The best way to learn about esports might just be this lush visual novel
So, remember last month when I teased an 'esports anime' for April Fools? Many of our readers were bummed to find it wasn't really real, but fortunately, this is: Don't Forget Our Esports Dream, a visual novel focusing on the competitive Starcraft scene in South Korea.
Currently in the final hours of its Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, Don't Forget Our Esports Dream is a prequel to SC2VN, which you can play right now for free on Steam. Where SC2VN focuses on Starcraft II and a group of young players hoping to conquer its professional scene, Don't Forget Our Esports Dream covers "the Brood War era," named for the original Starcraft's "Brood War" expansion.
Having played through quite a bit of SC2VN, I can say it's everything I might've hoped for out of our fictitious esports anime concept: sadness, a tight-knit group of lovable anime archetypes, more sadness, and the melodrama of a team sport where the line between success and crushing defeat is razor-thin. That the sport in question is Starcraft and not, say, cycling or baseball is pretty much immaterial here -- you still get all the emotional high stakes and nail-biting close calls as you would in a meatspace game, and as SC2VN in particular focuses on a Western player trying to make it in the Korean pro scene, you get an interesting (if extremely downplayed) interrogation on cultural differences as well.
"People just assume life as a [professional player] is glamorous," says lead writer T.J. Huckabee, in a recent interview with Kotaku. "And, yeah, if you’re a West Coast League of Legends player getting paid by Riot, it kind of is. At least as long as you’re doing well. But for everyone else, unless you’re winning these tournaments? Life is so hard."
Sports anime frequently focus on underdog teams knowingly punching above their weight, and occasionally these characters do get a major win first time out -- but more often than not, these shows are about failure, recognizing one's limits, and picking oneself up afterwards. SC2VN zeroes in on that experience. And given that Don't Forget Our Esports Dream is a prequel, which casts its spotlight on a particular field of esports we know is about to dry up -- not many play original Starcraft professionally these days, after all -- everything about the game's premise seems especially tragic and contemplative. You could liken it to the Japanese concept of mono no aware: you know these kids are going to fail, just as you know the samurai in a Kurosawa film are mostly going to end up dead, but the beauty is in how these individuals soldier on anyway.
Another thing which distinguishes Don't Forget Our Esports Dream is, unlike most meatspace sports, esports teams are usually not gender-locked. Women make up a good 50% of DFOED's central characters, which is certainly a far more equitable gender ratio than actual pro Starcraft leagues. (It would be interesting to see a non-binary character in a game like this, but, baby steps.) While all the characters play into certain fanservice-y tropes -- the tsundere, the tough guy, the schoolgirl in a pleated skirt -- no one is absurdly hypersexualized. You don't even get to date anyone (which is sort of a bummer, but probably for the best).
You might be wondering -- as I did, initially -- whether Don't Forget Our Esports Dream has the license to use images and trademarks from Blizzard's Starcraft franchise. The answer is yes: though he declined to offer specifics, project lead Huckabee was able to confirm for ZAM over email that the team has a contract agreement with Blizzard Entertainment to use Starcraft's name and assets. In particular, Huckabee refers to it as a "sanctioned fan game." Which is a cool concept, honestly, and arguably one it would be interesting to see more big studios like Blizzard embrace, since it can only help introduce your game to wider audiences.
At time of writing, Don't Forget Our Esports Dream's Kickstarter sits at around $33,500 of its $35,000 goal, with a little more than a day left on the clock. So if you're interested in backing it, now is probably your best and last opportunity to do so.