The WCS System: An Informal Conversation w/ brownbear

Several events this year got me thinking whether the existing WCS system should be re-evaluated. In this post, brownbear and I discuss what we think of the existing WCS system.

We have observed interesting changes in the global StarCraft climate this year. Most recently, Serral won the GSL vs. the World tournament and cemented himself as the current best player in the world. In a game that has been dominated by South Koreans for nearly two decades, this is an historic moment. Unsurprisingly, many attribute this rise of the “foreigners” to the WCS region lock.

This is an informal conversation style discussion between brownbear (his website) and me about the WCS region lock system. He and I often discuss privately about various interesting topics, and we think our conversation about the WCS system covers some interesting perspectives. Tell us what you think in the comments below.

Key points of the current WCS region lock system:

  • The WCS participation requirements were revamped in 2016 (details here). There are two groups of standings: South Korea (WCS Korea) and the rest of the world (WCS Circuit). The top eight players of each circuit will participate in the year-end WCS Global Finals.
  • In order to compete in the WCS Circuit, players must be citizens or residents in one of the eligible regions. Participants must provide Blizzard with proof that s/he is either a citizen, a permanent resident, or a qualifying foreign resident of the listed regions (essentially regions outside of South Korea).
  • The above residency requirement does not apply to the Korea Circuit (i.e., GSL). A player outside of South Korea can participate in GSL even when s/he is neither a citizen, a permanent resident, nor a qualifying foreign resident.

Max:

While one can argue that the seed for the region lock change has blossomed at last, it begs the question whether the current WCS rules should be re-evaluated. Different sets of participation rules are applied to Koreans and non-Koreans now, and this is based on the assumption that Koreans are better than non-Koreans. Based on recent performance, we should reconsider this assumption.

Whether Serral is the best player in the world should not be used as the base to argue for or against the current WCS system, because it is never about one specific player. The performance of non-Koreans after the rule change has improved drastically, and it is no longer an upset when top non-Koreans defeat Korean players. Non-Koreans like Neeb, Scarlett, and Reynor have put up strong performance in GSL this year. The current rules allow and even encourage non-Koreans to participate in GSL; however, Koreans are governed by a different set of region lock rules that make it difficult for them to participate in WCS Circuit events.

While the collective skill level of Korean players is still higher than non-Koreans, the differential treatment may have negative impact on the Korean scene. There are many Korean players (e.g. Hurricane and Losira) who are at the edge of GSL qualification, and the non-Korean players are essentially pushing them away through competition. If we were to use meritocracy as the underlying argument to allow non-Koreans to participate in GSL, then we should do that for Koreans playing outside of Korea. This could become a problem in a long term as there is a lack of new blood in Korea.

To make matter worse, Koreans have a strong pride that they are better than others in StarCraft (rightfully so), and they would not admit non-Koreans are taking their share of the pie. This makes it a hard fix for Blizzard, as it is difficult for them to diplomatically justify why the current system should be re-evaluated.

brownbear:

I think this is a good overview of the potential problems with region lock from a competitive standpoint, especially the different sets of rules for foreigners and Koreans. However, I’d like to approach it from a different angle, one that I think better represents how region lock was conceptualized and how it’s governed in practice.

The heart of the matter comes down to this question: does WCS seek to develop foreigners into better StarCraft players, or does it seek to keep them around longer in the StarCraft ecosystem? The answer is probably both, but I think the latter is arguably more important to Blizzard. Consider the original announcement of this system:

[WCS Circuit] tournaments will be residency-locked to help focus on providing more opportunities to expose, develop, and celebrate the top talent from regions outside of Korea.

One of our goals with the WCS Circuit is to create more opportunities for highly skilled hometown heroes to pull off epic moments on grand stages in front of cheering crowds.

There is relatively more emphasis on creating opportunities and exposure for foreigners than there is a straight-forward desire to increase foreigner skill. This is fine, but it affects how I think about the system. Region lock, to me, is a way for Blizzard to structure professional StarCraft in a way that better aligns with its long-term business interests; I tend not to think about it in competitive terms.

