Why, Exactly, Do People Enjoy Watching StarCraft Games?

Why, Exactly, Do People Enjoy Watching StarCraft Games?

Most people just aren’t interested in watching video games. They’d rather be playing them. So why is strategy juggernaut StarCraft such an exception to the rule?

Information Science phd students Gifford Cheung and Jeff Huang sought to answer this in their paper Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator, which looks at what makes a strategy game about clicking really fast more compelling to watch than, say, a first-person shooter or sports game.

Their findings, collected from fans all around the world, revealed what they believe to be nine “personas” of StarCraft spectator. These include “The Curious” (someone who doesn’t understand it and wants to by watching more), “The Pupil” (who uses televised matches to learn tactics) and “The Crowd” (people who simply enjoy watching and involving themselves in the culture as part of a group).

Why, though, is StarCraft so special? The pair believe it’s because of something they call “Information Asymmetry”, which is unique to the genre.

The spectator and players each have different slices of game information. Starcraft information includes strategic plans

in the players‘ minds, the unit locations on the map, or the outcome of a sneak attack. Information asymmetry is the imbalance of information between the player and spectator, where due to the game design, one party is privy to some

information and the other is not.

It’s argued – and this is somewhat convincing – that it’s similar to American Football, in which only a handful of men on both sides of the ball know a play before it unfolds, yet the crowd enjoys watching it executed from their all-encompassing vantage point.

If you’d like to read the entire paper, you can check it out at the link below.

Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator [Gifford Cheung and Jeff Huang, via Slashdot]


  • American Football is boring as hell to watch. 12 minutes of downtime for ever 1 minute of actual play. Yuck.

  • Starcraft isn’t special in this regard.

    Fighting games like Street Fighter 4 and Marvel vs Capcom 3 have regular tournaments with thousands of people watching the streams provided by the likes of Team Sp00ky. Last year, the finals of Evo were broadcast on G4.

    On top of that, Let’s Plays (started by goons in the Something Awful forums but now spread all over the place) can see quite a lot of views.

    The first New Super Mario Bros Wii video from The Runaway Guys has ~190,000 views on Youtube and has been up for only a few short weeks. Similarly, ChugaaConroy recently released a finale for his Let’s Play of Okami, part 1 of it has nearly 500,000 views.

    It’s all about how you present this stuff.

    For the record, I spend more time watching LPs and tournament streams than actually playing games these days. I just find it interesting, which is why I’m doing a Let’s Play of my own.

    • I think in terms of scale Starcraft is pretty special. Really special, actually.

      Also, Let’s Play functions on a slightly different level – a lot of them aren’t really competitive, and a lot of the appeal lies the personality of the director/creator/producer/whatever.

      • StarCraft is definitely the top dog when it comes to competitive gaming, but it isn’t unique which is kind of the point I was making.

        Here’s the thing. I love to watch competition, be it sports (I watch AFL, NBA, road cycling, cricket and any sport that happens to look interesting) or e-sports (typically fighting games). What makes the games interesting to me is that I’m watching the top level, as I understand more about the sport, the more I enjoy it.

        Take cycling. I used to think the Tour de France was a boring bit of guys in lycra going along some pretty countryside for a few days. Then I came to understand the tactics involved and the appreciate the sheer athleticism of the competitors. When Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador did a track stall on a mountain stage last year, I pretty much marked out (yes, I’ve watched wrestling too).

        Competitive games are the same, once you know something about Street Fighter, this video stops being two random dudes hurling fireballs at each other and instead becomes an example of some of the highest level tactics available in SF.

        Let’s Plays target a different niche, they’re more entertainment compared to competition, but it is another aspect of gaming that people like to watch. They’re the single player side of things where the entertainment comes in a different way, from enjoying the spectacle and the personalities.

  • That, and the perpetual fear of what Tasteless might do if I come up against him on the ladder, the only way to be prepared is if you listen to him.

    • The advantage of being unranked in 1vs is that you never have to worry about facing someone good on ladder!

  • I’d like to opin that it could also have something to do with marvelling at something you can grasp but never do.

    I understand the fundamentals of StarCraft, I’ve played it… but those guys, they’re a whole other level of comprehension.

    I play pipes, I’ve competed, I’ve been invited to play in other countries and royalty and dignitaries… but when I see the guys at the worlds. I know it’s the same instrument, I know their technique is the same, I even know some of the tunes, I know the work I had to put in to reach the level I’m at… and then I see grade one players and I can’t help but marvel at the sheer profiency of them.

  • It’s funny because I always gave my housemate shiraz for having the game sitting infront of him but him choosing to watch a live stream.

    Then I started to actually play Starcraft 2 and now I watch more then i play lol
    I defs think Starcraft is special as it converted me into a e sports addict haha

  • 65,000 people watched the TSL3 final on the weekend live, with another 200,000 watching the VOD 1 day after.

    It probably was the best series of 7 ive seen with it going right down to the last game which was very very close indeed.

    Extremely different from watching FPS competitions which aren’t nearly as fun imo.

  • I know a guy who took some acid, flipped the screen upside down and inverted the colours before watching 6 hours of Starcraft games in Korean…

  • Some interesting theories. I watch some of Destiny’s in-game views without seeing both sides and still enjoy seeing how much skill it takes in destroying some top-level players with creativity and control.

    I mostly watch casts with commentary from one or two hosts because they break it down and provide some entertaining commentary while letting you see both sides.

    I don’t even play the fucking game but so many people do the same as me.

  • Been watching for years, since Klazartm then onto Diggity/Moletrap. Still not entirely sold on SC2, just because the skill cap hasn’t been reached yet and it’s still finding footing and support but I’d echo what everyone else has said.

    When you watch a professional sporting event, everyone plays the same way. You’ll probably hit a ball the same way Federer does, so it’s all down to execution. With Starcraft, it’s that as well as simple game sense. Seeing the actions of a player unfold in response to events can improve YOUR game as well (something you’ll never get just by watching football etc).

    And a more personal thing, I find 1v1s extremely stressful. If you’re in Diamond+ League, a single loss can tarnish your record, you might drop a league, and the player pool is smaller so people remember so there’s an element of epeen. There’s less incentive to grind games and get better at this level.

  • the thing is, playing SC2 ladder can be EXTREMELLY exausthing and stressfull. some intense matches can suck all your energy and you even feel tired after playing.. I love playing starcraft, but i watch way more than i play 1v1 for those reasons.. however i play 4v4 with my friends all the time since it’s more for the lolz and i don’t care about my 4v4 ranking

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