Charlie Cheever on StarCraft
Answering the question: what are some lessons learned through playing StarCraft that are useful in real life?
Top entrepreneurs have a history of outsized success in competitive sports and games. Steve Wozniak was famously one of the best Tetris players in the world.
"I was always #1 in the Nintendo Power listings in 1988, and after they said my name had been in there too many times and wouldn't print it again, I spelled my name backwards (Evets Kainzow) and sent in a photo of my score," wrote Engadget from an interview with Woz.
Regardless, it doesn’t take a stretch of imagination to come up with reasons that performing at high levels at something (even as simple as Tetris) correlates with ability to build a company: strategic thinking, obsessive tendencies, willingness to grind, and ability to focus while staring at a screen for many hours are certainly relevant in both domains.
Quora co-founder Charlie Cheever wrote about this topic on Quora, naturally, answering “what are some lessons learned through playing StarCraft that are useful in real life?”
As always, I recommend reading through the entire post, but I’m pulling a few relevant sections below.
There's no substitute for taking a lot of actions. Every good pro StarCraft player has really high APM [actions per minute meaning number of in-game keystrokes/commands]. Even players who are famous for being pro despite having low APM are ways faster than most people (SjoW--probably the most well-known and successful low APM player in SC2--has APM of ~130). Sure, you need to be smart about which things you choose to do and precise with your actions. And you can win some games by being smart, but almost any strategy you want to execute can be executed better by adding in more APM, whether this means taking a few units to do some harassment when you otherwise wouldn't, or just doing a better job target firing the right things in the middle of a big battle. In life, it's pretty much the same thing. No matter how smart you are, your effectiveness is going to be limited if you aren't talking to lots of people, sending lots of e-mails, and just doing lots of stuff every day. Don't underestimate how much value there is in doing whatever you are doing faster so you can move on to doing more things.
There’s the often-debated topic of hard work and its place in the tech industry. Do you need to work 80 hour weeks to be a successful founder? Does more relaxed work schedules actually enable more productive work somehow? My general view is that this is a silly debate lacking nuance — you simply need high APM to do anything meaningful, though achieving that can depend on the person to an extent.
If you are better than your competition, you want the game to go on longer. The more decisions there are, the greater the chances that the better player will win. In StarCraft, this is why many very strong players like IdrA prefer to play macro games rather than short rush games or cheeses. Hussein Kanji has a pretty good discussion of how Microsoft was able to win consistently in the 1980s and 1990s by taking a much longer term view than their competitors here: Hussein Kanji's answer to Why has Microsoft seemingly stopped innovating? .
Conversely, startups probably want to pick games that take place over the short term. Many of the seed stage companies we invest in have visions for a complex long-term product suite, but focus on a concrete standalone product that can be built and sold over the course of approximately a year. Winning the short game lets you play the long game.
Additionally on the Microsoft case study:
Execution is first order more important than strategy but there's also a ceiling on how well something can be executed, and then strategy matters. When competitors are all executing at a similar level, strategy can make a huge difference. For example, Microsoft and Apple were both executing pretty well in the personal computer business in the 1980s and early 1990s, but Microsoft's strategy turned out to be better for the market at that time. Apple is now executing well on iPad and iPhone and laptops with a strategy that looks a lot like its strategy for the Macintosh in the 1980s and 1990s (fully integrated experience that includes hardware and software, lots of focus on design, higher prices, less customizable but better default experience) but for the time and market that they are in now, the strategy is actually really good, and so it's important. In cases where competitors aren't executing equally well, strategy doesn't really matter much. In the case of Myspace vs. Facebook, it probably made more sense actually to start by letting anyone sign up and not restricting the site to college students, but since Facebook executed much better, it was able to close the gap in users and pass Myspace pretty easily.
Again, for startups, both need to be there. We often discuss this in the context of investment meetings with entrepreneurs. If talking about growth, for example, it’s important to diligence both sound strategy (which customer profiles are you focused on and why, what is the value prop you choose to pitch), and strong tactics (how are you experimenting with specific growth channels, what have you learned exactly, how fast have you executed, etc).
Of course, video games aren’t that similar to building companies at the end of the day. The near entirety of gamers won’t become good founders, and vice versa. I found StarCraft to serve as an interesting foil to articulate some universal principles.
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