I doubt I can write anything better than this, so I'll just link to it. In short, StarCraft is an absolute masterpiece and nothing since has ever come even remotely close to it in terms of skill ceiling, balance, or replayability. While that article touches mostly on the game itself, it's important to note other aspects of the game's release, as well. 1998 was a big year for anything and everything internet related.
- The dot.com bubble was in full swing, and the market was growing fast. People wanted in on it, whether it was through investments like the CPL and WCG or Korean startups like OGN and MBCGame. You can't run a gaming league without games, and StarCraft was the cream of the crop.
- The South Korean government (and others) sponsored broadband internet across its country, rewarding investors into the infrastructure. At one time and perhaps even now there were more than 20,000 PC bangs (internet cafes) in South Korea. It is not a very large country- you can do the math.
- When did your family get its first serious PC? Odds are pretty high that it's within a year or two of the release of StarCraft. What toy would any kid possibly want more than a strategic wargame simulation?
- It's weird to remember, but the game was not a niche to me. I picked it up from a friend, spread it to others, and played with something like twenty classmates on a regular basis. When I slaughtered the reaction time contest for drag racing toy cars in middle school, it was made abundantly clear to me that "you only did so because of StarCraft." Conversations about the game were how I spent art class.
- Battle.net. The system had been created for Diablo, but Diablo wasn't a game for conflict. StarCraft came and set the bar insanely high with record keeping and ladders. With simple access to competitive gameplay, easy play with friends, and the ability to chat and make new friends, the game spread like wildfire. I played for years with Maniac_912 despite never getting his name, age, or knowing anything about him.
- Custom Games. Many of StarCraft's biggest players, myself included, spent far more time playing (or designing) custom maps than we did playing the game Blizzard had created. Without StarCraft's map editor, League of Legends and DotA would simply not exist. To my knowledge, StarCraft was the first game to give players the ability to create incredibly unique custom scenarios and then easily play them with friends. From StarCraft, I learned how to write procedural code as an 11 year old.
- The competition. I'll simply share a quote from Boxer's autobiography:
One day, while I was looking for some friends to play with on Battle.net, a golden badge caught my eye. “What is that? Whoa! So does that mean that person is number one in the ladder?” I was excited. Does this not mean that the person is the best in the Starcraft world? How good does one have to be, to become first place? I wanted to play just one game with this person. And so I requested a game. But I received a cold response, “I cannot play against a person with a low score like you.” “What, does it break your fingers to play one game against me? What’s so hard about it, that you’ll refuse? So, you’re that good? Fine! I’ll just have to be first as well.” I had not once desired for that position called first. But at least during that moment, I really wanted to be the best. From that day on, I strived restlessly to be first in the ladder.
- In the end, it all comes back to this. There is nothing quite like StarCraft and I doubt there will be for a very long time, if ever again. Even the accidents of the game seem brilliant in retrospect.
- Blizzard has not released a balance patch for StarCraft since 2001. In spite of this, top players are to this day still innovating and finding ways to push the game to new heights. And the game still remains balanced. The entire concept of non-parallel balance was a new venture at the time- a decade later the standard which it set for the genre is utterly absurd.
- As I type this, there a hundred professional Korean StarCraft players hammering their keyboards. There are thousands more doing the same who would put it all on the line for a chance to be the next bonjwa. And there is an entirely new generation of players doing exactly the same for games StarCraft has helped to spawn, along with millions of players who will tune into livestreams today to learn directly from the best.
- In spite of all of my anecdotes and near-obsession with the game and its professional scene, if the two best players in the world today each played 100 games against me, I'm not sure that I could win a single one. And there's nothing quite so satisfying, or as motivating, as that competitive assuredness.
Mentioning StarCraft 2 at all feels like a discredit to the original. If I said that I felt Blizzard did even a mediocre job at designing the game I'd be lying through my teeth- they've taken monumental steps backward in virtually every design aspect of the sequel. And it doesn't even matter. The momentum the first game had was enormous, with volunteers and anonymous admins running tournaments for over $20,000 like the TSL. With a scene like that, Blizzard could have repackaged the original with prettier graphics, called it SC2, and it would have blown up just the same. In my opinion, it probably would be even bigger.