Jeff Haber of Ryerson's StarCraft team. Photo: Lindsay Boeckl

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Eighteen months after its release, StarCraft 2 is single-handedly propelling competitive video gaming into the mainstream. Sean Tepper reports on the ambitions of Ryerson’s StarCraft team

It’s a fight for survival — the result of the game hangs in the balance during the third set between the Ryerson Rams and the Guelph Gryphons. Guelph is in full control, leading two games to zero, but Ryerson refuses to give up. It won’t be easy, but with the right strategy and a bit of luck, Ryerson’s team captain Jeff Haber and teammate Ryan Lai could overcome the odds and spark an upset.

Despite the teams being more than 67 kilometers away from each other, the tension is palpable. Electing to go with the same strategy that helped them seal a victory against the University of Western Ontario in a previous matchup, both Haber and Lai know that they will have to act quickly if they want to get the jump on their opponents.

But things didn’t go exactly as planned for Ryerson. In less than nine minutes, Guelph’s alien army had quickly swarmed Lai’s base, wiping out his defences and the last of his structures. Haber knew that it was only a matter of time before his base would succumb to a similar fate.

In a last ditch effort, Haber started training as many soldiers as he could, clicking his mouse frantically in the hopes that he would live to fight another day. But it was no use; the game was all but over.

“It didn’t feel like a good game,” said Haber with a smile. “It sucks, but at the end of the day you know you’ll play in other games.” With the loss, Ryerson’s StarCraft team dropped to 7-7 on the year; sitting 32nd place in the league’s Northern conference which also features the likes of the University of Windsor, York University and the University of Toronto.

Since its 2010 release, StarCraft has single-handedly brought competitive E-Sports to North America. And, like other sports, it’s found a home at the university level.

The Ryerson gamers compete in the Collegiate Star League (CSL), the StarCraft equivalent of the Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) or the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with university teams competing against one another on a weekly basis in a best of five game series.

The objective of StarCraft is simple enough: defeat your opponent. To do this, players must devise a strategy that balances gathering resources with developing an army and building structures. The number of variables that can affect the outcome of a game are enormous, and the best way to adapt to those situations, just like any other sport, is through practice.

“Like with any sort of sport, you have to keep practicing to get it down so that [what you’re doing] essentially becomes second instinct,” said Haber. “You can watch replays and analyze where you went wrong in different games and figure out when to build things or when you should be attacking.”

The idea of competitive video gaming, or E-Sports, being legitimized as sport in North America is still in its infancy. In many parts of Asia, E-Sports is already recognized as a legitimate sport, with the top players earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in sponsorships and tournament winnings.

While the popularity of E-Sports is exponentially growing, many people are strongly opposed to the notion that the word sport is attached to video games.

When asked what defines a sport, Ryerson’s director of athletics, Ivan Joseph, was selective with his words.

“For me, [a sport] would have some level of training and physical preparation. There would be a physical dimension, a mental dimension a tactical dimension to it,” he said. “There is a piece that relates to hand-eye coordination, stamina, endurance and psychological and mental elements to it. There is a tactical element to it, and there are one or more adversaries.”

“If it’s meeting those components I don’t see [why it shouldn’t be considered a sport].”

Despite the team’s average season, Haber already considers it a success, as the team is not only competing against universities with higher student populations, but they’re also essentially playing together for the first time.

“Considering it’s the first time that we’ve done this, I’d say we’re doing pretty well” he said.

Although it was initially founded in 2009, when StarCraft: Brood Wars was the game of choice, Ryerson’s StarCraft team lacked organization and quickly disintegrated. This past summer, Haber decided to resurrect the team, and under his management, Ryerson’s team is organzied, disciplined and ready to compete for a CSL title in the near future.

After the season concludes, Haber said that the team plans to apply to become an official club, which would be a step in the right direction in solidifying video games as a real sport, at least on our campus.

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