After Hours Gaming League: Tech Giants Play (Starcraft) to Win

If you're a PCWorld regular, you have undoubtedly read dozens of articles talking about the back-and-forth battles between Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and other tech giants. One day it's Zynga releasing a new life-sucking social game, another day it's a story on Yelp Nightmares. Even if no amount of Google Docs updates will ever pry Microsoft Office out of your hands, it's still fun to read about.

The After Hours Gaming League.
Believe it or not, the competition has recently continued off the Silicon Valley pitch in the form of an extramural Starcraft 2 league, called the After Hours Gaming League (AHGL), produced by Jink.tv and hosted by none other than Starcraft 2 celebrity announcer Sean "Day[9]" Plott.

Every week, 12-man teams from Google, Facebook, Amazon, Dropbox, Twitter, Microsoft, Yelp, and Zynga are paired off to play against each other for the honor and glory of their employer during a nine-week season that started on July 5th. The top two teams will meet in a live, on-stage event at the Facebook campus on August 19th for the league championship, and the winner gets to choose a charity to which the AHGL will donate $5,000. What's more, the matches are recorded and announced, so you can watch them yourself--check them out at the AHGL Videos page.

We were fortunate enough to get a quick Q&A session in with Cara LaForge from Jink.tv about the background behind the AHGL.

What inspired the AHGL?

In March, Day[9] was invited to host a StarCraft 2 tournament at Facebook. He went up and it was just a huge hit--he was really almost unprepared for how popular the event was. There were a ton of employees who turned out and everybody had a blast, including Day[9].

Afterwards, the Communications group at Facebook reached out to us at Day[9]TV and said: "We want to do more. Let's brainstorm. How can we collaborate again?" We kicked around some ideas, and together we hit on the idea of a corporate extramural league. Not a traditional one, with softball or basketball, but a virtual one. We loved the idea--it was such a clever, modern twist to a old-fashioned corporate tradition. A sign of the changing times.

The Facebook folks promptly reached out to their friends at other high tech companies, and almost immediately we had a half dozen corporate teams signed up, both big and small--Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Google, Dropbox, Yelp and Zynga.

You would not believe how popular this game is and how many of these engineers at high tech companies are serious players! They all grew up playing Starcraft as kids. There is a lot of nostalgia out there surrounding the game--a lot of good childhood memories.

So the AHGL was really born out of a perfect storm: Starcraft was becoming more popular by the day, Day[9] was interested in legitimizing eSports and promoting it to a wider audience, and Facebook realized that an SC2 tournament was a great way to get the high tech community together for some fun.

With the help of a steering committee of the founding corporate members, we launched a closed beta tournament, and set about ironing out the kinks and rulesets: i.e. Who could be on a team? Summer interns ? Full time staff only? (What if somebody recruited an intern as a ringer!) How did we cope with players who suddenly had to travel on business? Team members who were located in Europe on other servers? Substitutes?

We also called on some good friends in the community like the J!nx clothing folks, to lend us a hand with some media pieces and branding. And Blizzard offered to help with the PR. So its been a real collaborative effort to get this off the ground.

But our ultimate intention has always been to open up the AHGL to any company that wanted to join. We'll be doing that with Season Two in the fall. By then, it will be ready to scale.

And do they ever want to join! After we issued a press release, the www.afterhoursgaming.tv website received a quarter of a million hits within 48 hours before it crashed, and we were inundated with requests from people wanting to form a corporate SC2 team. We've had inquiries from NASA, Pixar, IBM, Intel, Yahoo, Verizon Wireless, Lowe's, Ernst & Young, Boeing, and virtually every branch of the military, to name just a few. We've even had requests to create a European division and a Canadian division. The response has been incredible.

Why Starcraft, of all games?

Starcraft is an amazing, complex, challeging strategy game. It requires years of study to master. It is chess on steroids. IAnd just like chess, it has its own grandmasters, its own rivalries, its own subculture. It's a smart game for smart people. We have a lot of professionals--doctors, lawyers, engineers--in the community.

Plus, it makes for an absolutely riveting spectator sport. You don't even have to play the game to get into the action and enjoy what is going on. In fact, at Day[9]TV, half of our viewers say they tune into the show in spite of the fact that they don't actually play. The action is that compelling.

In Asia, StarCraft tournaments--or eSports, as the scene is known--have been a national obsession for years. In Korea, they fill entire stadiums with fans to watch StarCraft tournaments, they broadcast games over cable television and they report game scores in the newspapers. The West is only just now beginning to catch on to that fever. But it is definitely beginning to gather momentum.

Who's your pick to win it?

I think everyone wins here - the players are having a blast and many of them are starstruck by the famous casters covering *their* games.

Where is the $5k coming from?

It is traditional in SC2 tournaments to play for a prize pool, and we wanted our corporate gamers to feel like they were part of a legitimate, high level, professional tournament, so Day[9]TV donated the prize pool, which will go to a charity chosen by the winning team.

We also recruited a bunch of famous caster friends (DJWheat, TotalBiscuit, Husky) to join Day[9] in professionally narrating the matches. The entire tournment is being streamed publically on Internet television and the finals will be held live on the Facebook campus. We understand that a lot of the employees are gathering in conference rooms back at corporate headquarters to watch the games and cheer on their colleagues. It's all part of the fantasy of being a pro player--just like going to a baseball camp is part of the fantasy of being a pro athlete. It's a real kick for these guys!

Are the players any good?

They're all in the top few percent of players worldwide, but it's hard to compare them to the professional grandmasters who spend all day every day practicing.

StarCraft has such a scary reputation as a super hard game. We just want people to have fun, to be playful and silly together. Day[9] has a theory that people have forgotten how to play, have forgotten that games are an ancient art and play a critical role in culture.

Got any fun AHGL stories/training montages/tales of deception?

Well, we do love Microsoft's slogan: "macro hard, micro soft!"

Patrick Miller covers How-Tos, HDTVs, and the occasional game for PCWorld. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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