UCI Starcraft Team

Two stormtroopers display the prizes for the 2011 IEEE XTREME lan party.

Gamers playing on their own PC's and monitors at the lan party.

As the sprites on his screen explode into a flurry of shrapnel, his actions become less calculated and more frantic. Finally, less than a minute after the battle began, he stops typing. He takes a breath, hits enter, and types a parting message to his faceless opponent.

“GG.” Good game. He concedes.

In the world of competitive video gaming, known within the community as “e-sports,” “StarCraft” has long been the dominant Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game, a genre of game where two or more players make moves against each other in real time. Starting with a small base with a limited amount of units, each player collects more resources using specialized units called “workers” while bulking up their army and fending off harassment from their opponents.

As the armies grow, the players maneuver strategically around the terrain, attempting to catch their enemy off guard with their “micro,” short for micro management, and, finally, crush the opposing army. Think of it as chess, except real-time, with pieces continually moving and starting with only pawns.

The popularity of the game is so great that, in South Korea, several different leagues and teams were formed. Live matches are televised and crowds fill stadiums to watch. The professional players are true professional athletes, with salaries and sponsorships from large companies such as LG, Samsung and Intel; their lives are nothing but 10-hour training days and tournament competition.

,With the release of the sequel, “StarCraft 2,” new life has been given to the e-sports scene in the West. Though currently not as stable as the Korean organizations, several leagues have been created, such as the North American Starleague (NASL) and the IGN Proleague (IPL). Even MLG, long thought defunct, saw its attendance numbers climb greatly. Combined, the tournaments offer over $100,000 in prize money.

The environment is now stable enough that smaller specialized leagues have been able to form, such as those designed specifically for new players, girls and even college students.

There are many things one could do on a free Wednesday night during spring quarter. The weather is mild and warm enough to spend time outside but still brisk enough to be able to enjoy a warm drink with a good book. The air is crisp and fresh. The grass and trees are green again.

Why then, would someone spend their evening in a room lit by fluorescent bulbs, sitting at table surrounded by two dozen guys and three dozen computers?

Nearly every Wednesday of the quarter, the “StarCraft” Club meets in a room on the third floor of CaliT2, in the Henry Samueli School of Engineering. The room is perfect for their purposes. There are rows of desks with power sockets members to plug in their computer. They all face the front of the room, where a podium with projector controls and computer hook ups stands to the left of a large projector screen, allowing the club to screen games on the spot. Timothy Young, co-founder and current operations officer, starts each meeting with a few quick announcements before hooking up his computer and displaying the night’s live games on the provided screen.

The members watch the headline matches with deep interest. Once these are finished, the members shift their attentions elsewhere. Almost spontaneously, two players start an impromptu game. They both develop a raucous crowd, who cheer, jeer, or feed the players false information. Other members are off to the side on computers while browsing “StarCraft” community websites, where they read about the newest strategies and biggest tournaments. Others just do their homework. Apart from the tiniest bit of geekiness, members of the “StarCraft” Club are exactly like any other students who maintain interest in particular sports. They are all part friends, part teammates and part rival.

With the several dozen members engrossed in their own activities, Young sits apart from the regular membership. Surrounded by team members and club officers, he discusses upcoming events with them.

“Among all the events out there is the CSL [Collegiate Starleague]. It was created by Princeton against MIT but has since expanded into something bigger. Originally we would always get forced out of the playoffs by our rivals, San Diego or Davis.”

With the introduction with of “StarCraft 2,” however, things have changed for the Irvine team.

“[Last season] the UCI “StarCraft” team did exceptionally well, by placing first in their division. In the playoffs, they  crushed the first two teams before losing to [eventual champions] the University of British Columbia.”

The team’s success is due partly to the new team manager and star player Alex Truong, also known by his online monikers “ShoeMaker” and “Shoey.” At first glance he is a completely normal 22-year-old Asian male, but his nondescript face provides mask for the brain of an honors engineering student, chess player, future doctor and “StarCraft” player.

“I’ve always played video games, ever since my uncle gave me his old copy of ‘StarCraft.’ After that, I played games on the Nintendo 64 and the PlayStation 2. I’ve always been involved in competitive games too, whether they were video games like ‘Warcraft 3’ or chess. When ‘StarCraft 2’ came out last year, I started playing immediately. It’s the only game I’ve played since.”

Despite his gaming pedigree, Truong hasn’t always been involved in with the “StarCraft” team. He only joined this year, his last at UC Irvine.

“I wasn’t serious in ‘StarCraft: Brood War.’ I wish I was but I wasn’t so I didn’t participate in the CSL until this year,” Truong says with a shade of regret. However, his demeanor completely changes when asked at what point he felt accomplished in “StarCraft.”

Smiling, Truong recounts the past season.

“I was team manager. I helped decide who plays in what lineup. When we had to prepare for a match, I scouted the opponent, and helped devise strategy. I didn’t lose a single match in the CSL either.”

With the CSL season over, the team is looking forward to UCI’s annual LAN party, an event run by the campus’s chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) where players bring their computers to a central area to play. There, Truong will be competing with the best the school has to offer, including many of his own team members.

Much like the club’s meeting room, the IEEE LAN party is lit by fluorescent tubes. The tables are also set in rows with electric outlets and Internet cables. There are people huddled around computers, reading and devising strategies before their games.

However, as opposed to the small classroom the “StarCraft” Club usually occupies, the LAN party occupies a ballroom in the UCI Student Center, which is capable of holding hundreds of people. “StarCraft” is not the only game on display, though it is still the most popular.

On one of the walls, the “StarCraft” tournament bracket is displayed. The top player listed is BonedOUT, an unknown sleeper player who was technically a part of the team but had never played for them. In second, Shoey, Truong’s moniker.

Truong, however, does not look disappointed.

“The tournament was running out of time. I was supposed to play him for the finals; I came from the loser’s bracket [meaning he had lost a single game earlier] and he came from the winner’s bracket [BonedOUT had yet to drop a match], but they were running late so they just asked if I’d take second. I said yeah. I like the second place prizes more.”Though Truong didn’t get to take home the trophy, he did manage to win an external hard drive and a gaming headset. He valued the prizes slightly more than his opponent’s gaming mouse and mousepad.

When asked what his plans for the future were, Truong is surprisingly upbeat.

“I originally wanted to compete at MLG Anaheim this summer, but medical school starts before then so I won’t be able to. I’ll continue playing in the CSL at Davis but “StarCraft” is starting to become more of a hobby. Now, I play to relax.”

Next year will be a transitional one for the “StarCraft” Club and team. Truong is not the only player leaving. Leaving with him will be Darren Chen, also known as “darrenc,” another co-founder and star player. After a red hot season in the CSL, the next few months will be an uncertain time as new players begin to filter in.

Despite the setbacks, Young and the rest of the club and team are ready to face the future.

“The interest in competitive “StarCraft 2” doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. The amazing thing about the movement isn’t just the game play or the competition but also the way it’s bringing together people all over the world. The team isn’t going to be disappearing just ‘cause we’re losing a few people. There’s a place for us in e-sports. We’re going to take it.”

The UCI “StarCraft” team’s next major event will be MLG Anaheim, July 29 to Aug. 1. Competitor passes are no longer available but spectator tickets are still being sold online and at the door for $25. An online pass is also available for $10 and provides access to HD coverage of the event at mlgpro.com.