WCS functions as a subsidy system aimed at encouraging players, managers, teams, and so forth to invest more into the StarCraft ecosystem. Previously, Korean players would fly in and win a majority of tournaments, effectively limiting the opportunities for foreign players. This lowered their incentive to continue investing into the game, which hurt the state of StarCraft infrastructure outside of Korea. Locking Koreans into their own region increases the incentives for foreigners to stick around, many of whom are from markets larger than South Korea. As a result, these folks not only continue contributing to StarCraft (driving engagement, revenue, brand value, etc), but also to the larger esports ecosystem in general – Blizzard-affiliated franchises in particular tend to feed into each other in this respect. For example, many names in Overwatch, especially those who work on it for Blizzard, got involved with esports thanks to StarCraft and StarCraft II.

The implicit trade-off here is that investment in long-term infrastructure across a number of large markets is worth a sacrifice in purity of competition – i.e. locking out the best players from several large tournaments. This was an easy trade-off to make two to three years ago, when Korean players were dominant and it seemed unlikely that foreigners would regularly push them out of GSL qualifications. Keeping GSL open to everyone allowed a handful of highly ambitious foreigners to pursue their esports dream – generating buzz and storylines along the way – while still effectively keeping it a regional tournament and providing rewards for lower-tier Korean players.

The problem, as you pointed out, is that near-the-cut-line Koreans are no longer winning consistently against top foreigners. In fact, foreigners are consistently eliminating them from Code S, thanks in part to a punishing qualification system. But Koreans are blocked from doing the same in WCS Circuit events. This reframes the justification for allowing foreigners into the GSL; instead of creating opportunities for ambitious foreigners, it takes away from a limited pool of opportunities that Koreans would otherwise have access to.

This forces a hard question on Blizzard’s side – should it region lock Korean tournaments to protect near-the-cut-line Koreans, at the expense of hurting the most ambitious and “go-getter” foreigners in the scene?

This, by the way, is not a knock against foreigners training in Korea – they are doing precisely what the WCS system encourages them to do and committing fully to StarCraft, wherever that may take them. However, I’m concerned about the means being used to achieve this result. It feels profoundly unfair that foreigners can knock, say, Hush out of his local tournament, but he’s blocked from the doing the same abroad.

Max:

You mainly assert your argument from the perspective that the existing system is the most beneficial for Blizzard’s business interests. I think those are fair points. The overarching business strategy is to establish and maintain a sustainable global competitive scene. The existing system shows the good foresight of Blizzard in this regard. However, along with the coincidental restructuring of the Korean StarCraft scene (post Proleague era), the collective Korean scene is no longer as dominating as before. The current special treatment toward Koreans may in fact have negative impact on Blizzard’s business interests as time goes by, because it directly affects the potential growth of the local talents. Essentially, Blizzard shifted the growth problem of the non-Korean scene to Korea itself.

Perhaps this all comes down to the unexpected improvements of non-Korean players in such a short time. With hindsight, I still think the plan for the current system back then was justified at that time, but the current climate is calling for a re-evaluation. This leads to the next point, what could be improved?

brownbear:

From a competitive standpoint, I think the system does what it’s engineered to do, and it does it well. Furthermore, it’d be reasonable to argue that the size of the Korean scene today is already larger than it would otherwise be without Blizzard’s involvement. That puts a ceiling on how much you can reasonably call the current system unfair. I am not sure what kind of system you could devise to better protect near-the-cut-line Koreans; I would be surprised if there is enough market demand in Korea to sustain a return of Code A, for instance. Re-opening foreign tournaments is also not a workable solution given that the top Koreans are still generally better than the top foreigners, with some exceptions (even Serral did not list any foreigner when asked to name the best players in the world aside from himself).

From an infrastructure investment perspective, I do think there could be some improvements. I like how Blizzard is making better use of its Battle.net launcher and in-game client to promote content creators and professional streamers. I’d like to see more of this. I feel, anecdotally, that professionals receive more exposure than ever between tournament previews, interviews, and so forth. But I would like to see more direct collaboration to turn professionals into genuine partners – promoting their streams, creating revenue share opportunities, enabling in-game observation of high-level GM play, etc.

I don’t see this stuff as separate from the WCS system – it all falls under the umbrella of creating more opportunities for professionals. WCS is just one component of that larger goal. It’s entirely possible that these auxiliary systems would be a better route to supporting near-the-cut-line Korean players than, say, region-locking foreigners out of the GSL.

