The North American Star League and eSports

The North American Star League and eSports

There’s a new pro gaming league coming to the USA. But does it finally make StarCraft a sport?

Look at What We Can Do

I had an interesting conversation tonight with a friend who had spend significant time in both Spain and Chile in the last few years. One of the observations she made that really stuck with me was that, in Chile, she found people generally downplayed the ability of the government and country to coordinate logistics and run complex institutions – Chile was, after all, a third-world country, they would claim, and would not have the capabilities of a first-world country, such a Spain. Except, by her experience, Spain was a mess compared to Chile, especially with government institutions and logistics, and the Chileans had grossly underestimated the relative competence of their countrymen/women. By aspiring to a mythologized idea of what Spain might be, Chile had driven itself farther than if it had copied what Spain had been doing exactly.

This is, of course, an anecdotal first-person oversimplification, but it makes its point. By aspiring to a thing, it is very possible to reinvent the thing to a degree that serves instead to create something entirely different.

A lot of people spend time trying to define “eSports” from the standpoint of “sports,” but I see fewer people looking to do the opposite – to identify the qualities in sports that eSports would have to achieve to have realized its mission and made its moniker real. And I think when you look at that, you realize that sports are not quite as elite or unapproachable as they often feel. Most people who play sports do it only occasionally, and never for any money. A lot of people who follow teams don’t necessarily watch many games. Sports teams have big stadiums, but they need to rent out those stadiums to music groups and job fairs and stuff to make ends meet, and even they the teams are occasionally crushed by debt burdens or need massive financing to keep their facilities current.

Most things that qualify as “sports” have much smaller and less enthusiastic followings than StarCraft does. HuskyStarcraft’s YouTube channel has more than 10 times the total upload views on YouTube channel for Major League Soccer, and more than 100 times the total upload views of the NFL Players Association channel (the NFL doesn’t even appear to have its own YouTube channel). For your amusement, here is one of HuskyStarcraft’s YouTube videos, which hit the top listings on YouTube very quickly out of the gates (it’s a Justin Bieber parody that isn’t all that accessible to non-StarCraft fans):

There is of course the myth that if you play sports, you will be popular, attractive and loved by all, whereas if you don’t you will not – but the sooner we all dispossess ourselves of this idea at any age, the better – except insofar as much as physical activity and friendships are healthy things to have. People who play sports still have difficult times in high school, people. The football captain who is happy when everybody else is sad is imaginary. And besides, high school only lasts so long, and a lot of pro gamers are done with it.

There is perhaps the desire to subvert this myth, however mistaken it always was – this is like calling government entities “terrorists” to subvert how they call all their enemies “terrorists.” (“I’ll tell you what the real crime is, man!” etc.) At a certain point these rhetorical conflations become unnecessarily confusing and unmoor you from what you are trying to accomplish. It might be satisfying to call an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” at first, but, as Robert Frost might say, it “butters no parsnips.”

Actually, the full quote from Frost is more instructive and appropriate:

There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called ‘of esteem’ and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with the critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it — don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviare to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do by taking thought.”

This is, to a degree, an apology for selling out, but it also acknowledges the unique problem of reaching this great mass of people who lie outside one’s niche community. This is, perhaps, the great proving ground for eSports. Can it reach out to this greater humanity who right now does not play these video games as enthusiastically as the eSports evangelists?

But who exactly does this effectively these days? The audience is fragmenting for even the mainstream media channels – I’m reminded of the college kids who eat their seed corn – the scores of interns who provide so much free labor they destroy the jobs they were looking to score in the future. By building their own edifices that take the place of sports – that draw more and more people away from “mainstream” sports and to their own hobbies, eSports evangelists are leaving a smaller and smaller “mainstream” pool on which to draw from if this tipping point for which they are searching is ever reached.

This is not a bad thing, of course, but it does mean that “eSports” is most likely an aspirational myth, not a cogent strategy – and that, if it does succeed in its mission, it will look very different from more conventional sports – or at least how those sports are imagined in the zeitgeist – or in the hearts and minds of StarCraft players.


Sports as we commonly understand them grew out of a combination of social factors – most notably a need to find something for industrial laborers to do with their time so that they didn’t get into as many of the unacceptable kinds of fights and trouble. Churches and schools were major drivers of the initial rise of modern sports, looking to drive connection within communities and provide ways for people to adapt to changing lifestyles. Everything that has come after has been built on this quirky foundation – it is not necessary that the thing that houses the Super Bowl Commercials is a football game, but because of historical luck, it is.

Perhaps eSports is the sign of a new wave of this adjustment – to the person-as-workstation, the knowledge worker who perceives him or herself as an extension of the computer, a way of actualizing the competitive drive and finding connection and personal fulfillment in online competition where it is denied by the realities of modern life. Perhaps future institutions will build on eSports they way they have built on traditional sports.

