It's Sunday night, and the Lake Forest Buffalo Wild Wings is packed with people who are barely old enough to drink. Their eyes, many of them behind thick-rimmed glasses, are fixated intently on the TV screens, on which their favorite players are vying in tests of skill. As the competition hits its climax, the volume follows, culminating in a concession from the loser, a celebration from the winner and bedlam from the crowd. Missing are the groans of disappointment and defeat; everyone is celebrating.
It's obviously not an Angels game, though the Halos fans are more than welcome to BarCraft nights to help forget their season of misery. Instead, fans of the Irvine-based Blizzard Entertainment's insanely popular StarCraft 2 video game gather here to watch online tournaments for cash prizes on big screens usually tuned to professional sports, with the same devotion to teams and superstars.
"It's a really vibrant and passionate atmosphere," says Timothy Young, a UC Irvine student who has been to dozens of the events. "People are always lively and enthusiastic. Sometimes, I'm surprised something like this is actually happening."
There's even trash talk. "There aren't really any alliances between teams; it's more between the players," says participant Liz Lopez. Rivalries are rampant, defined by what faction a player chooses in a game or by favorite players. Often heard are cries that the game is "imbalanced," a faction is "too easy" or a player can "cry more."
BarCrafts first appeared last spring in Seattle, organized by StarCraft fans. With free entry and venues often showcasing special menus, the proceeds from the sales at those events were enough to supply cash purses for a series of online tournaments. Quickly spreading across the country, the events nowadays fills bars as easily as any major sport.
"Attendance can vary by who's playing," says Scott Winterstein, general manager of the Anthill Pub on UCI's campus, which regularly hosts BarCrafts. "A couple of Sundays ago, we had basically a full house. It's about on par with the big soccer games we show."
Laguna Niguel resident Caleb Finn hosts the majority of BarCrafts in Orange County, including the first one held here last October, which was attended by StarCraft 2's development team.
"After reading about the huge successes in other cities, I realized there were no BarCrafts in Orange County, despite the population of nerds and presence of Blizzard," Finn says. "I knew there had to be a BarCraft here, and I knew I could make it happen. A friend and I made a list of sports bars and drove around checking each one out. We chose [the Lake Forest Buffalo Wild Wings] because the management was just excited as we were."
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He didn't expect there to be 350 RSVPs, with 100 maybes. Nor did he expect who actually came.
"I knew that a small group of Blizzard staff would show up in an effort to ensure the success of the event. I had been in contact with Blizzard's assistant manager of eSports, Rob Simpson, but I didn't in any way expect the crowd that came," Finn says. "It included the creators of the game and Blizzard's CEO, Mike Morhaime. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and you can't help but get even more excited and thankful seeing they truly care about the game they made and the community around it. It was a good night for the bar, too; they eventually ran out of pint glasses."
The next big StarCraft event, the Major League Gaming Spring Championship, takes place June 8 to 10 at the Anaheim Convention Center and will feature top talent from Korea, Europe and the U.S. Joining the StarCraft community will be League of Legends fans, known for their casual gamer attitude and ability to alienate new players, and the fighting-game community (represented by fans of game such as Mortal Kombat, Soul Calibur V and King of Fighters XIII), known for running side bets. Though currently unconfirmed, Finn is in the process of searching for a venue to host an after-party that Saturday night—expect drunk, rambunctious nerds and the cute girls who love them.
This article appeared in print as "The Video-Game Version of Ultimate Fighting: Side bets, prizes, trash talking—welcome to BarCraft."