"M-C! M-C! M-C! M-C!" The crowd in the bar is going nuts, the cheers and chants of over 100 StarCraft fans reverberating off the walls around me.
Up on the television screens that hang around the bar, Game 6 of the North American Star League finals has just concluded. Top-ranked player oGsMC (better known as "MC") has led his Protoss forces to defeat PuMa's Terrans for his second victory in a row, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series at three wins apiece. The next game will determine the NASL champion, which means that one of these players will go home with $US50,000.
It's a beautiful Sunday afternoon in San Francisco, July 10, and I'm at a bar called the Mad Dog in the Fog, a divey neighbourhood joint in the Lower Haight. Everyone around me is here for the first-ever "BarCraft," a live-viewing event hosted by internet TV channel Justin.tv. Three of the bar's screens are dedicated to a livestream of MC and PuMa's game, and the on-screen shoutcasters are barely audible over the din kicked up by the energetic bar-goers.
This is pro-gaming as spectator sport in the kind of place people usually go to drink and watch football, the World Cup, the NBA or baseball. Not here. Not today. They're watching people play a video game streamed live over the Internet.
"It's more popular than the World Series," a guy in the bar named Adam who has shown up to watch the big games tells me. "There's more cheering!"
Adam's friend Chris is excited about watching some pro-gaming with a crowd. "I used to have something like this back at college," says Chris, "but in the real world, this is the first time. It's awesome. Usually, you feel kind of nerdy sitting in your room on your computer watching some video games, but when you're in a bar, it feels pretty legit."
"If I wasn't watching it here," chimes in Adam, "I'd be watching it at home. And this is way more fun, because you get beer."
This crowd isn't made up of socially awkward shut-ins. They seem like the kind of crowd you'd find at any sports bar in the city. The majority of attendees are guys, but the female attendees aren't simply girlfriends who have been grudgingly dragged along - everyone here appears to have come to watch the tournament. "It's really exciting to hear so many people cheering, and getting excited," says Sam, who is hanging out with her boyfriend. "It's very different from watching in your room."
This could be the start of something at Mad Dog in the Fog and maybe a bar near you. "We want to have [BarCraft]once a month in one bar in every major city in the country," says Justin.tv's Emmett Shear, who organised the event. "[The NASL]is a big tournament and everyone's really excited to see the outcome. But there's a big tournament, like, every month right now. There are six Major League Gaming tournaments a year, four NASL seasons, two Dreamhacks… I know there's a variety of other interesting events too."
This whole thing started with scepticism. "Seven months ago, we were talking at Justin TV about how we needed to focus on something we thought was really promising," Shear tells me. "I said, 'We gotta do gaming!' And I have to be honest, not everyone in the company was immediately on board with this idea. But since we've launched, we've had this massive growth. We've got tons of people watching it. And it's not just StarCraft, though this is a StarCraft event. There's also Call of Duty, League of Legends, Heroes of Newerth… it shouldn't be surprising that we can pack a bar by announcing that we're going to show some StarCraft on the screens there."
Shear says his idea came from his hometown. "I was actually inspired by Chao Bar in Seattle, which has been doing Wednesday and Sunday night StarCraft for a couple months now. I'm from Seattle, and I visited there when I went back. I was like, 'This is awesome!'
"I want to do [BarCraft]for selfish reasons, actually," Shear laughs. "This is an event I'd want to go to."
The finals were scheduled to take place at 5 o'clock Pacific Time on Sunday, but the North American Star League bumped the time up by an hour and a half with very little advance warning. "It's unfortunate that the NASL rescheduled the time," says Sam's boyfriend, Paul, "since we were going to be here closer to the scheduled finals time. We were pretty upset, but we're here!"
For a moment I try to imagine what would happen if the NFL decided to start Monday Night Football an hour and a half early and didn't give viewers proper notice. Yikes. And that scheduling foul-up isn't the only sign that North American pro-gaming is still growing into its newfound popularity. Justin.tv is an internet television channel, so their programming is streaming over the web. As a result of that (and probably also the lackluster connectivity at the bar), the video stream frequently freezes or loses audio mid-game. Worse, this tends to happen during the most fraught, exciting moments of on-screen combat. Fortunately, everyone in the bar is a good sport about it - each freeze prompts as much laughter as groaning, and usually at least one of the screens is working.
I discovered the world of pro gaming through a great Eurogamer piece by Jason Schreier, which led me to Day 's outstanding StarCraft channel on Blip.tv. The speed and control exhibited by the players in those matches completely blew my mind, and Day 's excellent shoutcasting not only clued me into the finer points of the match, but helped me improve my own game. In short order I found myself spending entire weekend afternoons watching old classic matches.
But as fun as watching online games can be, the scene in the bar is a whole other situation. The celebratory vibe is contagious, and I'm having as much fun as I would be watching any other professional sporting event, beer in hand, hoots and hollers jumping from all corners of the room. Every time MC and PuMa's forces feint and skirmish, the crowd erupts into yells and cheers, and as the end of each game approaches, the yelling reaches a fever pitch.
In between games there's a convivial, social vibe as bargoers chat up strangers, discuss strategies and rehash epic games from the past. Everyone seems to agree that it's a fantastic turnout, and that that fact is a Very Good Thing. BarCraft has that open, optimistic excitement that tends to crop up at the best types of video game events. Here we are at the start, everyone seems to be thinking, dipping our toes into the future.
After a brief, tense final match, PuMa leads his Terran forces to victory. As MC cedes the game and the championship, the bar goes wild. It recalls nothing so much as the communal joy of San Francisco's successful 2010 World Series run - as gross an overstatement as that may appear, the power of the jam-packed, roaring crowd cannot be denied. (No seriously, just listen.)
The near-constant, year-round stream of high-profile pro gaming tournaments and events seems to point toward a future of video game-centric viewing events at bars nationwide. Whether that will dilute the number of attendees and dampen enthusiasm for each individual event remains to be seen. What's remarkable is that the BarCraft attendees don't appear to be united by a team or a region - there're no team colours here and no one seems particularly affiliated with either contestant. Rather than MC fans and PuMa fans, the bar is filled with StarCraft fans, people who thought it might be cool to come watch a game with a bunch of others who shared their interest. They're cheering and chanting for PuMa, but they're also cheering for themselves, and for their love of gaming.
And when a Justin.tv representative comes on the bar's public-address system to announce that they'll be hosting another event soon, their cheers are just as loud.
Kirk Hamilton is a writer and musician in San Francisco. He is the games editor at Paste Magazine and writes about music, games and culture for a variety of publications. He can be found at kirkhamilton.com and on Twitter @kirkhamilton. Email him at Kirk [at]KirkHamilton [dot]com.