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These days it feels like everyone streams. The explosion of all online video content over the last decade is one thing, but video game streaming is a more recent and unusual phenomenon - and one overwhelmingly tied to the Justin.tv spin-off Twitch.
In June this year Twitch announced it had around 35 million viewers a month and this is important for one big reason: it makes e-sports a viable career for a lot more individuals than ever before.
In the simplest terms, five years ago you couldn't make a living as a professional gamer unless you were at the very top of a select few games. Now? Let's not go wild. But it's a different ecosystem, and one that gives a new level of visibility to a new type of player. I started checking out streams because I thought, being a games journalist and all, it was my Solemn Duty. There are all sorts, and a long-standing interest in StarCraft 2 led me up some weird avenues.
There are countless Grandmaster players you can't watch because they get pissy and shouty whenever someone beats them. There are players who pander to their audience with casual homophobia, or who build a following by 'stream-sniping' famous opponents, or who spend the whole time ranting about adblock (which, to be fair, must be infuriating). There are attractive women who stream StarCraft 2 wearing low-cut tops, and run the names and amounts of donations live across the screen as they play -- a spectacle uncannily reminiscent of late-night cable TV channels. There's WeedAdmins, who advertises his stream with a picture of Yoda smoking a bong, and cheeses in every single game to some fantastic hip-hop playlists. Most StarCraft streamers are not anywhere near as unusual as this. But I suppose that's the beauty of Twitch; anyone and everyone can play.
The best StarCraft streamers are also among the best players -- which may seem a numbingly obvious point, but in fact this combination of skills is rare. One player who has them, and the streamer I quickly grew to enjoy watching most, is a chap called Benjamin Baker, better known by the handle DeMuslim (a tribute to The Greatest, Muhammad Ali). Baker signed to Team Evil Geniuses in early 2011, around six months before Twitch was spun off from Justin.tv, in a deal where his streaming ability surely carried as much weight as his skill.
There are many reasons DeMuslim's a pleasure to watch. First and foremost he's an amazing player, and probably just as importantly for me uses the mighty Terran race. He's also a Brit in a scene that doesn't have many others, and has the ability to not only talk while playing but explain the thinking behind his on-the-fly decisions -- far too many streamers, in StarCraft and other games, do little more than describe what's happening on-screen. DeMuslim's able to talk about what his opponent's doing, speculate about where that might lead, and then explain his response step-by-step as you're watching him execute it.
DeMuslim is also referred to as the 'Devil Terran', which may well have something to do with his quicksilver switch from early-game economy into relentless multi-pronged aggression, a style that's both difficult to manage and incredibly exciting to watch. Or it could be his awesome micro control during large engagements and drop play. As important as any of this is, though, to his being one of the most popular StarCraft streamers around (perhaps the most popular), an asset of equal value is his personality.
A brief digression into the nature of streams. What initially fascinated me about them was the absence of editing. Everything happens live, and so being part of the 'audience' sometimes feels like being a car-crash gawker in-waiting. Snafus can be technical; a mic malfunction, a screwy display. Admittedly these don't happen often with the super-slick Team Evil Geniuses streamers. But things going wrong can also be emotional; as in, getting beat.
There's no filter on these moments, so after choosing to watch a streamer you very quickly come to a judgement (rightly or wrongly) on their character. Some big players I never watch, because I once gave them five minutes and they rage quit while calling their opponent an asshole. Unfair? Perhaps. But who's got the time to give everyone second chances?
Some big players I never watch, because I once gave them five minutes and they rage quit while calling their opponent an asshole. Unfair? Perhaps. But who's got the time to give everyone second chances?
Baker appeals to me, and obviously lots of others, because he's not like that. He gives his opponents credit, he's courteous and I've never seen him lose it and rage at someone -- nor suspect he would. More than anything he leaves the impression of a nice, normal guy you'd happily go for a pint with. For a few months this summer I used to do the dishes while listening to DeMuslim. I'd stick his stream on the iPad for an hour while I did some chores and tidied up the kitchen. I wasn't watching the whole time but that didn't matter, and you could always kind of tell when to pay attention anyway -- whether a game's getting intense, or there's an interesting anecdote in the offing.
