Meet the Australian rock star of StarCraft II

Andrew Pender and PJ Russell.
Andrew Pender and PJ Russell.
The World StarCraft II Championship Oceania finals. Left to right: Andrew Pender, PJ Russell (Blizzard), Nick Vanzetti (ACL) and Tim He.

The World StarCraft II Championship Oceania finals. Left to right: Andrew Pender, PJ Russell (Blizzard), Nick Vanzetti (ACL) and Tim He.

Andrew Pender is the most famous Australian you've never heard of.

He's just another face in his hometown of Manly West, Brisbane, but on his frequent international sojourns he's a rock star, Australian royalty. Fans draw his portrait and the press clamour for interviews. When he competes, it's in front of audiences that can number in the millions. He's beaten the best in the world on their home turf, and he's untouchable at home. He's a full-time professional, disciplined, with an all-consuming focus.

Andrew Pender is among the very best at one of the fastest-growing spectator sports on the planet.

He is a professional player of videogame StarCraft II.

"Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I see StarCraft II." says Pender, A.K.A., 'mOOnGLaDe'. "There have been times when I've been playing so much, that I'll dream of games I've played, and wake up feeling like I was half way through a match. The sounds will still be ringing in my ears. It's a really surreal experience."

In a typical year, Pender will compete in four to eight international tournaments, depending on his performance. Recently, he and fellow pro-gamer Tim 'MaFia' He travelled to Shanghai to represent Australia at the World Championship – the world cup of StarCraft II.

For the uninitiated, Blizzard Entertainment's StarCraft II is a real-time strategy game set in a sci-fi universe. What follows is an oversimplification, but imagine a huge game of chess where each piece on the board is "rock, paper, scissors". The two players aren't taking turns, but are moving all the pieces – and building new ones – as fast as they can, only they can't always see what their opponent is doing.

StarCraft II is a game about reconnaissance, and anticipating an opponent's strategy. It's about bluffing, feinting, and timing, and about the extraordinarily precise macro- and micromanagement of all the pieces in play.

A game of StarCraft II will usually take between 20 and 60 minutes, and it's played at an extremely fast pace. An average player will perform between 40 to 60 actions, such as moving units and constructing buildings, per minute. Professional players like Pender can perform up to 400 actions per minute.

Every action in every match of StarCraft II – whether it's played by professionals, or by amateurs – is recorded by Blizzard. This endless quantitative data is then used by the developer to constantly tune every aspect of the game to such a fine degree that players can compete against one another safe in the knowledge that the only determining factor is skill. StarCraft II and other, similarly refined games that are played professionally are considered eSports.

"StarCraft II probably has the highest skill ceiling," says Pender. "The various skill-sets and devotion to game knowledge will take anyone a great amount of time to get on top of – not to mention the game is constantly evolving, so constant research and practice is needed to remain a top player."

If it sounds like a confusing or convoluted activity to watch others perform, keep in mind that at their cores, these are the same dynamics that make games like poker and American football so interesting and appealing to us. For spectators as well, there's a dramatic irony to watching the game being played. Unlike the players, spectators are able to see everything that's going on, meaning they're able to anticipate and speculate as to how the game might unfold at any moment.

"eSports is just a different outlet for those with a competitive drive to express themselves without kicking a ball," says Nick Vanzetti, director of the Australian Cyber League, or ACL. "Just like traditional sport, eSports is a growing competitive platform for young people with different interests."

That low barrier to entry also creates a positive feedback loop: players can watch professionals play, and then go online to compete against others without any of the rigmarole that usually comes with trying to organise other amateur competitive activities.

Internationally, watching these games has recently become so popular that the eSports industry is now positioning itself as a rival of traditional sports. Major League Gaming, the biggest professional gaming circuit in North America, has grown its viewership 636 per cent in the two years since StarCraft II launched. So far in 2012, over 11.7 million people have tuned in to watch the MLG, and the majority of them are young men. According to audience monitoring company Nielsen, more than twice as many American males aged 18 to 24 tuned in to watch MLG's Spring Championship than they did the first round of NBA playoffs. For marketers, the access MLG provides to such a highly desirable demographic is an eye-watering proposition, and it's their dollars that are fuelling eSports' massive growth.