But even with money, superstars, branding, accessibility and a good way to broadcast, even if the North American Star League is a huge hit, I am of a firm belief that eSports will turn into something entirely new – its own cobbled-together phenomenon – and that its goal of supplanting or surpassing conventional sports, while motivating, is at this point not a precise description of its larger mission or qualifications for success.

What are your thoughts about eSports – its past, present and future? Will the NASL be a game-changer? Sound off in the comments!

10 Comments on “The North American Star League and eSports”

  1. Eric #

    As far as personalities I think Day9 (not a pro-gamer but probably the biggest force for Starcraft 2 in America) and TLO (because his play style is kind of crazy) could also go a long way into solidifying the brand. Husky seems fairly well connected (strangely moreso than HD does, whose commentary I actually prefer since he is a better player) so I could see him getting involved with that, though at this point I feel like the mantle of “entertaining commenter that’s not that good at the game” goes to TotalBiscuit over Husky. Though of NASL could land Day9 that would be huge for them. He seems to be pretty international though. I imagine the pay would have to be pretty good to have him not go cast all the European tournaments he’s been doing.


  2. Jo #

    NASL is a big deal, but it’s not a silver bullet that will bring e-sports to the masses. It’s basically an online tournament that plays out over the course of weeks. Given latency, anyone playing from anywhere other than NA is going to be at a disadvantage. Many of the best players are in Korea (foreign or not), and there are many that won’t move to the US for something smaller and less sure than the GSL. That means it’ll include more approachable players (good) but not necessarily the best players (bad). The LAN format for the finals is great, but not having much in the way of fan access for that will make it worse than MLG which has said it is much more committed to the on-site fan experience this year.

    NASL may get more people to start watching, but it likely won’t keep them. The point of commentators in the article is extremely important. Day[9] doesn’t have time to get involved in this endeavor, except perhaps for the finals. Artosis and Tasteless are too firmly rooted in Korea to move back to be involved. djWHEAT? He has other things going on too. That’s about it for the popular/knowledgeable commentators that have been omnipresent in the English speaking scene that the people in charge of NASL are likely to be interested in. Listen to State of the Game and you’ll hear what iNControl thinks of the YouTube stars like Husky, HD, and to some extent TotalBiscuit. These are people that have gotten a huge fanbase behind them, focusing on more exciting rather than analytical commentary. A mix of the two types is probably required to grab new fans and then keep them for the long haul. Examine what NASL will have going on and you’ll find that a bit of a miss. iNControl and Gretorp are the primary people (other folks swapping in occasionally). Neither are very exciting, or particularly fun to listen to. Anyone who has heard iNControl commentate before was just cringing the entire time during the “Clash of the Titans” showmatch that also hosted the announcement of the NASL. The pair just isn’t strong enough yet to keep anything but the dedicated, which won’t grow SC2 as a sport in North America.

    So…NASL is a good starting point. The money was absolutely necessary to give it legitimacy. The next step will probably be more of an in-place MLG style event in an area that has a large fan base. Only after that will it have a chance to become something bigger. There are a lot of problems that the management of NASL won’t likely see or try to fix that will probably prevent them from really taking it to the next level though. For shame.


    • OCsurfeR #

      Before I begin. Awesome blog entry, and the responses have been far superior to the muddled high-school quality garbage that has polluted about I love the dialog. However something Jo said in his reply (toward the end) troubled me:

      Jo wrote: “…There are a lot of problems that the management of NASL won’t likely see or try to fix that will probably prevent them from really taking it to the next level though.”

      How did you reach that conclusion. Do you know me? Do you know Russ? Do you know any of our investors, sponsors, talent or other members of our leadership team? Doubtful, so how can you say that we won’t see problems or won’t fix problems? Where did you divine this? Can I use your crystal ball so that we can share that laser focused Groundhog-style fortune telling you seem to have a corner on?

      Okay so that was a rant, but my point is, All that’s happened is we’ve announced NASL and given some sketchy details. And although most of the community has embraced this for the groundbreaking event that it is, many have been out-and-out hostile toward the NASL. While I get part of it is the relatively young age of our community who are used to being spoon-fed Hollywood movies and TV or, more specifically, the more mature and polished GSL, which is 10 years our senior.

      There will be problems, we’ll go through growing pains. We’ll probably have to reinvent ourselves many times over as we move to the evolution of where we want eSports to be in North America.

      We’re in our baby steps of the NASL. We have a very experienced management team. Personally I’ve managed projects much larger than NASL is or even bigger than GSL is today. I’ve done media and press relations for 20 years. The CEO of NASL has managed multi-million dollar construction projects and is a natural leader that is also amazingly creative. We have good casters, devoted investors and a good team of paid and volunteer staff that will certainly grow with time.