After a week or two of this I started paying more attention and noticing things about DeMuslim's career. With things like the World Championship Series I'd have a look at who he was up against and make a mental note to tune in on that date. This eventually led me to an odd realization about the relationship between streamers and their audience -- but bear with me for one moment because Blizzard, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen a structure for WCS that is extremely confusing, and I have to explain it for this to make sense.
WCS is about to start its third season. In Season 2's round of 32 in late July, DeMuslim played brilliantly against Crank and Huk, two top players, and produced the kind of 4-0 sweep that not only put him through to the round of 16, but has you thinking ludicrous things. DeMuslim is a great player, but he's not in the very top rank -- yet. After watching those matches, you got the sense this might be his moment to take that last step.
Two weeks or so later, the round of 16 came around. I was feeling bullish, and even got a few beers in to help cheer him along. DeMuslim's first match was against the ace Korean player Alive. He got smashed 2-0. This basically made DeMuslim's next match, against col.Minigun, make-or-break. Watching a player you know in a tournament is different from the usual, but it's at moments like these you notice strange things.
Totally random details swim to the surface. The WCS camera view of players is set below their vision, looking upwards from an angle that most of us would consider unflattering. The booths are bathed in a garish blue light, the kind that makes pale skin seem deathly. I noticed for the first time that DeMuslim's beard was thick under his jawline, and idly wondered if his previous experience of this setup was something to do with it. I became acutely aware that, in the name of entertainment, we put people in brightly-lit boxes and film their reactions. And transfixing as the spectacle was, it looked pretty horrible for the subject.
The feeling subsided when things kicked off. But something wasn't right. DeMuslim's builds were familiar, crisp and clean; but almost every time he tried to go on the offensive, col.Minigun had the answer. What was really hurting were Phoenix, a Protoss air unit often considered too fragile against Terran bio play and so almost never seen in that context, but here used with devastating precision to snipe away at DeMuslim's medivacs -- again and again and again. He couldn't swat them. It was death by a thousand cuts, and the fact you could see DeMuslim's frustration etched so clearly on his face in every minute actually had me wincing. Long before the match was over, I wanted it to end.
One of the supremely weird things about watching streamers is that, if you watch regularly, what you're really doing is forming a one-way friendship.
God knows how it felt, but even though he looked crushed DeMuslim GG'd like a gent -- of course he did. His vanquisher flashed on screen; col.Minigun, it turns out, is a bespectacled and sweet-faced nerd. The monster. I can't tell you how many games of StarCraft 2 I've watched -- it must be thousands over the years. But I'd never actually felt sad about a result before. I didn't even finish off the beers.
One of the supremely weird things about watching streamers is that, if you watch regularly, what you're really doing is forming a one-way friendship. An illusion of intimacy builds up over the hours that you could almost mistake for the real thing -- I particularly remember one night where DeMuslim told a rather heartbreaking anecdote from his younger days, when his then-girlfriend dumped him for a surgeon and left him questioning his career choice. In these moments you feel like a friend's talking to you, but of course you're one of thousands upon thousands watching and hearing that same story at the same time. Even so, some part of your brain is fooled.
Streaming is a spectacular and odd phenomenon; intimate yet divorced, behind-closed-doors but (in Evil Geniuses' case at least) totally professional. It's how I and millions of others have come to 'know' The Devil Terran and players like him, and support their careers in a way that was never possible beforehand.
What a tangled web the online age spins, and how random the threads we land on. Curiously enough I haven't been watching Benjamin Baker's stream lately, and in all likelihood will only drop in very occasionally in future -- I'm funny like that, intensely focused today and then onto something else tomorrow.
But when the brackets for WCS Season 3 are announced I'll be watching out for his name, and then the season after that and the season after that. If DeMuslim never wins another match it wouldn't really matter to me; you can come up with all sorts of reasons, but in the end who knows why we pick favourites? DeMuslim and I have an idol in common, at least, and to quote the man: "Silence is golden when you can't think of a good answer."