Continuing our series dedicated to the music of rivalry, it’s time to analyze one of the most important esport titles of the foregone decade – StarCraft 2. In 2010, this phrase was just as hot as six years later was Make America great again. The successor to arguably the most important esport title of all time has continued to amass hundreds of thousands of viewers and players before the computer and TV screens, so it is only proper that we pay homage to this history.

The successor to arguably the most important esport title of all time has continued to amass hundreds of thousands of viewers.

A lot has changed in the soundtracks since the advent of the first StarCraft. The synthesizers have stopped to just imitate organic instruments, samples have been exchanged for real musicians, the composers have been given raises and the grass got greener. But for it all not to be as majestic as it seems, twelve years after the premiere of Brood War, the square one of all the bigger soundtracks remains an amalgam of epic symphonies and proven electronic rhythms.

Especially when it’s all about tanks, explosions and military operations of any type – War, war never changes, we could say. StarCraft had an ace up its sleeve, though. And it was a great defence against musicological criticism – the competitive spirit. It wasn’t about what would happen to the Milky Road or about the tragedy of an unknown soldier (at least that was not the clou of the game), but rather about APM, good timing and exceptional macromanagement. But does the difference in the premise justify the potential lack of originality in the music?

In the previous article, dedicated entirely to the first installment of the series, I have come up with a thesis that the music of the Zerg race favors the rivalry more than other races’ music does. Furthermore, some internet „espionage” showed that it might not be entirely nonsensical, because (statistically) four out of ten professional gamers have chosen the Zerg race. The display of races played and nationalities of the top StarCraft 2 gamers presents us with an even more curious phenomenon. There, the Zergs dominate non-Korean scene, and the Korean players themselves prefer playing as Terran. 

…which, for the enthusiasts of the StarCraft and StarCraft 2 esport scene is not a surprise at all. But there arises an important question, albeit one full of holes and contexts difficult to check: does the Korean feel of the music differ greatly from ours? Or can we explain their love for Terran race through its music? Of course – pointing it out yet again – we assume that it’s present in their gameplay or that at least they have a certain amount of contact with it.

Overlooking the context such as choosing the race as inspired by the achievements of previous players or adjusting one’s preferences to the Terran style of playing, let’s try to take a look at the musical themes of „Humans” (which by default are present in the game), and any potential observations might lead us to interesting suppositions. As it is not hard to guess, in this text we are going to focus on the space cowboys themselves.

The first thing to strike us when listening to the new Terran themes is a definitely more ambient approach from the composers (Glenn Stafford, Derek Duke, Russell Brower, Neal Acree, although the last of the four focused solely on cinematic music). The score is balanced, its texture more „economic” and we are not going to experience the kind of „fragmentation” like we could in the pieces from the first game. One might even say that the new Terran music fits the idea of StarCraft much better than over-the-decade-old tracks.

A bit of space has been also given to the Hammond organ and bass guitar.

The limelight remains the dominion of guitars: electric and acoustic, drifting between country, blues rock and metal. Their parts – solo and rhythmic ones – although from time to time are located within the spectrum of human voice (which from the perspective of ambient music might have been a mistake; see here for clarification), do not interfere with the soundscape idea of the whole. A bit of space has been also given to the Hammond organ and bass guitar – great tapping parts at track one’s 1:59; one could have sworn those were recorded by John Myung from Dream Theater!

Plus, of course, drums, synthesizer „beeping” and selected symphonic instruments. The instrumental palette is purposefully minimalistic, and it is because of this decision that the Terran music strikes a balance between the essence of StarCraft and background music. The arrangements leave a lot of breathing room for the listener, which also lets the instruments shine and present themselves from a less expected angle, like for example the mentioned bass guitar tapping.