      So relax. See what we’re about, give us five seconds to put up or shut up before you accuse, arrest, try, judge and sentence us for something that in your hearts we know you believe in, before it even fracking happens.

      There you go.



      • fenzel #

        Thanks for coming to comment!

        I wouldn’t be too too bothered by the haters; the Internet is a pretty hateful place, so if you attract attention, you tend to attract hateful attention. I tell the other writers on this site all the time – “If somebody’s not yelling at you on the Internet, you’re doing it wrong.”

        But still, you guys have a considerable challenge ahead of you – I wish you luck, and I hope you perform the execution necessary to make it all work. I’d love to see this be something big, and it seems like an interesting team with some cool energy behind it. I look forward to seeing what you can do!


      • Jo #


        Thanks for your take. I wasn’t trying to be too down on it, and I wouldn’t classify myself as a “hater” as fenzel said, but rather more a skeptic. Without details, you’re more likely to polarize people. As things get running and everything becomes more clear, that’ll settle into more of a spectrum.

        It’s all based more on what we have to go with so far, which seems to be the release details, interviews with Geoff and Russ at G4, SotG, etc. I think NASL has the potential to really be something great…I’m just not convinced yet, and I likely won’t be until it’s going. Don’t get me wrong, I’m excited, I’ll probably be watching pretty consistently, and will make a decision to pay or not for the HQ stream/etc. once I see what it’s all about.

        I just worry about tunnel vision more than anything else. It’s certainly something we’ve seen with respect to enterprises like MLG and SC2, and I was hearing echoes of similar things from the NASL leadership/frontmen (I’m not saying NASL and MLG are related or that one will follow the other, I’m simply using that as an easy to follow example). This is concerning, but it’s not as if I’m about to go find a torch and a pitchfork.

        The growing pains you mention are inevitable with a venture like this, but so critically important as well. I really hope that things go smoothly, whatever adjustments need to be made are, fans respond (and pay), the venture becomes profitable and can sustain and grow to reach it’s potential. Still, the proof is in the pudding after all so we all have to wait and see. So…I’m happy to relax, but you relax too.


  3. Greer C #

    NASL will be a game changer the same way WSVG, CPL, and CGI were game changers, which is to say a step in the right direction but doomed to failure due to the business reality that there is not a large enough market to sustain it currently and that its future growth is stunted by tremendous barriers to entry. I’ll briefly address both.

    SC2 has sold perhaps as much as 8 million copies in the US, while impressive, this figure relegates the potential viewership of SC2 as a spectator sport to be relatively small. While Husky, Day9 and other commentators can command relatively large subscriber bases on youtube and, the ad dollars equate to what amounts to an aggregate of high five figures. It’s simply not enough to support a series of seasons that supports the sort of operations required to run a professionally casted event in a studio, let alone pay out six figures routinely.

    Growth of SC2 as a spectator sport has incredible challenges. While the poker analogy is admirable, the barrier to entry are black and white, with SC2 requiring a gaming pc, and internet connection, and general computer acumen whereas poker requires a $4 deck of cards. These barriers to entry are the same reason why console games outsell PC games 2 to 1.


    • Eric #

      Good points, but I disagree that the number of potential viewers is solely the number of people that own Starcraft. There are plenty of viewers of TB, HD and Husky that admit that they don’t own the game, but just tune in because they think the videos are entertaining.


  4. Rake #

    I think if the NASL starts off slowly, does all their homework (like getting good players and having a business model) and gradually builds up their base then they could be successful.

    I think one of the advantages of SC in general is that it is moderately accessible. Players build up armies and then attack each other. It is not too hard to follow at a very simple level. Perhaps it would be a good idea for tournament organizers to provide basic level explanatory videos for new people.

    In contrast, I have seen competition first person shooter videos and I have no idea what is going on. You also mentioned Magic: the gathering. Well, as far as accessibility goes, that is not great. I have had it explained to me a couple of times and I never got it. I doubt I could pick it up from a watching a game.








    • OCsurfeR #

      First off, typing in all-caps is not only BM, it’s immature. There’s plenty of information on our FAQ and on the site on how to apply. That said, we’re also very soon releasing an updated FAQ where we’ll tive very detailed information on league rules and how to apply. I believe the formal email address to apply to be in the league is [email protected]

      Some things to keep in mind. If you’re not in the top half of your Master’s division, you’re probably not one of the top 50 players we’re considering. Even if you are in the top half, that’s still a pretty big pool and you still may not be considered.

      But that’s okay. Because as you know toward the end of the season we’ll have an open qualifier and the top finishers in that will be invited into the next season, and the very top finalist will go to the Season one finals.

      We’re looking at some other methods that might work to ensure that any pro-gamer quality SC2 player has a chance to be in the league, but stay tuned for all of that.


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