Specifically with regard to WCS, I think Blizzard needs to get better at enforcing their own rules. For instance, I’d like to see more transparency around minimum ladder games per month for qualifying foreign residents. Fans frequently accuse professional players of failing to meet this rule, which is intended to increase activity on the ladder. This creates division within the community. The controversy around the foreign resident exception exacerbates this further. If a rule exists, it should be enforced: but, more than that, the status of any given player relative to the rules should be transparent and easy to verify. A good example of the problems this leads to is the the TRUE incident from a few months back.

Max:

Indeed, the TRUE incident has strong implications on the WCS system. The controversy revolves around whether a Korean player like TRUE can participate in both WCS and GSL.

Let’s start with the ruling. According to Blizzard’s statement, it hinges on Section 4.6 regarding the qualification requirement for foreign resident:

A ‘qualifying foreign resident’ may travel for non-competitive reasons outside of his or her country of residence only for a maximum of five weeks during the WCS Period, and must obtain Blizzard’s approval in advance before traveling outside of his or her country of residence during the WCS Period unless the travel is for purposes of participating in a WCS Global Event. 

(Underlines added for emphasis.)

“Non-competitive reasons” is ambiguous. If participating in WCS Korea (GSL) is considered non-competitive, I don’t know what is competitive in the context of WCS any more. What exactly is the “WCS period”? The term has been used five times in the rulebook, but it is unclear when exactly the WCS period is.

PengWin’s reddit comment highlighted how problematic these ambiguous terms are. One can argue that there is a loophole in the rulebook as it is unclear whether participating in GSL is considered “non-competitive”. I am not sure if I understand it correctly. Blizzard ruled that “TRUE could not maintain his residency status to be eligible for WCS Challenger 2018, while also competing in 2018 GSL Season 2.” Doesn’t this suggest Blizzard considers participating in GSL as “non-competitive”? If so, it seems to me that Blizzard are being ambiguous in the rulebook, and they themselves are not sure what that means (see PengWin’s comment).

brownbear:

I agree that there’s ambiguity. The way I read the rule, it states that players have a maximum of five weeks of personal travel time, not including travel required for WCS Global Events. TRUE and PengWin were interpreting GSL as competitive time meaning it didn’t count against this five weeks. Blizzard’s clarification stated that “competitive time” specifically meant WCS Circuit Competitions. This meant anything outside of those would be counted as non-competitive (or, in my interpretation, “personal”) time – including the GSL.

It feels like Blizzard’s interpretation is the more natural way of looking at the rule if you consider its context. Korean tournaments run year-round, meaning a Korean player could justify any amount of time in Korea as “competitive time” – there’s always something coming up. This would reduce region lock to little more than having a resident visa to a WCS Circuit country. I don’t think that’s its intent. Blizzard said as much in their final verdict:

To compete in the GSL, StarCraft II pro players must live and train in Korea over an extended period of time. WCS Circuit residency requirements, which have been in effect since 2015, are an attempt to balance the field of players, so that Korean nationals must live and train in one of the countries in the Circuit region to compete in a Circuit tournament.

I approach the WCS system as one that focuses on building infrastructure with an eye toward the long-term, even if that comes with short-term trade-offs. Building off of this, the foreign resident exception exists to encourage people from Korea with esports expertise to come work abroad and transfer their knowledge and skills to local residents. Local teams want to hire winners and are therefore incentivized to help Koreans with this process. It’s win-win – but not if the player in question lives in Korea most of the time. Hence, the maximum time allowed outside the country of residence, the 1-month requirement to live in the country prior to any tournament, etc.

The trouble is that the rules conflict with one another.  If GSL is “the” global StarCraft tournament, then why create other rules preventing TRUE from playing in it? If GSL is the Korean tournament, why can foreigners play in it? The ambiguity in the rules is less concerning to me than the contradictions.

Max:

We can agree that the region lock has its benefits in maintaining a healthy structure for the international scene. Like you have said, Koreans used to win virtually everything outside of South Korea, and it negatively affected the investment of the scene. Overall, a region lock is necessary.

Then, why should there be different sets of rules for Koreans and non-Koreans? Blizzard could achieve the same goal by applying the same residency rules to everyone. As illustrated in the event of TRUE, Koreans cannot participate in both WCS and GSL, while non-Koreans can. The tweets below by Kim Phan explicitly encourage Serral to participate in GSL, but she tiptoed around the fact that drastically different residency rules are applied to Koreans versus non-Koreans. If the purpose is to create a sustainable ecosystem globally, everyone should be treated equally such that non-Koreans should also adhere to the foreign participation criteria. The original premise of this “inequality” is that Koreans are miles ahead of the rest of the world: therefore, the participation of non-Koreans in the Korean tournaments should not negatively affect the ecosystem like Koreans did to the non-Korean scene. Furthermore, it helps to build a storyline of non-Koreans versus Koreans.

