SC2VN: The eSports Visual Novel

SC2VN: The eSports Visual Novel may belong to a class of games I can’t yet meaningfully analyze. As experienced as I am with visual novels, that experience doesn’t amount to much in the face of such unfamiliar subject matter. The closest experience I have with eSports is watching AGDQ speedruns on YouTube, and that’s a tenuous connection, at best. But that doesn’t mean the game was completely without value for me. In fact, it may have been my ignorance about eSports that let me see the value in Team Eleven Eleven’s visual novel in the first place. The game’s enthusiasm for competitive gaming not only helps it convey the appeal to eSports, but it also extends an open hand to newcomers. In other words, it’s a perfect introduction to eSports for somebody like me.

Part of what makes it such a welcoming game is Team Eleven Eleven’s decision to wrap the potentially unfamiliar subject matter up in a more familiar package. SC2VN tells the story of Mach, a rookie StarCraft 2 player who comes to South Korea to improve their StarCraft 2 skills and become a professional player. However, they join a few veteran players in their effort to recruit the best players who aren’t already on other teams, form a ragtag team of underdogs, and make a name for themselves. From that description alone, you can probably guess that SC2VN models itself after American sports movies. It’s a model that the game tightly adheres to, making sure to represent as many of the genre’s conventions as it can. The diverse cast of characters learning to work together as a team; the cocky rival who doesn’t respect the game as much as the heroes; the moment of doubt that tests the hero’s mettle; and the big game where the underdogs have to prove their worth; they’re all present in SC2VN.

404480_2016-01-11_00011Which isn’t to say it’s worse off for including any of those moments. If anything, the game’s exuberant attitude dissuades the notion that what it’s doing is formulaic. As closely as it sticks to the sports movie mold, it embraces that format with much the same passion it approaches its subject matter, meaning it’s actively performing its role rather than just rehearsing it. All this lends the game the agency and self awareness it needs to dispel any notions of laziness we usually associate with “formulaic” games. Of course, it also helps that SC2VN knows where to expand its formula, and how to adapt it to this specific situation. The drama between characters, for instances, helps to elucidate the appeal to eSports beyond the game itself. Meanwhile, the decision to represent individual games of StarCraft with narration and actual screenshots demonstrates the sport’s own appeal. Not only does this leave a strong impression of what people feel while playing the game (the sudden realizations, the rushes of adrenaline, the quick strategies players have to form on the fly), but it also slows the action down enough to where we can comprehend things as they’re happening.

Still, I feel as though all this speaks to something more about the game; something greater; something that allows all of these divergent pieces to come together as a whole. I’m referring to the game’s passion for StarCraft. So strong is that passion that it radiates outward and influences every last part of the story. It’s apparent in the deliberately corny and sex-ed-esque StarCraft 2 primer that precedes the narrative, and in the rosy romanticism through which the game renders even the most mundane actions. On the one hand, such a love for StarCraft makes SC2VN more valuable as an informative experience. Although its explanations feel lacking in a few areas (it never does explain why South Korea, of all places, became the place for competitive StarCraft play), I doubt the game would be able to muster as much knowledge for the subject as it does without that passion. I also doubt that the explanations would have as much value as they do if not for that passion, either.

Indeed, SC2VN would lose its power to affect me if not for its abundant enthusiasm. I’ll admit that this is a basic measure by which to judge games, but in light of SC2VN’s nature, it’s not something I can ignore. The game is trying to appeal to both long time fans of the StarCraft 2 esports scene and newcomers who may not know what it’s all about. Given how fundamentally different these two audiences are, the game has set up a tough balancing act for itself: it can’t work with StarCraft’s mechanics in any way because any strategy it hopes to employ (explaining them to you or hoping you’ll already understand them) will alienate one of those two audiences.

404480_2016-01-11_00031This is a problem that only strong emotional appeals can solve. Part of this is because they give the game substance beyond whatever knowledge you have of the situation, but another part is because they force your involvement with the story. You find yourself sucked so deep into the story that your own understanding of the sport (or lack thereof) becomes irrelevant. You’re too concerned with whether or not Mach is going to beat Bolt in their final match to care about anything else. This doesn’t that you’re operating on some willful ignorance where you don’t recognize that this game was made for another audience. StarCraft is so important to the story’s premise that you’re never even given that luxury. Instead, you recognize that maybe that’s not as important as it would have been otherwise, since the game is offering something you can understand (while simultaneously lowering a bridge toward anything you don’t).

I guess this is why the story’s darker moments sting as much as they do. It’s important that SC2VN, in its quest to teach the player about competitive StarCraft, bring up the dark side to this sport. And to its credit, the game does a thorough job listing off all the realistic risks professional players encounter: the jerks you have to put up with, the cramped living spaces, the hatemail, the emotional nadirs, the friends and family who practically disown you for your career. But as you can probably tell from that description, these grim aspects of eSports put the game’s desire to inform at odds with its desire to tell an idealized story.

Unlike the previous tension between veterans and newcomers, this isn’t a problem the game solves, no matter how hard it tries. While the story ends on a happy note (our hero wins the big game and proves their worth), the build-up to that happy ending tells me that it could have just as easily gone the other way. The pressure could have gotten to Mach (it almost does, too!). Their skill could have stagnated and ultimately fail them when they need it most, forcing them to return home penniless and feeling shame. It was but a stroke of luck that prevented them from suffering such a fate. One has to wonder why anybody would want this life in the first place.

But to offer a counter-argument against myself, I don’t know how much these setbacks actually set the game back. While they certainly harm the game’s ability to tell an entertaining story, entertainment was always ancillary to SC2VN’s primary goal: get the player interested in some new facet of existence. A humble goal, yes, but it’s hard to argue that the game didn’t succeed in accomplishing it. At least for me, the game genuinely captured my interest and focused it on a couple of topics I had no prior interest in, even if it was for a few brief hours. That has to be worth something.

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