An Era of Global Starcraft

Many have described the recent news of the discontinuation of Proleague and the disband of five KeSPA teams as “the end of an era”. That is just another way of saying, a new era has begun.

I will not focus much on the cliche of the topic in this post, but I will discuss how we have moved to a new era of Starcraft II.

Influence on me

If you have been following my blog, you would realise that I often re-frame “bad news” of the Starcraft community (e.g., DeepMind’s challenge and match fixing scandal) into something positive and highlight why I am optimistic about the outcome. However, there is no doubt that I am very upset about this news, as it is like watching someone close with terminal illness passing away after a difficult struggle. I even have watching Proleague Grand Final live on my Starcraft bucket list, and it is something that I can never tick off.

Proleague has been providing me with the resources necessary for metagame trend spotting and build analyses that I enjoy doing on this blog. The Proleague games have higher research value than GSL and SSL in general, because Proleague games are more heterogeneous in preferences and styles. Many players get knocked out in GSL and SSL early on, and the only selective few players of a certain race are left to represent the race. This leads to a selection bias in what the state of the metagame is. TY’s sky Terran style in TvZ is a good example of a non-metagame representative yet successful style. It won’t be accurate if I conclude that that is the metagame of TvZ, because only TY, who was successful in individual league at that time frame, is using it. Therefore, the lack of Proleague may affect the quality of analysis I can come up with.

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Sad but no surprise

I think it is fair to say that many of us are sad about the news, but we aren’t exactly surprised about it. Like I have said, it is like watching someone close with terminal illness passing away after a difficult struggle. You know the outcome is inevitable, but you just have this unrealistic optimism that it will work out fine eventually.  Well, it didn’t.

Believe it or not, I actually was chatting with a friend during the last KeSPA Cup that I felt the Korean players didn’t play with the usual “desire”. I don’t know what word is more suitable here, but it seems to me that the quality of play is lackluster compared to the normal standard. (Before you go crazy on me, I will make it clear that I am not taking any credit away from Neeb’s amazing performance.) It reminds me of MMA’s performance before the bad news of SlayerS broke out. I cannot describe the feeling, but it is interesting that an audience like me can “feel” the player’s “emotion” through the game. There was once I can “feel” the “wrath” of Zest’s two base Blink Stalker all-in against INnoVation in GSL last year. The interesting thing is my friend said the same thing after that game. Thus, along with the rumor that Proleague had its final season, I actually thought it really could be the end.

Marketing myopia

The number of viewers at the Proleague Grand Final venue this year saddens me. How does the oldest and arguably the most iconic eSports league become an event with so many empty seats?

Clearly, there are many reasons for the above question, but I will point out one that people don’t often mention.

The structure of the South Korea Starcraft professional scene did not adapt to the changing environment of eSports. While South Korea is still the most prestigious country in eSports, the market is now a global one. The fact that non-Korean players are called foreigners tells you how Korea-centric Starcraft is. However, as huge investments from all over the world are being poured into the industry, one must recognise that the product/service offering has to be catered to the wider audience around the world. Unfortunately, that did not happen for Proleague.

First, the “offline” tournament format of Proleague makes it extremely difficult for non-Koreans to compete. Although we previously have a non-Korea owned team, EG-TL, competing in Proleague in 2012-2013, it is essentially a Korean roster. More importantly, the cost to sustain a team in South Korea solely for Proleague is hardly justifiable for the team owners. Moreover, at that point of time, the Korean players are free to travel to compete in international tournaments, so it is an extra cost to fly players out from Korea. Consequently, the scene becomes further Korea-centric, and there is a disconnection with the global market.

Second, while the tournament format makes it difficult for non-Koreans to compete, the organisation does not provide enough opportunity for fans around the world to engage with the brand. Any marketing scholar will tell you that brand engagement is critical to the success of the brand. A rebroadcast of the tournament on Twitch in another time zone, for example, is a low cost way to engage with fans outside of Korea. A partnership with others (e.g., Team Liquid site) to sell products like team apparel is another easy baby step to tackle the global market. Of course, there are signs that KeSPA attempted to bring Proleague to the fans outside of Korea, for example, the round 3 final was played in Shanghai this year. However, it appears that there is a lack of proper planning and long term strategy to leverage on such a well established brand. (At this point, it sounds like I’m giving a marketing class in uni now.)

Third, related to the second point above, KeSPA have arguably been too strict in how much the players and teams can connect with the fans. When you look at NBA, the association places a high emphasis on bringing the players to the fans, albeit there are obvious rules and regulations. The only time that fans get to engage with the players is via watching the games, and it takes away a big chunk of the magic and celebrity branding potential. It is interesting how these affected players announce they are going to stream shortly after the disband.

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Blizzard’s influence

I am not going to suggest that the hard region lock this year killed Proleague and the Korea Starcraft scene. While there is no denial that they are related, I actually believe Blizzard’s plan to promote the competitive scene outside of Korea is based on the fact that they are preparing for a new era.

I was vocal about my opinion on the WCS system changes in 2014 and 2015, but I did not post about the changes this year on purpose. This is because I agree with most of the constructive comments about the new system from both sides of the argument, and at the same time I have an uneasy hunch that Blizzard is preparing a new global era of Starcraft. It is difficult for me to articulate why I have the hunch and add a different perspective to the issue, and hence, I did not post about it. Retrospectively, it appears that Blizzard’s seemingly heavy handed choice on region lock may just be a master stroke to prepare the global Starcraft scene for the post Korea-centric era.

A new global era

I don’t believe the Korea Starcraft scene is dead. We are simply moving from a Korea-centric era to a global era. Blizzard have shown clear signs that Starcraft is a very important piece of its game portfolio. First, Blizzard are willing to be adventurous in making major changes to the multiplayer mode. Second, the newest patch has added many features that excite both competitive and casual fans. Third, the discussion about the plan for the new ecosystem is on the agenda at Blizzcon (“Starcraft II – Foundation for the Future”). Therefore, I am not worried about Starcraft may be a game which is left dead by Blizzard.

With that being said, what Blizzard plan to do with the competitive scene next year will be extremely critical, especially to the Korean proplayers who have yet decided what to do. It is a no brainer that most of them would wait and see what plan is announced in Blizzcon before they decide on their future. I think the plan for next year will have an even stronger global emphasis, and the Koreans versus “foreigners” region lock will be less extreme. In fact, it is difficult to predict how Koreans will perform against non-Koreans, when most of them do not have a KeSPA support system now. My prediction is that non-Korean teams will be picking up some Korean players, as long as Koreans can at least play in non-league premier tournaments. There is likely to be a mass retirement of “leftover” players.

I look forward to the big global plan Blizzard have for competitive Starcraft. Please don’t disappoint me.

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