Nonetheless, there are still some significant hurdles to overcome before eSports can fully deliver on its promise. For one, MLG isn't the only game in town. Korea is home to the Global StarCraft League (GSL), Europeans compete in the Dreamhack league, and then, of course, there's Blizzard's own World Championship. All of them are appealing to – and, arguably, fragmenting – global audiences.

It's something Blizzard co-founder and CEO Mike Morhaime expressed concern about in Shanghai. "There are some challenges with all these tournaments going on, especially as a spectator not knowing what to watch, or what the significance of winning this event or that event is, and putting pro players in a position where they have to choose between two very important events," he said. "Those are some of the things we'd really like to be able to avoid in 2013. We're seeking better coordination and co-operation amongst partners."

That fragmentation and lack of structure hurt the early growth of eSports in Australia, says Vanzetti. The ACL has risen fast to become this country's pre-eminent eSports outlet. It organised and administered Blizzard's Oceanic qualifiers for the World Championship. But even after a successful event on a scale that hadn't previously been attempted here, Vanzetti estimates those early growing pains mean Australia is still some years behind the US and Europe.

"There have been 10 too 20 different event organisers, and each has focused on a particular game, or city."

Most of these organisers have been gamers who may be very enthusiastic, but who often lack the skills and business acumen to put together an attractive package for sponsors, he adds. "You have to be able to balance the management of people, coordinate with venues, appeal to sponsors and partners, and then, of course, deliver top quality events."

One curious result of this shaky past is that Pender is probably more widely recognised outside Australia than he is in his own country. Some Korean fans have even drawn portraits of him in tribute.

That it was a Korean fan who committed Pender's likeness to paper will be unsurprising to anyone already familiar with eSports. The original StarCraft sold over 9.5 million copies, 4.5 million of which were in Korea. The country has two 24-hour television channels dedicated to broadcasting matches of the game franchise. There, eSports isn't a new phenomenon but an established and respected activity.

Naturally, such a culture means Korea can claim more highly talented and highly paid professional StarCraft II players than any other country. No problem, at least until regional viewers tire of watching skilled Korean players repeatedly trouncing the local heroes they want to support and see do well.

Identifying these local heroes and putting them on the world stage was one of the primary objectives of this year's World Championship, says Morhaime, and a goal he believes was largely accomplished. "I think the Home to Hero program, where we had [commentators] from around the world interviewing the local winners produced some really great interviews."

In addition to these issues, Morhaime says a lack of story around eSports content makes it hard for many people who are curious about it to understand the context of what they're seeing: "If you look at other popular sports, maybe baseball – there's a huge amount of baseball content, but there's a story around what's happening. There's a context for everything."

"[The] media really needs to start acknowledging these kinds of events as significant sporting events and reporting on them on the level that they would report on other sporting events – even tennis and golf, and things like that. You see reports on TV about what's happening with those things. Even though everyone doesn't follow tennis and golf, you hear about it, and it legitimises the sport. When we start to see more of that, when the sports page starts to report on who is winning these major events, and doing profiles about the top pro players […] I think that will also help legitimise eSports."

Vanzetti echoed Morhaime's sentiment, adding that star power is something eSports currently lacks, and something it needs to grow. "A player like Pender, for example, is known for his ability to topple top professional gamers at major international events."

The player pseudonyms probably aren't helping either. They're a legacy from the infancy of online gaming – and now an established part of gaming culture – but as gaming opens up to new demographics, and as broadcast eSports reach wider audiences who aren't accustomed to the practice, the notion of men and women referring to themselves and others by outwardly ridiculous screen names beggars respectability.

Pender has been playing games most of his life. In high school, he discovered the original StarCraft, and it was then that he learnt about the professional gaming scene in Korea and harboured the fantasy of becoming a pro-gamer. But it wasn't until the release of Warcraft III in 2002 that he decided to try and compete.

