"Jack! Jack!" Ashley's sudden cries woke me up - at the wheel.
When I opened my eyes, I found I was drifting across the lanes of the highway. I jerked the steering wheel to the right, causing the car to spin violently off the road. For a few seconds, I didn't know if we were going to live or die. Thankfully, we skidded safely into a ditch with no harm done to either us or the car.
After a tow truck hauled my mom's 1992 Mercury back onto the road, we returned home. I felt like shit, ridden with guilt at endangering the lives of my friends. All three of us - Ashley, her boyfriend Sebastian and I - hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. Actually, Sebastian and I hadn't slept at all. We were too busy playing StarCraft.
This probably sounds an awful lot like an after school special about The Dangers of Videogame Addiction, but it's more complicated than that. You see, the day of my first and only car accident was also the day I started playing Blizzard's seminal RTS. It was an inauspicious start to a new hobby, setting a dismal tone for my entire StarCraft career. Even after months of constant practice, I couldn't Zerg rush my way out of a paper bag.
Sebastian, an old StarCraft veteran, introduced me to the game and taught me how to play. Being a fine judge of character, he suggested that I try the bestial Zerg faction. They were perfect. I delighted in controlling my adorable little murder-beasts across the battlefield, relishing every deliciously evil sound bite, from the cackling Zerglings to the woofing Guardians (or, as I liked to call them, "space crabs"). I made the standard rookie mistakes - over-investing in my defenses and hoarding units within my base, just begging to get nuked by Sebastian's Terran forces - but playing with my real-life friends was always fun, even when I lost. The trouble started once my ambitions turned toward the competitive arena.
Starting to play any game competitively is exciting in its own right. You convince yourself that, with hard work and determination, you'll make the transition from underdog to pro. You envision yourself in a sweaty training montage set to cheesy '80s pop music before facing off against your rival to claim victory and "be the very best, like no one ever was," etc. But the reality is far more daunting.
StarCraft at the competitive level hardly resembles the RTS that I started playing with Sebastian. It's like simultaneously playing chess, monitoring a wall of closed-circuit security cameras and clicking the "close" icon on thousands of spontaneously generating porno pop-up ads. The game demands encyclopedic knowledge of established strategies, dizzying multi-tasking and frantic finger-work. And because it has such a vast, entrenched player base, newcomers have a lot of catching up to do. As StarCraft commentator Nick "Tasteless" Plott says, it's the hardest competitive videogame of them all.