Time to start playing the game Reply

Vivien Luu

by Vivien Luu

Jared ‘Pig’ Krensel competing at the Intel Extreme Masters

It’s 3am. Jared Krensel sits at his computer. Sound cranked up, headphones on, eyes intent. Your forces are under attack.

Through thick-rimmed glasses, his eyes dart across the screen. A swarm of Roaches are descending. But he remains calm. Your forces are under attack.

Like mechanical spiders, Jared’s hands scuttle across the keyboard. The Roaches edge their way closer. And closer. They spit acid-green fire, crippling Jared’s Zergling force. But still he keeps his units at bay.

Your forces are under attack.

It only takes a split second for Jared to activate his hidden reserves. Deftly, he punches out the command.

Attack!

Fire. Chaos. Carnage. In less than 30 seconds, the game is won.

Just some nerd button-mashing away until the break of dawn, right? Wrong. This is Jared’s full-time job. He’s a professional gamer.

“It’s always bewilderment,” the 24-year-old says with a smile, when asked how people react to his profession.

“People have a view of video games as just something you do to waste time. It’s this idiot box that you just sit in front of and your brain turns to sludge.”

But as one of Australia’s top Starcraft II players, Jared proves this isn’t the case. The clean-cut and amiable Sydneysider earns a living by playing and coaching the real-time strategy game.

Starcraft II may be likened to a game of high-speed chess in which players build up armies and bases in order to destroy one another. The game is so popular it has become a niche sport in its own right.

International tournaments like the Global Starcraft League (GSL) offer prize pools of up to $US150,000 and attract thousands of spectators every season. Like any major sport, only top-tier pros are skilled enough to compete at this level. And like the tennis or basketball, these games are televised live with a running commentary.

While the eSports scene is well-established in the US, South Korea and parts of Europe, it is still in its nascent stages in Australia which makes it extremely difficult for Aussie players like Jared to break out on to the world stage.

“Australian players can’t stand up to the international crowd because those guys are staying in team houses and practising all day and they’ve been doing it for years,” Jared says. “Whereas the guys in Australia are coming home from uni, hopping on and playing as many games as they can. It’s just not the same as training eight hours a day in a team house.”

Derek Reball, who has been organising Australian eSports for over a decade, says it boils it down to the fact that, “gaming hasn’t really become legitimate in Australia yet”.

He says the biggest limitations are bandwidth and funding. The reality is that sponsors are reluctant to invest in a fringe sport, while poor bandwidth in Australia means lag for players.

“It’s no secret our internet infrastructure sucks and it’s a massive detriment to us,” Reball says.

But the Aussie scene is growing. The eSports veteran recalls tournaments several years ago where players competed for bragging rights alone.

“Now we’re seeing $A5,000 and $A10,000 prize pools,” he says. “There’s been quite a lot of money thrown around and I think it’s caught people off guard because in Australia we’ve never really seen that before.”

With the Australian Cyber League (ACL) expanding to include a Starcraft II division, and a new gaming circuit known as the Australian Pro League (APL), 2012 is shaping up to be a big year for Australian eSports.

The scene has also been helped along by Sydney’s Barcraft movement. Barcraft is much like watching the football at a pub with mates; the only difference is the game involves aliens and missile attacks, not a ball and a net.

“It’s an unfair stigma that if you’re a gamer, you’re not sociable,” Reball says. “So Barcraft helps bridge that gap and puts gamers and non-gamers together in the same environment.”

Last month the Paragon Hotel in Circular Quay played host to the biggest Barcraft in the world, drawing a crowd of over 600 people. Gamers like Jared Krensel are hopeful that the event’s increasing popularity will help legitimise Starcraft II as a real sport and overturn prejudices associated with video games.

“I’ve had people be like, ‘Oh, that’s just stupid,’ or ‘That’s not a sport, that can’t be a sport,’” Jared says in exasperation. “But what defines a sport, anyway?”

He points out that to play Starcraft II competitively, players require an immense amount of skill and dexterity – something which can be measured by their Actions Per Minute (APM). While casual gamers hover around the 20 to 100 APM mark, pros have average APMs of 300 plus.

“It’s not something you can understand until you see a crowd of people cheering for these guys and see the speeds that they’re playing at,” Jared says.

So will video games ever be accepted by Australians as a ‘real’ sport?

Professor Jeffrey Brand, who has tracked our nation’s gaming patterns since 2005, believes it will happen eventually.

“I don’t think video games are quite to the stage of permeating our culture in the same way as say rugby or cricket does,” Professor Brand says. “But as a nation we enjoy engaging one another in meaningful play, and computer games will, like games before them, become a key part of the way we express ourselves culturally. It’s a different kind of sport, but a sport nonetheless.”

However, regardless of how the public perceives eSports, it’s clear that what really motivates Jared is his passion for the game.

“When it comes down to it, it’s like a poker game in that there’s chance. Except, if you’ve practised hard enough and you’re fast enough and you’re good enough, you can push your opponents over and see their cards,” Jared explains. “So there’s an unlimited skill-ceiling to the game. You can always be faster and better. “

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