A few weeks ago, my producer and I were invited to speak at Game Developers Conference 2016 as part of an eSports panel for our work on SC2VN, a visual novel about StarCraft 2 in Korea. Travis Beauchamp, a filmmaker best known for his documentary about Super Smash Brothers: Melee and its history as a competitive game, joined us among a few other notable eSports storytellers. His work is highly influential to SC2VN, and I let him know that fact over dinner the night before our talk.
“I’m flattered.” He said with an easy smile. Travis wore sweat pants and flip-flops, a look only an artist could pull off over upscale Indian food. A stiff button-down and a pair of penny-loafers I hadn’t worn since high school screamed my inadequacy by comparison. There sat a man who had revitalized a dying scene with a camera, Final Cut Pro, and gas to travel across the States. If I could share ¼ of his accomplishment for StarCraft, some would call me a hero. When I said as much on our way to the Twitch office, he shook his head.
“Asking what King of Kong did for Donkey Kong is to ask the wrong question.”
“Those two guys had their records broken, didn’t they?”
“No — Well yes. Just…” He trailed off with a laugh. “Listen. King of Kong has one of the best stories in all of film. No script, no screenplay. And they show Donkey Kong on screen for, what, thirty seconds?”
I scratched my cheek, “Sounds about right.”
“Then what makes it work?”
“Probably helps that Donkey Kong is a household name.”
He nodded his agreement, but said nothing. In that silence, I glanced away.
“The people.” I guessed. “Billy Mitchell and Steve Wiebe.”
“The characters.” He corrected. “The story lives and dies on who they are and where they’re going.”
“For fiction, maybe. But a documentary?”
He turned, “Tell a story about your life, and I’ll point out your villains, your motives, your arc.”
“Think a tragic comedy would sell?”
“I’m serious. We’re all characters. In the edit bay, on the page, or face-to-face. Keep it real, cut the rest.”
“Mango makes a pretty good Wiebe.” I mused, watching his grin widen.
eSports. A rising subculture, a venture capital dumpster, The Next Big Thing. The people who play video games for our entertainment have done their time in the salt mines of low culture and at last earned the right to speak on camera. And stories we’ve seen, from the rescued to the incorporeal. But amid the broken promises, some guy in flip-flops and with gas money from Kickstarter did what most of those before him had failed to: he told a story about a bunch of kids who play video games and made it interesting.
What The Smash Brothers gets right is simple. In spite of its title, the film cares less about the game than it does the people who play it. Competitive video games and their endless complexity are relatable only when we can attach a face and a name to the character on screen. It’s a simple and intuitive truth, one that some ignore to focus instead on prize pools and fantasy.
When a game on its last legs is brought back into the mainstream on the back of a single film, it’s hard not to lament waning interest in StarCraft. The subjects of StarCraft’s stories are invested and engaged and understand what makes eSports worth marveling over. But the curious onlooker and casual fan never sees the person beneath that sponsor-covered jersey, the kid risking disdain and defeat for passion.
There are exceptions. But I see this beautiful game, its limping viewership, and its jaded community and know that this was not an inevitability. If it wasn’t too late for Melee, then it can never be too late for StarCraft.