Another interesting procedure is to double the tempo as the compositions progress. Let’s listen to Terran 2 and Terran 3. Both tracks start respectively around 65 and 75 BPM (beats per minute), and after the introductory themes, land somewhere at 120 BPM and 150 BPM. This is probably a continuation of the first StarCraft’s idea. There, the Terran tunes evolved as the consecutive stadia of the game unraveled. In SC 1 we had big changes in regard to the whole structure of the song, but here – not really (which works in favor of the track’s integrity and is of course a pro, considering the ambient premises of the themes).

Compared to the space cowboys and Zergs, the Protoss present themselves in a much bleaker light.

Doubling the tempo is a simple yet magnificent idea by which the music „follows” the player or even the game: even in such a dynamic title like StarCraft, the first minute of the match usually does not give us many opportunities to interact with the opponent, but just around the second minute there arise the first traces of our opponent’s presence on the map, for example through scouting, which means sending a low-level unit to the enemy base early on to get valuable intel on their strategy. The music in a very simple way keeps up with our actions. This is another strength of SC 2 tunes in regard to esport. The modifications in the tracks’ tempi are, after a small rounding, bifid – which shouldn’t throw the player’s attention span off. On the other hand, the changes aren’t simple enough to try and bore us either.

Not far behind Terrans are the Zergs, whose „esport basses” and tasteful usage of delay effect energize the player without distracting him. An interesting switch in regards to the first StarCraft game is a broader number of engaging melodies on the guitar or synthesizers. Where Terrans barely touch the surface of human voice range, Zergs build their hives – many of the melodies from their tracks are built from notes and sounds of height matching our verbalisation, and in some places even a choir is present. One could guess that it would be a shot in the knee, but, after spending a solid amount of time as a player, it does not strike me as a mistake, and much less a blatant oversight on a global scale.

It brings out a curious, although obvious and mentioned before in this text, decision of the developers by which StarCraft means, first and foremost, fun. There is no place in this music for a „realistic”, skin-crawling dark ambient or traditional military songs (maybe in the future). In SC 2, Terrans are, musically, a newcomer from another dimension, showing us what would happen if the world never broke the chains of arcade gaming. But in all this „arcadeness”, composers (aware of the game’s competitive potential), keep the finger on the pulse, gracefully producing a soundtrack on the fundamentals of ambient music and stimulating sonic textures.

It’s a pity, though, that there is such a gap between the Protoss music and the rest of the soundtrack. Don’t get me wrong – their SC 1 tunes are something that I always cherish to come back to. At the same time, those pieces find the way into a listener’s heart through distracting them from the battle, which from our perspective puts such music in a losing place. Unfortunately, its condition isn’t much better in StarCraft 2: compared to the space cowboys and Zergs, the Protoss present themselves in a much bleaker light.

Their themes have retained the emotional aspect (from time to time they seem so similar to SC 1 that one might think it’s just copy-paste), but it’s hard to pinpoint exact esport approaches in the overall music. We will find a lot of emotion in it, the music lovers will definitely find shelter in the tonic and consecutive dominant chords, tasteful orchestration will add to the experience, but there are little to none esport characteristics. We could try to justify that – as a race commanding a smaller number of powerful units, as opposed to swarms of weaklings, more attention will be given to the stimuli that in other circumstances would be muted through crazy multitasking. But, from the esport perspective, the Protoss music fades in comparison with Terran or Zerg tunes.

Maybe you’ve adjusted the volume a bit, so that you can put all your attention into the battlefield.

As for the end, there is a tiny plot-twist to be unwrapped. Have you ever played a repetitive multiplayer game listening to the music of your own choice? Maybe you’ve adjusted the volume a bit, so that you can put all your attention into the battlefield while still retaining the musical stimuli? If so, then you’ve probably noticed that (with some exceptions) it doesn’t really matter what we are listening to, as long as it is… quiet. Quiet enough to compromise its presence, yet not loud enough to disturb our expanding. Is that not the most practical definition of ambient music ever?


Marek Domagała

Electric guitar, cinema and as much Rocket League as possible. Loves synthesizers and wouldn't mind some good black metal either. Taking the first steps as a video game composer.