Starcraft from the Stands: Understanding the Game Spectator

Written by João Costa


Reference Information

Cheung, G., & Huang, J. (2011, May). Starcraft from the stands: understanding the game spectator. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 763-772). ACM.


Spectating video games is becoming a frequent activity, particularly in the case of the popular Real Time Strategy game Starcraft 2. However, who are really the spectators that assist to the online battles of this game?

The paper describes a case study, based on collected materials from online sources, that aims to answer the following questions: i) Who are the spectators and why do they spectate?; ii) How do different stakeholders affect the spectator experience?; iii) What makes spectating a game enjoyable?

As a result of their research, the authors propose several spectator types or personas, as well as their place in the ecosystem created by the parts involved in the whole experience. They conclude that, rather than just presenting the highest amount of information to the spectator as possible, it is more important to allow the stakeholders, players and commentators, to be able to decide how and when should they uncover the information that the spectators crave for.


The paper begins with a description of what a spectator is in the view of previous literature, which is said to be someone who can be just as immersed in the game reality as the players who have a direct hand in the outcome of the game. Spectators often are people who have adopted the values of the game-world, its intricacies and lingo. Nevertheless, there can be spectators who are not as well lectured about the game as others, and those are said to be outside the magic circle of the game.ID-1009868 A well known case of the success of spectating a sports event is the gladiatorial times of the Roman civilization, where, albeit the players often had their lives at stake, the crowd was ever zealous. This is described by Johan Huizinga’s work as a “shift” of competitive impulse from “protagonist to spectator” [1], and something that can be witnessed every day in major sports events like soccer or hockey matches.

These are the spectators inside the magic circle, those who master the art of “yelling at players, telling them what to do”, who know all the ins and outs of the game. It is possible, however, to have spectators who are outside this magic circle. Those who do not understand the values of the game presented, and those who do not adopt the values of play that the game has, are considered to be outside spectators. A family member who happens upon a game already in progress, who looks at the pieces in the board, watching them move, lacks understanding of the game and thus is an outside spectator. One example presented as a player who is an outside spectator is the “griefer” players, who understand the game but do not adopt its values, seeking to undermine the experience of other players (typically by killing them in the game).

The authors then describe sports spectating and its similarities to video game spectating. The reasons for spectating sports, or video games, seem to be the same: stress relief, achievement, aesthetics, social skills and family skills. Sports events are one of the last social outlets in the urban environments (that do not directly involve consuming ridiculous amounts of “ethanolic” beverages), often contributing to the alleviation of loneliness. Commentators also have a strong presence in both sports and video games matches. They affect the spectator experience, generally due to their commenting styles. Research indicates that spectators find matches more enjoyable, exciting, involving and interesting when the commentary depicts the players as enemies, rather than friends or neutral parties [2].

The paper continues describing the conducted study, giving a brief overview about what Starcraft 2 is, what are its spectating technologies and why use it as a study platform. Their method consisted of grounded theory, which started in the collection of online material such as videos, blog posts, comments and others. The data was open coded, in an iterative fashion, by using basic descriptive categories that were procedurally reviewed and refined.

After sifting through all the data, several types of spectator, or Personas, were identified, as well as their interconnections, when possible. They were described as follows:

Spectator Type Description Place in the Ecosystem
The Bystander Uninformed – Little understanding of the game mechanics. Lacks knowledge for explaining the meaning of what is happening.Uninvested – Played Starcraft many years ago, and now rediscovered the successor, triggering his return to the game.  –
The Curious  Focuses on knowledge gaps about the game. As long as there is something incomprehensible, he will spectate.  –
The Inspired  After spectating, they are eager to play the game themselves, sometimes trying the strategies they had just witnessed. Enthusiasm directed at the game itself. Do not require much information to feel inspired.  –
The Pupil  Wants to understand the game and the techniques of the players. Differs from the Inspired because they often spectate content with richer amounts of detailed information, so that they can understand the impact on their strategies.  Look towards Commentators. Commentators detail the strategies that the Pupil absorb.
The Unsatisfied  Sees spectating as a weaker substitute for the activity he would rather do. This spectator would rather be playing the game than to spectate it.
The Entertained  Those who find satisfaction in watching the game, without the stress of playing it. Similar to someone who watches a movie, as a purely entertaining activity.  –
The Assistant  Those who seek to act as assistants, giving advice to someone who plays beside them. Act like a second pair of eyes, reminding the player of actions, or as a partner who can feed snacks to the player for example.  –
The Commentator  Convey excitement and emotion around the game. Different casting styles just like shown in previous studies ensure better results with the crowd, in terms of excitement.  Labor to shape the experience for their consumers (all the spectators)
The Crowd  The crowd ensures for group hebaviours in itself, just like in traditional sporting events.  Engages with Commentators. Make their own analysis and predictions within the group.

