Console communities: Competitive gamers find their niche at the University

Salam Rida/Daily
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BY SHIN HIEFTJE
Daily Arts Editor
Published February 1, 2011

Though most members of the student body might not be aware of them, two devoted, tightly knit video game communities exist in the far corners of campus. These underground groups don’t advertise at Festifall — one isn’t even officially recognized by the University as an organization. Yet, because of the competitive appeal of the games, both groups have gained members and formed passionate communities through word of mouth and online promotion. They are the Smash League and the StarCraft Team.

Though their numbers might be small, both groups at the University are part of a larger video game scene, both regionally and nationally.

The brotherhood of “Smash”

As TVs roll into the room, people do as well, happily greeting each other with GameCubes and controllers in hand. Players yell to each other about impressive combos or recoveries. This is the Thursday night scene on the third floor of Mason Hall, where a local “Smashfest” is being held in one of the classrooms. Smashfests are organized “Super Smash Bros.” events that regularly happen on campus. Players compete in both “Super Smash Bros. Brawl” and “Super Smash Bros. Melee,” two different versions of the game. Both involve pitting famous Nintendo characters against each other in combat.

Since it’s long after class hours, no room reservations need to be made and TVs can be wheeled in from almost every room on the floor.

“It’s almost as if Mason Hall was built for this,” said Engineering sophomore Robin Harn, one of the club's main organizers.

While it’s obvious that everyone in the room is very skilled and serious about their play, there’s a very genial atmosphere as well. It feels vibrant — chitchat is everywhere, and everyone’s eyes are focused on the screens. By 10 p.m., more than 20 people have shown up for this traditionally four-person game. Not all are even students at the University — a few of them have come all the way from East Lansing and Southfield.

Ann Arbor is a hub in the state of Michigan for those who love competitive “Smash Bros.”

“The entire Michigan (video game) community grew out of Ann Arbor,” said LSA senior Jason Bowyer, who was here when the competitive “Smash Bros.” scene took off in 2007.

The players are here to have fun, but many of them are also here to hone their skills to become more competitive for larger tournaments. There are regional tournaments for money prizes in Chicago and Ann Arbor, and larger ones in places like New Jersey. As recently as two weeks ago, part of Michigan’s Smash League traveled to Kansas to compete in a tournament.

“I’ve traveled out of state over 30 times,” Bowyer said. “You’ll see tournaments that are giving out four to five grand for first place.”

Though Bowyer has never won that much, he says he won $900 at one of the tournaments he attended.

Most of these gatherings, whether local Smashfests or national tournaments, are organized through Smashboards.com — the primary website regarding “Super Smash Bros.” play.

When asked why the game is so compelling competitively, players said that both a desire to improve their technique and the inclusive nature of the scene is what drew them in.

“There’s no ceiling to ‘Smash’ — you can keep getting better and better,” Harn said.

LSA sophomore Brian Northrup, one of the other main organizers, said he plays from an aspiration to be the best.

“(However), the community aspect of it is really what’s kept me here,” Northrup said.

Despite its popularity among select students, the “Smash” community at the University is fairly nebulous. Smashfests can often be impromptu, and some people have fallen away from the scene while others have joined.

“(The group) has become a little more hardcore, so not as many older guys come,” Northrup said. “But we’ve kept a number of people; we’ve gained a lot more.”

World of “StarCraft”

A more structured and subdued scene can be witnessed on Saturday nights at the computer labs in the Michigan League, where the University’s StarCraft Team meets to play. They play “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty,” an in-depth real-time strategy game, in which players work to tactically produce and manage armed forces successfully in order to defeat their opponent’s armed forces.

With about eight or so people showing up in the labs to compete, it may not look like the University StarCraft Team has much going on, but in reality, they are part of something massive. The team is part of the Collegiate StarLeague — a league that consists of 144 colleges across the continent, each with its own “StarCraft” team. This league is separated into divisions of 18 teams each. Each team in the division plays the other 17 online in a round-robin fashion each week, and at the end of the 17-week season, the top four teams in each division move on to a bracket-style playoffs.

Two weeks ago, the University’s team played the University of North Carolina. Games are structured so that the first team to win three matches wins the game. Michigan pulled a victory in the fifth.

Engineering junior Tianyi Liu is the coordinator of the StarCraft Team. He decides which out of the 50 members play on which days and communicates with other teams about any issues. He says he found out about the Collegiate StarLeague while browsing Teamliquid.net, a website that functions for “StarCraft II” much like how Smashboards.com functions for “Super Smash Bros.”

“Anyone who’s anyone who plays ‘StarCraft’ goes on Teamliquid.net,” he said.

Liu and his friends decided to form a team for the University once they found out about the Collegiate StarLeague. After posting about the team on TeamLiquid.net, it took off.

Though there are 50 players on the team, not all of them have to show up. Liu said the team is more of an online community than an in-person community. “StarCraft II” is played on PCs, so connection to players across the world is usually smooth and there’s no need to travel like there is in “Super Smash Bros.” Also, “StarCraft II” is a very graphics-intensive game, so many players like to play from their rooms where they may have a better computer.

However, the StarCraft Team is still a community, and it’s clear that friends and acquaintances have been made on the team. Of the eight members who showed up to the computer labs when only two were there to actually compete — the rest were there to watch their teammates play. Players moved their fingers across the keyboard at unbelievable speeds, inputting hundreds of commands per minute. Everyone was excited to watch each other play and provide feedback.

“My goal for the team is not just to win, but to have as many play as possible,” Liu said.

The gaming communities at Michigan may be under the radar, but both strive to be as inclusive as possible. Though it’s clear all the players in these groups are talented and determined gamers, both communities enjoy the social aspect just as much. They come for the competition, but they stay for the camaraderie.