eSports and speed: why APM is important in StarCraft, and how SC2 allowed players to slow down

eSports and speed: why APM is important in StarCraft, and how SC2 allowed players to slow down

Competitive StarCraft matches can draw hundreds of thousands of viewers on big-name streams, and it's fun to watch and imagine what it's like to compete at that level. It's one thing to watch the game, listen to the casters, and understand the basic strategy of what's going on, but a recent video of a high level player that shows the keyboard, mouse, and screen of his computer shows just how much practice goes into the game.

Take a look. The mechanical skill on display is rather amazing.

I've been watching competitive play lately, and I was curious about why this view is rarely shown. I contacted Rod “Slasher” Breslau, GameSpot's eSports writer and all around expert on competitive play, to ask.

“The main reason we don't see it - quite unfortunately I may add - is because all of the cameras set up for eSports that aren't on the game are focused on the players' faces,” Breslau explained. The keyboard is rarely shown in the Korean leagues, which he says have the best production. “All the StarCraft players specifically are in booths, and I guess they haven't prioritized trying to put a camera somewhere in the booth that would give a birds' eye perspective of the keyboard. The Western leagues have followed similar production, and so the keyboard is only shown very sporadically.”

“It is a shame because the mechanical skill (as shown in the first video) not only is fascinating and hugely impressive, but can directly correlate to a gamer's skill,” he continued. “You can't win on mechanical skill alone, but just as a pitcher who can throw 100+ mph, it certainly helps a lot.”

It's a fascinating discussion. During a conversation with MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni, I had said that I felt like if I had a year or so of 12-hour days to do nothing but practice, I could compete at these games. It feels accessible in a way that mainstream sports are not; no amount of practice, coaching, or workouts will give me the build or power I need to play professional football or basketball. I'm just not built for it. On the other hand, we all have fingers.

“I think there's a broader base of people who have the genetic wiring to play these games at a high level. But we've done some studies, and we've seen things, and there's still some separation,” he said, letting me down easy. “Everyone says that they'll just practice and get good, and, well…. it does take more. It takes a little more.”

In other words, you can get this fast, and you can practice as hard as you like, but there is an innate skill to what these players do that can't be easily replicated.

The power, and limitations, of speed

Your speed in StarCraft titles is measured in what's called “APM,” or actions per minute. A beginner will be under 50 APM. I've often read that top-level players must be able to reliably deliver over 300 APM. That's 300 actions every 60 seconds, or an action every .2 seconds. 

The move to StarCraft 2 has changed things, however.

“Yes, it is true that APM is definitely less important in StarCraft 2 than Brood War. That's because in Brood War you had to individually click each barracks/factory/hatchery/gateway and make units individually instead of at once in SC2; hotkey groups were smaller, etc,” Breslau explained. “A lot of it is SC2's design making things easier than in BW. Secondly is that since SC2 is a younger game with still undeveloped strategies, maps, etc, players can find more ways to win this way than based on pure mechanics.”

Breslau estimated that one now needs around 250 APM to compete at the highest level.

“Well, having higher APM than your opponent doesn't necessarily mean you are faster, or better. What it does mean is you press more buttons,” Evil Geniuses' StarCraft 2 star Ben “DeMusliM” Baker said. “What really matters most is decision-making being crisp, and the moves that you do make being as close to perfect as they can possibly be. If your APM is 250, but every action is that of a demi-god, then your opponent having 450 APM still won't have a chance.”

Evil Geniuses' StarCraft 2 Marcus “ThorZaiN” Eklof agreed. “APM isnt necessarily speed. I don't have that high APM, but I don't spam much and I guess I click 'right.' Some people are just click and no brain. As long as you have around 250+ APM you should be fine.”

This could be changing, however. Shaun “Apollo” Clark is a popular StarCraft 2 caster who used to play professionally, and he claims speed will become increasingly important as the game matures. 

“Higher APM equals more stuff you can do at once. Let's say you are fast enough to move an army through the middle while dropping in 2-3 places at once, if your opponent isn't as fast as you and can't equally defend in two to three places, you win,” he said. “The older SC2 gets, the more APM becomes important, because it's less brain work and more APM and brain. If you can be super-smart but if you simply get outplayed or overrun, you die. In Brood War, the best players had sick brains and sick mechanics, which means they were fast enough to do anything and were just as smart as the slower players.

How do you get faster? After doing some research, there doesn't seem to be a clear way. You practice the game, you learn high-level strategy, and slowly but surely your APM will improve. Don't focus on your speed, not at first, simply work on your fundamentals and the speed will come. It's a shame we don't see the hands of pro players more often, as the mechanics of how they play the game can be just as interesting as the strategy behind those button presses.

This story would not have been possible without the connections, guidance, and thoughts of Rod Breslau. He was a huge help in finding quotes, background information, and sharing videos as I was researching this topic. A bit hat tip in his direction.