This weekend, the first London Barcraft of 2012 took place at the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town. If you've never heard of the Barcraft phenomenon, it basically involves a group of people sitting in a pub watching some other people thousands of miles away play computer games on a big screen. Surprisingly, most of the people I met at the pub yesterday were men. To up the ante somewhat, the guys who are actually taking part (most of the time they're South Korean) compete for big cash prizes, and as such sometimes they cry when they lose.
The game they all came to see played from Saturday afternoon till Sunday afternoon is called StarCraft 2. In it, you build a base and then use that base to amass an army to defend it. Then, when you're feeling bolshy enough, you set out in search of your enemy's base and attempt to blast it and him out of 'existence'.
If you played the Command & Conquer games as a kid, you're already bored of me patronising you. If you're too posh to have played them, then it's like chess, but with more explosions. If you spent your youth beating up the sort of people I've just mentioned, then hang around for some major guilt pangs, because once I resigned myself to the absence of women, my Barcraft sleepover was actually great.
Though admittedly the photos I took don't make it look all that great. In truth, it was difficult. Here's a typical Barcraft action shot:
I went along to the event to learn about the culture, but I still have no idea what "wr 5 -game 1 nani frg.fiv" means. Maybe I would do if the organisers hadn't been so keen on keeping things make-believe. Check out the labyrinth of smoke and mirrors that was the event's special bar menu:
Things could have been even more confusing, but thankfully, on this occasion, the raw slabs of mineral that are littered throughout StarCraft's solar system were each worth exactly the same as one English pound.
The players of the game adopt fake names, and most of them sound like East Coast street slang for drugs I'll never know about: Naniwa, Nestea, Marine King, DRG. Even the commentators, who crack arcane jokes and analyse stuff in between battles, go by names that could belong to overhyped public school grime artists: TotalBiscuit, djWHEAT, JP, dApollo.
Some of what they said was useful. Some was not. For example: “This is now a 'base race', except it is like a one-legged man running against a two-legged man. You do not want to be a one-legged man racing against a two-legged man. You just don't want to have one leg in that situation” was not particularly useful.
Soon though, much like with football commentators, I started to feel convinced of my own in-depth knowledge of StarCraft. Why else would I agree with them when they told me that: "Naniwa has made by far the best use of force fields that I have seen in this tournament"?
Emboldened, I decided it was time to clamber aboard the Barcraft banter bus.
The first person I dared engage in conversation was Anthony, who was 20. I HATE football, and tried to get in his good books by comparing it unfavourably to Barcraft. But he actually told me that the two were very similar. "A lot of people might play them both casually and aspire to be players, but never really make it," he said. When I asked if he'd ever done battle at Barcraft, he laughed, rolled his eyes and said: "No! To train macro and micro ability is so hard." I was intimidated because I didn't understand what this meant, and so left him to his own devices.
Heyyyyy, it's Florian Doyon, one of the original founders of Barcraft in London. He said that 40 pubs said 'no' before the Assembly House agreed to let them stage the first London event in July last year, and that in South Korea, Starcraft is "like their national sport" and is on TV every day. Does he think it has room to grow in a similar way in this country?
"Look behind you at the bar," he replied. "A lot of guys are here with their girlfriends who are telling them all about their problems, and you can clearly see the guy is looking at the video game and the explosions."
Is that why it's getting more popular? Men not paying attention to their girlfriends?
He was about to answer, when this guy – who is apparently like the John Travolta of gamers – came up on the screen. Everyone started cackling, and Florian ran off to deal with some technical issues.
Though Florian was right about the event attracting "blokes" rather than "guys who like playing computer games that aren't FIFA", there were still some hardcore gamers hanging about. Like these two:
"He told me to come to London today, but wouldn't tell me why," said Sarah. "I love it! It's so much fun!"
The guy's name was Andy, and he said that he thinks Barcraft is "a bit like poker". Is that a sport, though? Everyone here is saying Starcraft is a legit sport.
"It's a sport of the mind, which is far more entertaining. It's far more exciting than any sport I've been forced to watch. Cricket, football, rugby, you name it…"
Then a player called 'Huk' lost a match and nearly cried, which was hilarious.
Sam seemed to have 'seen it all' as a Barcraft vet, and was keen to explain what was happening to me. "Yeah, you'll see people cry, I see it often," he said. "I've seen people get very angry and have to be escorted out of the building when they lose."
"The prize money can add up to tens of thousands of pounds. This one is £23,000, I think."
Jesus. What else have you seen desperate players try at tournaments?
"Hacking, people get accused of that quite often. A team got thrown out for actually hacking a team that I was part of, once. That was exciting. I've also seen people ask other players to let them win because they need the money for 'treatment for their family'."
Sam's collection of Barcraft wristbands
Given that most kids have already swapped field sports for video games, it's not massively surprising that drunkenly cheering on a man from Korea called 'GanZi' as he harvests imaginary ore on a planet that doesn't exist is where the human race now finds itself. But if you think sitting in a pub with nerds watching a complex, strategic computer game unfold over the course of 24 hours isn't as good as watching football, playing table billiards or making starved ferrets fight to the death, it's your masculinity that I fear for, mate.
Man up, grab a “Whole Urudask" (burger) from the bar and watch some bratty kids do amazing things in a war that doesn't seem to make any sense. Because, believe it or not, Barcraft might actually be for you.
Follow Josh on Twitter: @joshuahaddow