One Last Summer for Western Starcraft II

In 2011 a friend of mine got me into watching competitive Starcraft II. I was never big on games, I mostly played point-and-click adventure games, visual novels and Touhou, but I slipped into Starcraft II esports fairly comfortably. I still remember how much I enjoyed shoutcasters screaming over professional players facing off as if it were a sporting event, despite the fact I didn’t know the game’s rules initially. Eventually I did buy the game, played some, but I still preferred watching the pros play. I began following certain pro players and rooting for their success. But I got frustrated with my new hobby fairly quickly …

My frustration was fueled by the fact that none of my guys ever won anything. That was because South Korean players dominated North-American and European circuits, sometimes taking most if not all of the top 16 spots of any given tournament. Stephano, NaNiwa and HuK were three famous “foreigners” who had the rare talent and dedication to be competitive with the Koreans. For some time they gave us fans and other players hope that even if you were born outside of Korea you could be the next Dreamhack or MLG champion. Unfortunately, every player has a primal period of success, so did these guys.

As the turf war between organizations over the esports landscape continued, one North-American organization decided to hog all Koreans for themselves. What happened was that Korean pro players were flown over to overseas tournaments en masse, their trips and accommodation paid for by the organizers, then shipped back to Korea with large prize money and paid-for attendance fees in some cases. The consequence of this trend was that money was routinely taken out of the North-American and European circuits and it had a near-crippling effect on pro gaming-supported lifestyles in western countries. If Koreans were going to win every tournament and take all the money anyway, what’s the point in competing? That was the question on every western pro player’s mind back then.

Worst even, audiences got fed up with the foreigner David versus Korean Goliath storyline. A group of people booed Flash at an MLG event in 2013, a Korean legend, while he was winning against a Dutch player. Of course, Starcraft II otaku instinctively defended the Korean champion online and community figures made sure to turn the incident into a politically correct lesson on toxic behavior for everyone involved. However, most fans didn’t need a moral lecture on the subject. Deep down inside we all knew why Flash was booed. It was an expression of frustration, the thing I mentioned earlier. In the last three years, Starcraft II viewership has declined from a healthy peak of 150k concurrent viewers per event to the current 40k. Other games developers saw the early success of Starcraft II esports and took charge, taking a good chunk of Starcraft II’s viewership with them, to games that actually crowned non-Korean champions. I always felt like this could’ve been prevented in Starcraft II had foreigners had more chances to win and fans to cheer for players they could identify themselves with. Instead, they got “faceless” Korean champions that didn’t know English and couldn’t or wouldn’t show their personality. Only a handful of Korean players engaged in showmanship, such as MC or Polt. The underlying problem of course was that the skill gap between Koreans and foreigners was too big, and only got bigger as the years went by. The way Blizzard’s World Championship Series was operated only reinforced the Korean hegemony over all other countries.

Even before Starcraft II became a thing, its predecessor, Starcraft: Broodwar, was a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. Inspired by Korean superstars like BoxeR, NaDa, YellOw, and later on Bisu and Flash, many young Starcraft players wanted a piece of esports glory themselves. The thing was that not every player could participate in Brood War’s ecosystem, regulated by the Korean eSports Association. When Starcraft II was announced, the young hopefuls and B-team pro players decided to make a switch to the new game out of necessity. They wanted to establish themselves in a new game before KeSPA brought their players over. So it was already in the beginning chapters of Starcraft II that Korea had a massive pool of eager and talented players. When KeSPA finally made the switch to Starcraft II it became apparent two tournaments per season would not be able to guarantee a living to every pro player. Koreans got desperate.

It was in this situation that Korean pro players started looking at their options overseas. The WCS system allowed Korean transfers to other regions, requiring only a win in an online qualifier before being allowed into western WCS circuits. Flights and accommodation for studio performances in European and North-American cities were provided by Blizzard themselves. In 2014 even more Koreans came to compete in WCS Europe and America, pushing the less skilled local pro players aside. Unable to justify further investment into their Starcraft II careers, many western pro players simply quit. Young talent didn’t bother with the game competitively as there was no chance they were going to win against players from the Korean powerhouse.

I believe it was in 2015 when I became certain that Starcraft II as a whole was on its death bed. Blizzard did announce a policy for WCS that allowed only pro players with athletes’ or student visas into foreign WCS circuits, limiting the number of Koreans that could do that, but it also downsized the foreigners’ Premiere League on the whole. Blizzard saw the regional discrepancy problem in 2013, took small yet ineffective steps to remedy the situation in 2014 and 2015. Change was happening too slowly while tournaments began losing viewership, reputation and sponsorship money.

For 2016, however, Blizzard completely revamped the WCS system, instated a region lock and kicked Koreans out of the western Premiere League. It also reduced sponsorship for the two Korean leagues, GSL and SSL, that will now be held two times a year instead of three, meaning less opportunities for Korean pro players to compete and win some money.

The whole of Starcraft II is a textbook predator-prey example. The predators (Koreans) have multiplied too much in the beginning stages, the prey (foreigners and western esports organizations) nearly die out as a result of the predator’s overexpansion, then predators start dying too because there is no more prey to consume. Only when there is enough prey will the predators start multiplying again.

But I think the damage is done. The first of this year’s events, Dreamhack Leipzig, managed to reach a peak of 40k concurrent viewers. That is not enough to be able to justify its prize pool, even with Blizzard’s financial support. There are still many events planned out for this year, but seeing that the latest Starcraft II expansion, Legacy of the Void, didn’t generate killer sales and failed to bring in new players to the declining online multiplayer system, it is my estimate that they will be either canceling or severely downsizing WCS in 2017. Many Starcraft content creators will probably be focusing more on Blizzard’s new game, Overwatch, so we can expect less people pulling for the success of Starcraft II in the long run.

Bad design choices for WCS 2013 and 2014 were simply too much. By the end of 2014 casual viewership had all but left, only Starcraft II otaku remain. This WCS will be the last summer western players will be able to bask in the glory of pro gaming success. The best of them will win championships, fame, girls and prize money, reparations for participating in a Korean-centric system that was stacked against them.

PtitDrogo and the rest, have fun this year.

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