ESports is expected to reach 145 million viewers by 2017, but if you're not already deeply into it, chances are you won't be able to make sense out of a StarCraft II match.
SC2VN (StarCraft II Visual Novel), a visual novel about Blizzard's real-time strategy game, is an effective and entertaining crash course in how it works, its place in South Korean culture, and eSports in general.
Visual novels, a type of narrative-heavy game most popular in Japan, are pretty much exactly what they sound like. They tell a story through 2D portraits of characters, colorful background art, and a massive amount of text. Sometimes, you get to make a choice in how the conversation unfolds.
SC2VN follows Mach, an aspiring StarCraft player who goes to South Korea (where StarCraft has been an eSport since before eSports were worldwide phenomenon) to train with the best, something that western pros actually do.
Throughout the game, you'll learn all about PC bangs, the South Korean internet cafes where many StarCraft players congregate, the Korea e-Sports Assocation (KeSPA) that regulates eSports in South Korea, and the emotional rollercoaster of being a pro eSports player.
Even if you know nothing about StarCraft at all, SC2VN does a great job of explaining the game's three playable armies, the basic goal (collecting resources and turning them into combat units), and even some more nuanced strategies, like how to use your scouts early in the match.
If you ever get lost, you can simply right click to pull up the glossary, where you can see definitions for eSport and StarCraft-specific jargon like "GG" (meaning good game, and a kind of handshake at the end of a match) and "cheese" (an unexpected, cheap strategy that surprises the opponent).
One way in which SC2VN is true to life is what happens after you choose Mach's gender when you start the game. SC2VN writer TJ Huckabee told Motherboard he didn't want to create an "online harassment simulator," but choosing to play as female Mach changes your experience of the eSports community.
"I don't want to spoil anything but I feel that anyone who plays the game with female Mach and male Mach will see the differences and that we put some thought into this," Huckabee said. "It was not just a throwaway thing."
Perhaps the most amazing thing about SC2VN is that Blizzard allowed it to exist.
Huckabee said that the idea for SC2VN started as short, joke video he made that imagined the StarCraft II scene as a dating sim. Timothy Young, the game's producer and self described eSports roadie (he worked for eSports events organized by IGL and organized other events), saw the video, got in touch via Reddit, and suggested turning it into a real thing.
The pair turned to Kickstarter, and when they raised the $7,000 they wanted, they realized it was no longer a joke.
"We were like 'oh shit,' are we really going to work on this for a year for a dumb joke?" Huckabee told Motherboard. "We decided we wanted it to be a thing that non-Starcraft fans can play, go through it, and say 'wow, I didn't know that StarCraft was like that. That's really awesome.'"
Perhaps the most amazing thing about SC2VN is that Blizzard allowed it to exist. SC2VN obviously references StarCraft II, but also uses plenty of Blizzard's music and art assets, which the company will actively protect by any legal means available.
Huckabee said that they always wanted SC2VN to be free so it can reach the largest audience, which probably helped, but they still had to get the "highest levels of Blizzard" to sign off on it.
"It was not an easy task," he said. "There were a lot of Skype calls, licensing agreements we signed, but they showed a lot of trust in us, and they demonstrated that they really care about their community."
The game is a nice promotional tool for Blizzard's game, but it also does a service to eSports in general by letting players experience that world in a way anyone can understand.
"We knew that there are interesting stories in eSports, but those are usually self contained within in documentaries or articles catering to the eSports community, and I strongly felt that we could tell the story straight but still make it really appealing," Young said. "We feel really lucky that the mission has been accomplished based on all the feedback on Twitter."
You can download SC2VN for free here.