a blistering speed of 300 actions per minute (or apm, as it’s known).
At the Gustavus tournament, the top two competitors play at an average speed of 70 to 80 apm.
Even when he was behind and holed up in his base while playing against Deadhead in the semis, Evenson kept his confidence.
“In my mind, I knew if I could get past this little hump ... If I just keep my cool, I could push through it and win,” he says after the game. He’d kept up his surveillance and knew his opponent was pouring money into static defenses, typically a mistake for his race in one-on-one matches.
The comparison between chess and Starcraft is limited, naturally, but both games have generic opening sequences followed by play of increased creativity and adaptability.
There’s already a culture of watching games played live on television in Korea, but it hasn’t taken hold in America.
Gustavus sophomore Josh Connell hasn’t played much but enjoyed watching the games in this tournament.
“You never really know who’s on top before the last push,” he says.
The finals, a best-of-five series, were played against Lucas Seewald.
“It’s gonna be tough,” Evenson, a sophomore, says beforehand. “I’m pretty sure he’s a better player than I am.”
The first game of the finals is close until the final minute of the half-hour contest, until Evenson demonstrates the importance of deciding where to fight. He’s a patient player, sitting outside his opponent’s base and baiting him until he gives in and attacks.
Evenson easily wins that encounter, and Seewald calls “gg” (for ”good game,” a good-natured surrender in gamer lingo).
Evenson also wins the much shorter second game with a well-executed but standard strategy that caught his opponent unprepared.
The third game, though, demonstrates the so-called "macro" level of the
game, which rewards players who are better at expanding across the map and
adding bases. Seewald is routinely losing his battles but has hidden a
money-making expansion. It¹s sort of like a big-box retailer undercutting
its smaller competitor and taking the short-term losses until the small
store can no longer afford to continue.
In the end, Evenson loses the game despite winning his battles.
The fourth game is somewhat anticlimactic as Seewald uses the workers he’s provided at the start of the game in an all-in attack. Some in the gaming world dismiss strategies like this as “cheese,” but it can be effective.
But not this time, as Evenson uses a more precise control of his own workers to take down his opponent’s, win the tournament and claim his prize — a $50 gift card from the campus bookstore.
Lee, the professor, says the critical thinking and adaptation skills exercised in Starcraft can be put to use in real life, like if you’re doing a job search and need to stay up to date in your field.
“There are different ways to look at the game instead of pure entertainment.”
On the Web: The replays of all the games in the tournament are available online at http://homepages.gac.edu/~clee7/starcraft2/bracket.html (a copy of the game is required to view them)