The Rise Of The Professional Cyber Athlete.

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Scarlett told me that she can’t recall ever having dreamed about StarCraft. “It’s kind of a weird thing to be dreaming,” she said. She chose her race, Zerg, somewhat arbitrarily, based on “the look of how it played,” when she first started watching her brother (a Terran), and has come to appreciate the Zerg race for its “reactive” qualities. Figuring out what her opponent is doing, and then countering it, as in a puzzle, is what appeals most to her about the game.

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“I love the way it blurs the boundary between inside and out.”

Her habits, like those of many gamers, are sometimes nocturnal. She plays when she feels like it, and although she never drinks coffee (“It makes you shaky and less precise,” she told me), she can stay alert for long stretches, communicating with friends all over the world. Once, while crashing at the end of such a run, she slept for almost forty-eight hours, with only water and bathroom breaks interrupting her recovery.

Yet she rarely plays StarCraft more than three or four hours in a day, both because she suffers from painful tendinitis in her right wrist and because she finds the Korean tradition of relentless practice unnecessary, and even counterproductive: rote but without mindfulness. She learns almost as much from watching others’ games as from playing her own. Doctors have advised her that she’ll need to take six months off to give her wrist a chance to heal, and, at that point, she figures, she might as well retire and get on with her life. She is unlikely to follow the path of many e-sports pioneers as they age out, becoming casters or working on the production side of tournaments. Computer programming interests her as a possibility, and for that she assumes she will need to go back to school.

She is contemplating going to Seoul again next year. “I really enjoy living there,” she said. “It’s a very big change. It’s a big city with a subway. Also, it’s away from home. I like, at least half the time, not being here.”

Not long ago, she sat down at a desk in her bedroom, in Kingston, where she was breaking in a new, smaller keyboard that would be easier to travel with. Kingston is at least two hours from any major airport; for a globe-trotting athlete, it really is the sticks. She was barefoot, dressed in skinny jeans and a T-shirt. The walls of her room were painted purple. Clothes were strewn about, along with science-fiction and fantasy novels. (“I like going into a different world and not thinking about life for a while,” she once told me.) Her monitor sat on top of a cookbook, so that its height matched her eyes, which seldom wavered from the screen. She had turned the volume off. “I don’t like the sound, anyway,” she said. “I don’t like anything bugging me when I’m playing.”

It was a little after 4 P.M., and she had decided to engage in some “laddering,” or seeking opponents online through Blizzard’s algorithmic matching system. Instead of signing in to the North American server, she’d opted for Europe, where it would be nighttime and more people would be online, having already finished their dinner.

Rob appeared in the doorway, and said that he was planning to make fajitas. “Do we have cilantro?” she asked.

“Yeah, I got you cilantro.”

“I use lots of cilantro when I make salsa,” she said. “I don’t like store-bought salsa.”

She was logged in not as herself but as a “bar code,” a sequence of vertical lines that she’d chosen as an alter ego, in order to practice anonymously. Many élite players use them: the first several players atop the ladder’s rankings were all bar codes. “I won’t play for more than an hour,” she said.

The games began and ended without ceremony. Suddenly, she’d be typing rapidly, and her screen would be strobing as she flitted around the map, dispatching scouts and attending to her economic production. “I don’t actually know how it looks to another person, because I’m used to the speed,” she said. It was dizzying. “A lot of when I’m moving my screen around at the start of the game, it’s not actually doing anything useful,” she added. “It’s just to get warmed up.”

Her preference for playing in a vacuum, without distraction, was complicated by the presence of an intruder (me), and occasionally she let out a restrained “Ah!,” indicating surprise at having forgotten to take care of something basic. At one point, playing a bar-code Terran, she let out a string of four “Ah!”s, such that Rob responded from down the hall.

“You’re losing?” he teased.

“No, it’s O.K.,” she said. “I think this is Bunny, actually. He’s playing exactly like Bunny plays.” Bunny, a Danish pro whose real name is Patrick Brix, is among the three best foreigners at the moment. “Two-base tank push,” she continued, describing her opponent’s strategy.

“You going muta-ling-bane, or what?” Rob asked, now standing in the doorway.

“Well, I guess he’s not Bunny, because this guy’s not very good,” she said, as her opponent collapsed and bowed out. The algorithm delivered another Terran, a Ukrainian named Kas, and she began again.

“I’m going to start the salsa,” Rob said. “Do you want me to drain the tomatoes or just put ’em in as is?”

“You can make the salsa,” she said, without breaking concentration.

“You’ll do the spice level,” Rob said. “I’ll do everything else.” Scarlett’s tolerance for spicy food exceeds that of anyone else in the family. At Indian restaurants, she asks politely, using Hindi phrases, for the spiciest off-menu items.

“This guy plays the most of anyone in the world,” she said, turning her thoughts back to Kas. “At least a thousand games a month. He’s known for that. He’s one of the better Terran players in Europe. He’s professional-ish.”

She lost the first game, and began stretching her right wrist. Then she struggled again in a rematch. “Ah!”

“You’re losing?”

“Yes! I’m losing to Kas!” She mentioned, more than once, that this was a problem she had with streaming, too. “Talking and not focussing,” she said. “I’ve lost a tournament because I didn’t see a dot for a few seconds. Like, I lost thousands of dollars because I didn’t see a single red dot. It’s a big deal.”

Kas took the second, and they began a third. She typed “glhf,” for “good luck, have fun,” a bit of gaming-café etiquette.

“You need to come finish the salsa!” Rob yelled. The allotted hour had passed. The fajitas were done. “So finish this game.” He paused a moment, and then asked, “Who are you playing now?”

It was Kas again. Game Four. She’d won the last one, and was back in a groove. “So, he just took a risk, and ran behind my mineral line,” she said. “And if I cared I could’ve probably just killed it with my workers, but I didn’t.” She wasn’t interested in winning quickly. Her troubles against Terran had been occurring in the middle to late ranges of games. She was determined to come up with a solution to the patch, and so she’d keep drawing Kas out, stalling if she had to.

“Come on!”

She was pushing ninety minutes, eyes on the screen. ♦

An earlier version of this article misidentified Naniwa’s opponent.

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Source : http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/24/good-game

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