Sunday, January 27, 2013

Watching StarCraft

As a regular spectator of professional StarCraft 2 matches, I was quite intrigued when I came across this paper (published at a CS conference!) discussing why people enjoy watching the game. The paper presents a couple of interesting results from collecting personal accounts and then formulates a theory around "information asymmetry" to explain the enjoyment derived from watching StarCraft. It presents nine categories of spectators that were derived from the personal accounts (in any context of watching the game, e.g. professional matches or watching a friend play), their descriptions paraphrased as follows.
  • The Bystander: uninvested in spectating, just happens to be watching.
  • The Curious: wants to learn more about the game.
  • The Inspired: watches as motivation to play (like the pros).
  • The Pupil: wants to learn more about the game primarily to improve oneself.
  • The Unsatisfied: watches because he can't play.
  • The Entertained: derives entertainment value from watching.
  • The Assistant: helps the player.
  • The Commentator: improves the experience for other spectators.
  • The Crowd: because everyone else is doing it.
A spectator can naturally fall into multiple categories depending on how he is invested into the game, but those represent the vast majority of reasons why people watch StarCraft. This categorization doesn't really provide anything new, though, as spectators of sports can for the most part be categorized in the same way. It seems more like an explanation of how StarCraft evokes the same spectrum of spectators.

What is more interesting from the paper is the discussion of "information asymmetry" as one of the fundamental factors contributing to the popularity of spectating StarCraft 2. In many other games, the players have all of the information that the spectators have and more (e.g. what they plan to do next). Fighting games, for example, exhibit this property, as the players and spectators watch the same screen; thus the primary value comes from watching the players perform difficult tasks. StarCraft has that aspect, too, but what makes it different is that the spectators have information that the players (individually) do not have. Spectators have knowledge of both players' actions and current positions within the game, while the players only know their own and have some approximation of their opponent's. This means that spectators can build up anticipation around when players learn information about their opponent and how they react to it. Because the players have information that the spectators don't and the spectators have information that the players don't, this is an information asymmetry that contributes to the enjoyment of watching StarCraft.

This theory makes a lot of sense to me, and I think it explains why watching StarCraft is an enjoyable activity even if you don't play or in the absence of social factors (e.g. friends watching, rooting for a team), whereas the same might not be true of some other games or sports.

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