A low hum emanated from multiple sources, broken up every few seconds by frenzied taps. Several seated individuals crowded together, now and then conversing in an unintelligible, esoteric language. Faces masked in concentration could not be reached, as interview questions lingered in the air ignored. Tibetan monks? No, these are members of the Emory StarCraft Team.
A real time strategy game, StarCraft is situated in an alternate universe. Players choose among three different races — Protoss, Terran and Zerg — and start each game with their own base and a few workers. Players slowly assemble their armies and build up economies, and once they create units, they are free to use them and plot strategy, all while continuing to develop more units and maintain their economies. The goal: destroy each other.
A nerdy subculture stateside, StarCraft is arguably the national pastime in South Korea. A well-honed Zergling rush might literally launch you to superstardom. Endorsements, riches and yes, groupies, will follow.
“It’s a digital game of chess except that all the pieces move at once, and you can only see part of the board,” explains sophomore Justin Groot (StarCraft alias Clever.505), founder and captain of the Emory StarCraft Team.
It is Tuesday night, which means it’s time for team practice. The team usually holds online practices Tuesday and Thursday nights, while physically getting together Saturday afternoons for additional sorties before heading out for a team dinner. But tonight, team members have congregated in the penthouse level at Clairmont Towers, their usual haunting ground.
Seven were seated around a table. Overworked laptop cooling fans hummed along as each frantically clicked away on his wireless mouse. One player, conceding defeat, mutters “gg” (good game) while typing those same two letters and sending the message to the game chat. If a losing player does not gracefully input this before leaving the arena, this is considered “BM” (bad manner).
The Emory StarCraft Team is an official Emory organization charted at the beginning of last semester. Groot estimates the team has 16 to 20 active members, “though some people I’ve never even met, and some I’ve only seen once.”
Though it is their first year, the StarCraft team is already making waves in the competitive collegiate circuit. This fall, the team joined the Collegiate Star League (CSL), an online StarCraft league entering its fifth season. The CSL has over 240 schools, “pitting teams against each other on a weekly basis”, as explained on its website. And no competitive league is complete without rankings. Emory is ranked No. 82 overall (No. 22 in the Eastern region) with a 9-4 overall record.
The CSL is still in its infancy, and schools regularly drop out. A previous incarnation of an Emory CSL team participated last season before falling off, though that team’s circumstances remain mysterious.
“This is all hearsay,” said sophomore Taylor Poppell (TubleyFinsh.790), one of the seven gamers seated at the table, “but last year, five Emory guys briefly got together to form the original team. I’m pretty sure they never even met each other.”
Groot initially discovered the CSL last spring. This past fall, he attained a temporary charter and began recruiting. One interest meeting, several strategically placed flyers and some word-of-mouth later, Emory StarCraft was conceived.
The ‘varsity’ Emory StarCraft Team consists of five players (and a couple substitutes) who play competitive StarCraft matches every week in the CSL. Weekly games against rival college StarCraft teams are a best of five series, with four one-on-one sets (the classic match) and one two vs. two melee. The fifth set, if necessary, is called the ace match, where each team’s respective ace go mano-a-mano. Freshman ace Jay Li (jay.2513), Rui Lou (Frosty.547), senior William Partin (Spacehorse.510), freshman Qiyang Zhang (TheCrater.151) and team captain Clever.505 made up the starting five.
The inaugural season of the Emory StarCraft team has seen them take off in the second half. Coming 4-3 out of the gates, the team has since gone on a 5-1 streak. When the team realized that they would be going head-to-head with the No. 4 ranked school in the league (No. 1 in the region), MIT, the team suspected they’d be getting into the biggest “roflstomp” (read: total whooping) of their lives. But au contraire, mon ami.
During the match against MIT, the rest of the team watched with bated breath. How, you ask? Live streaming, of course.
Clever.505 [Justin] teamed up with Spacehorse.510 [Will], who was recently brought up from the minors, having merely a “Gold” ranking in the online game. The two had practiced working in tandem in the week leading up to the MIT match and honed their Zerg, Terran combo for hours. During the actual match, two key mistakes tipped the game in Emory’s favor, after which “it was divide and conquer,” Groot said.
Junior Tejas Ramalingam (TejasEagle.577) observed the match from Matheson Reading Room, and after Groot’s team won, he closed his computer and left the library. Curiosity, though, got the better of him.
“I went behind the D.U.C.,” continued Ramalingam , “opened up the laptop and began watching Jay’s game [the winning fifth set]. It all came down to one moment.”
The team’s designated ace, Li remains the team’s best player. In his pivotal
match-up, he kept his composure.
“The game started out fairly normal,” Li said. “The first 15-20 minutes it was a fairly even game, but on the mini-map I saw him go to attack one of my expansion bases.”
How did Li react? Was he about to be dealt a blow to the jugular?
“When he took his army to attack, I went to attack his main base which had his main production facilities,” Li explained. “If you kill those, your opponent can’t make any more attack units. Basically there was a huge disparity in the amount of damage we did.”
When the dust had settled, Emory emerged victorious.
Groot concedes their impressive 9-4 record is not because the team is stacked with grand masters. Rather it has been shrewd tactics, involving strategy and match-ups, which have given the team an edge.
“Basically we put players on their best maps and try to predict where other teams will put their various players,” said Groot. “Other schools’ CSL lineups sometimes list their best players in descending order. We can see the lineup history of previous teams, and guess what an opponent is going to do heading into the weekend.”
This is effective because of the races each player specializes in. One player might be particularly suited for one map or be particularly weak against a certain race. By doing their homework in the days leading up to a match, the team positions itself to exploit the match-ups.
Li revels in the inter-school competition.
“When you’re in the game, you feel a lot of adrenaline, and it’s exciting,” said Li. “It’s very skill-based, and I enjoy the competition. I like beating someone by out-thinking them.”
As glorious as the intercollegiate circuit is, it is not the core of the Emory StarCraft Team. The majority of the team does not play competitive games regularly, and some are not even there to compete.
“I’ve only come to a couple of practice sessions because of my crew commitment,” said sophomore Rohan Hall, who along with Poppell shared the same freshmen hall as Groot. For him, it’s a great way to stay connected with friends.
As for Space.510, the gold level hero who fended off the MIT overlords, the team is all of the above.
“It’s important to have the intercollegiate competitive aspect,” Partin said.
“StarCraft is fun at all levels. If you want to get better, you can come to play better. If you want to fool around, you can fool around. If you want to play four vs. four Baneling monobattles, you can do that!”
When these battle-scarred gamers shut their laptops, they resume their real lives. “Just because we play StarCraft doesn’t mean we’re not normal people,” Ramalingham said.