A game like StarCraft 2, popular amongst both casual strategy fans and professional gamers, showcases the large divide between playing a game for fun and for competition.
There are seven ranked multiplayer leagues per region globally in StarCraft 2, a daunting number of leaderboards that welcome both the infrequent and the dedicated player. The elite players, however, are the Grandmasters – a tiny, region-based pool of StarCraft 2 experts.
The road to Grandmaster is not for the weak. One must be willing to 'play' for hours, days, and months – even years – to get better. The learning curve can be incredibly unforgiving towards a beginner. Forget to scan the battlefield? You could lose you entire Marine army to some burrowed Banelings. Forget to build anti-air defenses? A couple of Void Rays could take out your entire base. Forget to build workers? You won't lose the match immediately, but you'll get destroyed once the game enters its middle phase. And then, of course, there's the cheese – the ludicrous, yet powerful strategies that lead to an instant win or loss.
Gallery: Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm multiplayer (6/10/2012) | 35 Photos
There's six leagues for amateur players: Bronze (13% of players), Silver (27%), Gold (33%), Platinum (15%), Diamond (11%), and Master (2%). Eventually, after hundreds of matches, amateur players will improve and advance on the ladder, albeit slowly. Strategies vary between each tier and depending on the faction players choose to master.
There is, however, a vast difference between knowing what to do and how to carry that strategy out effectively in real time. StarCraft forces players to multi-task quickly: controlling the army abroad, managing the mineral count back home, and scouting the enemy's base and operations. It's a matter of nimble fingers and eye-hand coordination, and StarCraft 2 measures this physical component via actions per minute.
Actions per minute, or APM, is the measure of how many clicks and key presses a player can perform in sixty seconds. As a struggling amateur, for example, I was able to perform 60 APM, occasionally reaching up to 100. To an outside observer, that may seem dexterous enough – as it translates to roughly one or two clicks every second.
Turn on the annual Major League Gaming tournaments and you see a different class of player. Watching professionals will quickly make you realize competitive e-sports players can perform 300 APM at any given time. And, during particularly intensive battles, their numbers can go up to 600. That's 10 actions every second. In these instances player hands become a blur, their keyboards emit a whirring hum – the result of multiple key presses that are indistinguishable from one another. It's inconceivable to the average player, who couldn't perform ten random actions in a second, never mind ten purposeful ones.
Professional players can make a living off of such skills, and Steve Bonnell II, known to the StarCraft community as "Destiny," is one of these players. Bonnell competed professionally for a time, even traveling to South Korea to gain additional training. Bonnell showcased his skills online, running a profitable live stream channel focused on his game of choice. Today, Bonnell continues supports himself with streaming. Though he enters tournaments occasionally, Bonnell's main interest now lies in organizing and running events. This past summer, he held "Destiny I," a crowd funded tournament that attracted many well-known StarCraft players.
For a time, he also offered tutoring to less experienced players [video below] at the rate of $100 an hour, though his teaching days have come to an end due to his own self-professed lack of patience. When teaching bronze and silver league players, Bonnell took a big picture approach. Rather than teaching the micro-intensive – individual controlling of units, which would boost a player's actions per minute – Bonnell was more concerned with economy, build order, and overall strategy: the "macro" side of the game.
"When you get into the Master's area, and you want to make progress towards being a Grandmaster, [then] it might be time to take a look at your mechanical prowess," Bonnell says. "APM is just one way of measuring it. It's possible to have high APM and still have bad control over your units, however. It's not the be-all and end-all, and it certainly doesn't tell anywhere close to the whole story."
For the amateur player, there are much bigger concerns than APM. For example: The Zerg player can use Queens to "inject" additional larva into their hatcheries. Without injections, a hatchery can only carry three larva. With injections, which can be given every 40 seconds, a hatchery can carry 19 larva - the potential army could be over six times its original size. The difference between a player who forgets to inject versus a player who remembers to inject every 40 seconds (thus, maximizing their resources), can mean the difference between the gold and platinum tiers, or platinum and diamond.
But what about a player who has maximized these macro skills? Is it at this point that APM becomes a valid concern?
"When you start doing any activity at the absolute highest level - and you're being competitive - you start to ask yourself: 'Where does my edge lie?'" says Sean Plott, well known in the StarCraft community as play-by-play commentator Day9. "At the high levels, everyone knows every strategy. A 'new strategy' is very often useless, because there just aren't that many permutations. Players know what's coming. So what pro players tend to look for are opportunities where high APM can provide an extra edge."
While APM is important, it's only vital at the upper skill levels. A more pressing skill for players at any level is the precision of movement – the ability to make meaningful actions.
"If someone was to say that he or she wanted to get faster, there are a couple of exercises I suggest," Plott says. "First, go into single-player, have a build order planned, and execute it perfectly - don't miss a single worker, don't miss a single pylon, don't miss a single building. Naturally, people will feel their bodies pushing them to click a little faster. That's the most important: to feel your hands wanting to do more.
"The second thing I recommend is to play matches by clicking and moving as quickly as possible. You're going to lose games, because you're so focused on clicking quickly rather than doing something useful. But, that's okay, because after two weeks or so, what used to take you 600 milliseconds now takes 300 milliseconds. By forcing yourself to play faster, your body gets used to twitching a little more."
It's also important to have fun; enthusiasm drives a desire to improve. One must "play" many matches to one day "compete" at an elite level.
"You would work on your APM the same way you work on anything else - practice," Bonnell adds. "You just have to play more and more and more until your fingers can mechanically remember the positions they need to be in. The speed will come in time."
Kevin James Wong is a freelance writer based out of Queens, NY., with work featured both online and in print at VIBE, Complex, Salon, Racialicious, and PopMatters. Follow him on Twitter.