StarCraft II eSports Update – Sad Times for Korea?

[Posted here 1/21/16:]

TL; DR – This year might be the beginning of the end of StarCraft as a dominant eSports scene, or it could lead to a thousand pylons blooming all over the world as the Korean juggernaut is reined in. Maybe both. It’ll be an exciting year.

I found this ESPN esports article to be particularly interesting and compelling because of my longtime involvement and passion for the StarCraft scene (Brood War and SC2): You must construct additional pylons: South Korea’s shrinking StarCraft II talent pool. Basically, starting this year, Blizzard (the developer of StarCraft, World of Warcraft, Diablo, Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and other games) is taking a much more active role in engineering the balance of StarCraft regional scenes; the upshot is that while the new StarCraft World Championship Series structure and rules will do a ton to foster “foreigner” (meaning “non-Korean”) talent, it’ll effectively put a damper on the Korean scene and make it much harder for mid- and low-tier StarCraft players to make a living and get to the point where they break into the top. The article also compares recent developments in the StarCraft II Korean talent pool vs. what was going on when the game first game out, which is a really cool bit of research.

I, like many people in the scene, am deeply ambivalent about this. On the one hand, giving non-Korean players a lot of chances to compete (there will be at least 11 foreign-only tournaments this year compared to 3 last year) will accelerate the growth of StarCraft pro scenes around the world, meaning greater penetration into markets that aren’t super into SC2 eSports right now. Korea is basically StarCraft-saturated, so Blizzard has to find other regions to develop in order to keep the scene from plateauing. More “homegrown” heroes also means more investment and interest from foreign spectators who might not feel as strong of a connection to a Korean player as they would someone from their own country. This move could create the regional diversity in StarCraft’s scene that propels it to even greater heights as an international eSport, keeping its growth apace with that of, say, DotA 2 or League of Legends.

On the other hand, Korea makes the game exciting and is the undisputed leader in gameplay innovation, not to mention its unique role as the cradle of professional StarCraft and eSports in general. With fewer opportunities for Korean SC players to compete on a global stage, and the explosive growth of games like League of Legends (which became Korea’s most popular game in 2012), plus the fact that Brood War is still alive and kicking there, StarCraft II as a whole risks a talent diaspora as players who can’t crack the top tiers flock to games that have more opportunities for them. That could cause a significant trickle-down effect to the rest of the world, spiritually, as the breakneck speed of innovation slows (whether it’s perceived or real) – it’s already a meme in the eSports community that StarCraft is “[a] ded gaem” (dead game). That would be extremely tragic.

We’ll see what happens!

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