There are plenty spectator types, but what really makes spectating enjoyable? From the gathered data, the authors understood that spectators appreciate aspects such as the spectacle of the battles and graphics, the user interface and how the game allowed them to perceive the action, tactics and units in competitive play. On top of that, they report a finding that they say to be intrinsic to Starcraft but less common in other games, a concept called Information Asymmetry. This no more than the facts that are known to either party, or none, during the match.

Information Example
Unknown to Spectator  Attack strategy of the player.
Unknown to Player  Position of enemy units.
Unknown to both  Outcome of a close battle.

This asymmetry helps to build the tension for the spectator in several situations. These can be when the spectator wants to watch a strategy of his favourite player to be executed flawlessly, enjoying a display of skill. The fact that what the player will do is unknown to the spectator is what builds up the tension for the Pupil or Curious spectators, and this constitutes the first case of asymmetry.

The second case is when no information is known by any party, which happens nearly in every game. This may be due to chance or skill and is a source of excitement for both players and spectators, because it builds up the tension until the unknown gets to be revealed.

ID-10058060The final case of information asymmetry is when the spectator has information about the game that is unknown to the player. Like in the now popular Texas Hold’em poker tournaments shown on TV, the spectator can tell who is bluffing and who is not because he has access to the hands of each player, while players can only see their own cards. In Starcraft, this translates into knowing the consequences of some actions that the players might take, like carrying a transport ship full of troops to a zone where the enemy has his defensive line. The spectator keeps on his toes because he has the understanding of the impact that the loss of the transport ship will represent to the player and to the game.

Information Asymmetry is also a valuable tool in the hands of Commentators. In Starcraft 2, one can not see the play map all at once. The camera is focused on a part of the map chosen by the Commentator, who can keep changing it with mouse clicks or scrolls. That said, a Commentator can omit showing or revealing certain facts like where the enemy units lie in wait, or even the fact that the enemy has units, just to add up to the already present tension, leading to suspense.

A spectator, after reading through all the findings, is typically informed and invested, and is someone who can be mapped inside or outside of the magic circle of the game according to these two variables. The more informed and invested he is, and the more there is to understand about the game, the deeper he is in the magic circle, fact which is confirmed by the Pupil persona. Another finding denotes two attitudes towards playing versus watching. For some, playing is the preferred activity, while for others, spectating fuels a desire to play. As a conclusion note, the authors state that games should be designed to give as much information to the spectator as possible. Notwithstanding, games need to reveal just enough information for the spectator for him to understand what is happening. Too much information might act as the dreaded “spoilers” of TV series or movies, collapsing the desired game suspense that the spectator sought after, provided by Information Asymmetry.


Structure wise, some sentences seemed misplaced, or seemed to have some grammar errors. Nonetheless, it was extremely curious to see the various types of spectators documented in this paper. Looking back to some discussions with friends, I can vividly recall the views and standpoints of some of them in regards to some spectated matches. It is fun to see how, after about 5 years, I can fit them into these precise categories described in the paper.

What is most interesting to me is that these spectator categories might not just apply to video games, but also to board games (or other games perhaps). Often, when I watch a video review of a board game, or some more complex video where an entire game is plaid, I feel Inspired by the game (and generally have to spend a couple of dollars the weekend after). Some other spectators might not feel Inspired and might rather feel Unsatisfied or just Bystanding.

As a final remark, I disagree with what the authors say in regards to Information Asymmetry being something really strong in Starcraft 2 but not really common in other games. I differ in the sense that, most of the online first person shooters do allow for spectating, and, although their spectating tools might not be as strong as the ones that Starcraft 2 has, these games also provide this asymmetry in a strong way. No player is aware of the position of others, neither the spectator knows the strategy of the players. To me, this is not a mater of exclusivity to Starcraft 2, but rather a mater of other games not having such powerful spectating tools, and this is what gives Starcraft 2 the edge on Information Asymmetry.


  1. Huizinga, J. (1938). Homo ludens: proeve fleener bepaling van het spel-element der cultuur. Haarlem: Tjeenk Willink.
  2. Bryant, J., Brown, D., Comisky, P. W., & Zillmann, D. (1982). Sports and spectators: Commentary and appreciation. Journal of Communication32(1), 109-119.

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