Also, I think the rules are only there for new players. If you are an established player and no one makes a case against you based on the rules (e.g., not enough ladder games), I doubt anyone even mentions it. The THERIDDLER versus avilo case also highlights how heavyhanded Blizzard are with their own rules.

brownbear:

Yeah, that kind of uneven or arbitrary rule enforcement doesn’t seem good for the game. This speaks to the conflict of interest inherent to Blizzard’s involvement – given the absence of an accountability lever (e.g. fear of losing customers or sponsors), can Blizzard be trusted to police their own decisions? I’ll emphasize that this line of thinking strikes me as a bit paranoid, but I think it’s worth thinking about nonetheless.

I think we’re both identifying the same problem, but neither of us can identify a good way to solve it. To reiterate what I mentioned earlier, I don’t see an easy solution to protecting near-the-cut-line Koreans short of region locking foreigners out of Korea. This would arguably be more fair from a competitive standpoint, but it would be a difficult decision to make from an infrastructure perspective – essentially limiting the opportunities of the “go-getter” foreigners in favor of lower-tier Korean players.

I think we’re kind of stuck: professional StarCraft, particularly large, offline LAN events, relies heavily on Blizzard’s financial support. This means it’s unsurprising and somewhat inevitable that it aligns itself with Blizzard’s interests. Ideally there would be more third party tournament organizers competing with Blizzard for the time and attention of professional players, but we likely won’t see that until the next big Blizzard RTS.

Max:

I agree with the importance and challenge of policing. Overall, I think interest of Blizzard and the community is very much overlapped. Blizzard want the best for the community, and the only thing that is debatable is whether what Blizzard think is the best is aligned with the community. Thus far, I think the answer is yes (of course, you cannot please everyone).

My main concern is still on the WCS rules specifically. The current situation is comparable to the controversy about GPA in college. The GPA system discourages students from challenging themselves by picking more difficult courses. Students tend to get a lower grade for more difficult courses, so the GPA suffers as a result. In the case of TRUE, the system actually rewards him to stick with the WCS and not challenge himself in GSL. Ironically, however, Blizzard explicitly encourage non-Korean players to challenge GSL without having to worry about their qualification for WCS. Since TRUE is the only one who is caught in the middle, I’m not sure if this issue is a priority for the stakeholders. Nevertheless, this can have spillover effect on the Korea scene and its future. The current players are too good for new blood to put up a challenge, but these players are also going to the army soon. The transition period worries me.

Blizzard need to plan for the future of the Korean scene.

brownbear:

Yeah, I agree with your concerns about the rules, and I’m honestly not sure whether I have a clean way to solve them. In general, Blizzard does a fantastic job supporting StarCraft II – they go above and beyond many other game developers in their dedication to their franchises. Their interests certainly overlap heavily with those of the community. But it’s not a perfect alignment – to your point, there’s always going to be limits to Blizzard’s support. The issues we’ve identified in this discussion speak to this.

Max:

Indeed. The original premise and goal of the region lock is to establish a healthy global StarCraft competitive scene, and I believe most of us can agree that it has been a success thus far. However, Blizzard need to be more consistent and less ambiguous about their own rules. I understand that ambiguity in rules allows those in power to have flexibility, but the TRUE and THERIDDLER incidents highlighted that this approach is not in the best interest of the community (and Blizzard).

I hope to see Blizzard re-evaluate the existing WCS rules. Re-evaluating does not equate to making changes. In my opinion, Blizzard should update their approach to achieve a healthy global system, as South Korea should not be seen as an independent state to the overall WCS system. Specifically, I want to see them acknowledge the gap between Koreans and non-Koreans has narrowed, and then gather feedback from the community what should be the best approach for 2019. Personally, I am inclined to have more events whereby Koreans have the incentive to play outside of Korea, because Koreans versus non-Koreans is the best storyline now. Further, the current system basically has two sets of points for the two circuits, and I believe the competitive scene can benefit from a simpler point system.

brownbear:

More than anything, I would like to see more transparency around Blizzard’s goals for StarCraft. I understand that any system they devise will have trade-offs, and their willingness to finance a large portion of the competitive scene earns them the right to structure it in a way that’s beneficial to them. But how that system works and what it’s trying to achieve should be unambiguous.


