The Sport of Starcraft

Starcraft 2

Running is hard. It never takes long before doubt creeps in. Should I slow down or speed up? How far am I going today? Is my form correct? Playing Starcraft 2 competitively is proving equally challenging. I know I’m Protoss, but what’s my opening build? Should I send the six probes I start with to the mineral fields before or after I start building my seventh? I want to produce units as fast as possible, but that two-second delay in starting to harvest might cost me 90 minerals five minutes into the game, right when I need them most.

It’s a split-second decision. I start production before sending my workers out into the fields this time, and the game goes on. By the one-minute mark I’ve begun to warp in my first pylon, sending the probe responsible out to root around in the fog for my enemy.

This is the first test of competitive play: simultaneously splitting your attention between two or more spots on the map. Sending a worker or two out to scout is critical if you want to know what your opponent is up to, but you can’t let reconnaissance work distract you from keeping your production and harvesting efforts dialed in.

It’s like when you’re out on a trail run, scanning the horizon for terrain changes and checking the ground beneath your feet for rocks without losing track of how your body is moving. It seems silly, but precise limb control while running is critical if you don’t want to run out of gas before the end. There’s this sweet spot between a bus-beating sprint and that flat-footed hustle you do to catch an elevator where your legs are lifting just high enough to drive down and push off into the next step. You’ve got to flail around with confidence, keeping your limbs on a tight leash to squeeze out maximum performance with a minimum of energy. It’s a challenge to micro-manage that stuff on just a flat track, and a full-blown test of will when you’re scampering up and down the hills of San Francisco.

This time I fail the test. My lone probe lies dormant in an empty corner of the map as I focus on cranking out more units. We’re almost two minutes into the match and I’m still waiting for my first Gateway to finish warping in so I can start assembling an army. I finally remember my scout probe forty-five seconds later, and start poking cautiously around the other starting areas of the map. No dice. By the four-minute mark I still haven’t found my opponent, and I’m starting to get nervous; has he already expanded to a second base? Does he have air power?

I’ve cranked out a handful of Stalkers and Zealots, but I lost my cool trying to juggle too much at once and haven’t decided on a clear attack path yet. Worse, I don’t have a clue what my opponent is up to; I’m fighting blind. So I decide to Blink, and start churning out a retinue of Stalkers and Sentries while I build towards Void Rays. Suddenly I hear the telltale ping of a unit lost, and I know where my enemy is. The game’s afoot.

I march my motley crew of Zealots, Stalkers and Sentries to his base in an effort to harass and stymie any attempts at expansion. He’s still in one of the starting spots with no sign of a nearby expansion, so I’m pinning all my hopes on my opponent being as naive as I am. If he’s already expanded into a second mineral field, he could easily route his main force into my (near) defenseless base while I send all my units out to harass his expansion.

Watching the replays later, I’ll learn that this was the first turning point in our battle. My opponent was about to expand to his first secondary and start teching up for Carriers, but he overestimated my military after the harassment effort and immediately switched to laying down more Gateways and pumping out Zealots and Stalkers. Meanwhile I lost half my army to his defenses, and nearly surrendered then and there.

This is the second test of competitive play: you need to be able to adapt to what your opponent is doing, figure out their plans and think three moves ahead of them. I failed this time, but so did my opponent, and that let me win. By rights, I should have lost this match, but choosing to focus on Stalkers allowed me to quickly follow up my early harassment charge with a larger force of Blink-enabled Stalkers and Sentries that handily destroyed the remaining ground troops and the three or four Void Rays my opponent had managed to churn out while he waited for the Fleet Beacon to warp in. My first win in months is equal parts luck and judicious use of the “B” key, but it feels good to watch myself hit that quitting point in the replay and keep going.

I don’t think I need to make the obvious endurance sport allegory here, so let’s just agree that so much of competition is tied up in how gracefully you hit walls. I’ve hit a ton in the past few week as I start ramping up a distance running routine while simultaneously dusting off my Battle.net account, and I know I’m going to hit more before I let myself stop. Nate loves to point out how neither of these activities are really that fun, and he’s right. Yet there’s something rewarding about overcoming obstacles, adding another mile to your tally or another victory to your name. It feels good, man.

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