His first notable success was as a competitive gamer was winning the Warcraft III tournament at the World Cyber Games Australia in 2006. "Unfortunately the scene and Australian internet wasn't still advanced enough to really try and do much more than become the Australian champion and compete locally," he says.

Only with the release of StarCraft II in 2010 was Pender finally able to graduate from semi-pro to pro-gamer. "My real break out of Australia was when I joined [pro-gaming team] FXO and gained the ability to travel overseas." It was with FXO that Pender first achieved international exposure and competed in a number of tournaments, such as the GSL, and the Intel Extreme Masters in Europe.

When Pender isn't competing internationally, a typical day starts at 8 or 9am. After breakfast, he'll catch up with any events and gossip that have occurred on the professional circuit overnight. From 10am until 7pm, he practises playing StarCraft II against other professional and semi-professional players from around the world, stopping only briefly for lunch. On any given day, Pender will play upwards of 30 matches. Then he'll exercise – boxing drills, usually – before dinner.

Despite living up to his reputation as a giant-slayer at MLG Dallas, where he claimed the scalps of Chris "HuK" Loranger and the world's top-paid professional, Jang 'MC' Min Chul only weeks before the World Championships, neither Pender nor fellow Australian He advanced beyond their seeded groups in Shanghai. The title and $US100,000 first-place payday went ultimately – some might say predictably – to Korean player Won 'PartinG' Lee Sak.

Still, what a final: Lee Sak was up against Jang 'Creator' Hyun Woo. Lee Sak arrived on the grand final stage following a string of comfortable victories over players from the US, Taiwan, and Canada. Hyun Woo, meanwhile, had only earned his place after the narrowest of victories over a Korean compatriot, and another player from Spain.

The best-of-seven series was soon deadlocked at 2-2, but Lee Sak's superior micromanagement ultimately gave him the edge over his resurgent opposition, and he took the series 4-2.

Etiquette dictates that a player who wishes to concede a match does so by typing "GG", and exiting the session. It's shorthand for "good game", and StarCraft's equivalent of shaking hands across the net. When Hyun Woo did so, 10,000 fans – already on their feet and smelling blood for Lee Sak – roared ecstatically as a new world champion was crowned.

"I never quite thought it would be this big, you know what I mean?" StarCraft II game director Dustin Browder tells me shortly before the finals commenced. "This is a big surprise already. We're already off the map as far as I'm concerned. I don't know where we are. There was a time when we first launched StarCraft II – MLG was happening but it wasn't as big as it is now – and we'd hear stories:

"'Dude, they showed StarCraft II at MLG!'

"'Oh they did? How did it go?'

"'Well, they had seats for 50, and they ran out of seats!'

"To which we'd be like, 'OK, that's actually pretty cool,' and we'd be imagining maybe 65 guys. Then next weekend, we'd hear they had seats for 100, and they'd all be full.

"Then we went to BlizzCon in late 2010, and it was standing room only – a big fire hazard.

"Finally, at BlizzCon 2011, we have six, maybe 7000 people there at midnight, and the floor is just disgusting! It's covered in Cheetos and beer, and everyone is standing up and just screaming at the top of their lungs!

"It was at that point that I knew we were off the grid. We were hoping for the MLG story of the hundred. That was the win. That was our 'we did it!' moment.

"Who would've thought two and a half  years later we'd be here in Shanghai, in a building holding thousands of fans, and all of them watching our game?"

Browder's tale of an unprecedented hit is engaging, but perhaps it's served with a healthy dollop of false humility. After all, Blizzard is a very savvy company, and no stranger to spectacular success. The developer is also responsible for World of Warcraft – the most profitable game ever made – and Diablo III – according to sales tracker NPD Group, Australia's best-selling game of 2012 so far.

Morhaime offers a different take: "2013 is going to be a very important year for eSports."

"We see this as the beginning."

James Cullinane flew to Shanghai courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment

This story Meet the Australian rock star of StarCraft II first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.