This is the first time I work with someone to publish a conversation style article. Let me know what you think about the existing WCS system, and whether there should be any amendment to improve it.

A similar article is also published on brownbear’s site. Make sure you check out his quality content.

If you enjoyed this article, I’d love you to share it with one friend. You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook. If you really like my work, you can help to sustain the site by contributing via PayPal and Patreon. See you in the next article!

4 thoughts on “The WCS System: An Informal Conversation w/ brownbear

  1. Interesting perspectives. I am curious how feasible it would be to create a region locked Korean minor league tournament (Code A/non-GSL round of 32 players). This would definitely solve the biggest problem caused by the current system. Considering they already have the GSL venue and there doesn’t seem like a shortage of casters would it really take that much diversion of prize money?

    1. First of all, thanks for reading something this long! I like the promotion system of Code-A, but I wonder if it has anything to do with the player pool. One can argue that the relatively low number of players does not warrant another division. The current qualifier is essentially Code-A. If by Code-A you mean having a more systematic promotion system, the production cost may outweigh the benefit. On the other hand, one can also argue that the low number of players is due to the lack of exposure opportunity, and this can be improved by implementing Code-A. As for casters, Code-A would be the perfect “entry” level for newer casters.

  2. Hi Max! Thanks for your articles, been a very interesting read (even the older ones!)

    Now here’s a hypothetical scenario, based on Serral’s domination thus far. Could have been asked and answered somewhere else, but hey, where’s the fun then? :D
    Suppose that he decided to compete in the GSL 2019 circuits. I won’t go as far as to call a straight-up win, just that at the end of the year he’s accumulated enough points to be in the top8 of the KR standing. Nothing prevents him from participating in the Foreigner Circuit where, given his recent form, he’ll have no trouble making the Top8 there as well.

    Now, we have 2 scenarios:
    1) Serral has been living in Finland, flying to KR only to participate in the GSL(s) (I’m not an expert on the GSL rulebook but I assume there’s no problem with that).
    2) Serral has been living and training in KR (unlikely based on his stance right now, but for the sake of argument let’s make this an option).

    If #1, then to my knowledge it is unclear whether Serral would advance as a KR or an international seed. That could cause a big stir-up in the qualifying players.
    If #2, theoretically Serral should take a KR spot. But then you have the case of Scarlett and Major, who have been living in KR for a long time and have advanced in the WCS Global Finals through their performances in the Circuit events. So, we’ll most likely roll back to the problem that is shown in the Scenario #1.

    Sorry for the long post, but I feel that if there’s a time for Blizz to clear such uncertainties, it should be after a foreigner first won a WCS after 20 years of domination from our KR overlords. Maybe I’m overanalysing this, but it is a potential hole in the Matrix that could become a reality in the not-so-distant future. Also, if I have made a made a deductive mistake along my line of thought, feel free to point that out!

    Again thanks for the reads and take good care of yourself mate! :D

    1. You bring up a very good point!

      I was discussing this with some privately. It is relatively easy to resolve if Serral qualify for both WCS and GSL. Blizzard would very likely put Serral in the WCS bracket for the Global Finals. This helps to run the story of Serral being the force to go against the Koreans, and it is much easier to justify why Serral should continue to be considered a WCS rather than a GSL player for qualification reasons. This also prevents the backlash from the Koreans. If Serral were to qualify as a GSL player, the region lock debate will definitely surface in a negative manner.

      The other interesting scenario is like what you mentioned: what happen when Serral only qualify from GSL but not WCS? From a meritocracy stand point, we can agree that Serral deserves one of the eight GSL spots if he had earned it. But again Koreans would be upset, and rightfully so. GSL and WCS use two different sets of points for good reasons, so you cannot qualify as a WCS player if you win GSL points. This is something Blizzard should clarify. This scenario can realistically happen to players like Neeb and SpeCial too.

      Overall, if the rules are not clear for such plausible scenarios, it implies that Blizzard did not truly believe non-Koreans can be better than Koreans. At least not in such a short period of time. The rules for 2019 are not announced yet, and I will be very disappointed if they do not discuss this issue.

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