Toward the middle of the first day of Red Bull Battle Grounds Atlanta, Sean Merfeld had a huge grin on his face as he asked about when the round of 32 would start. Unbelievably, he (like so many other amateur participants at Battle Grounds) had survived the group stage and was bound for the championship bracket. He'd even come within a whisker of taking a game off of viOLet in the winner's match.
He wasn't the only Masters-level player to have come out to Battle Grounds to try his luck and come away a winner. In a large field that packed seasoned professionals alongside weekend warriors like Merfeld, a lot of lower-level players found themselves getting a taste of the same rush and achievement that drives the pros to dedicate their lives to mastering this difficult game.
Amateurs Just Wanna Have Fun
If there was any doubt that Merfeld is out to have some fun and not make a career, his 100% sponsor-unfriendly handle "LuvstoSpooge" would put it to rest. But Merton, a landscaper and college student, never meant to have anything more than a good time.
"Soon as I found out something was coming to Atlanta, I figured, 'Might as well, right?' It was only like $40 to register, and I was going to come out regardless. It was only an extra $15 to play, and I met a lot of people I've only seen on a stream," Merfeld said. "It was kind of cool. Kind of weird."
Merfeld has played StarCraft 2 since it came out, though he's not been a serious player for a while. So he was surprised to find himself doing so well.
"I won my first series 2-0, then I played [Kim "viOLet" Dong Hwan], and he smashed me!" he said. "It's cool! I should have won game 2, that's the best part. I asked him after the game about strategies, what I should have done. He said I only messed up one thing. Otherwise I would have won."
Up for Grabs
Chris "HuK" Loranger was wary of his amateur opponents, knowing that StarCraft can be a volatile game even for an experienced pro. "It's definitely a worry. Group stages help a lot to eliminate that kind of variance. If it was just one big bracket, one best of three, you could be fed to the loser bracket or get knocked out of the tournament really early.
"...But I definitely had situation like that. I played someone who was in masters, but he's usually Grandmasters. So when we played, I lost the first game," HuK said. "And then all of a sudden, I got really worried."
This is a tournament that has yielded an abundance of such unusual, unexpected moments. During a stoppage of play to address some lag issues, Henry "hendralisk" Zheng could be seen chatting with the other members of his group, talking through practices, hard-won lessons, and favorite builds. Dan "ViBE" Scherlong spent the morning talking to a cluster of amateur players, informally commentating some of the matches taking place in front of them.
When Command Centers Attack
It's also had moments that just would not fly in a more traditional tournament dominated by professionals. Robbie "SirRobin" Switts was left stunned on the main stage when his opponent Jesse "RuFF" Hall flew a Command Center into his main, upgraded it to a Planetary, and used it to wipe out the Zerg base. While SirRobin was able to recover in game 3 and take the series, and both players managed to advance, it was one of the most unexpected and unforgettable moments of the year.
Things will likely get a bit more serious tomorrow, as pros like Kevin "qxc" Riley, Brandon "puCK" Qual, and Choi "Bomber" Ji Sung get to work thinning the crowd in the bracket stages. But players like Merfeld and unpredictable improvisation artists like RuFF were probably the biggest winners of Day 1. They reminded everyone that in addition to being a demanding eSport, StarCraft 2 is still a really fun game.