Terminal Eclipse for WC3

Shockwaves ran through the eSports world today as MYM announced it would cut its superstar-laden Warcraft III and StarCraft teams. The StarCraft team – featuring ace foreign players DinOt, IefNaij, and recent ESL finalist White-Ra, among others – will certainly be missed, as its stellar lineup was one of the best sources for top StarCraft play outside of Korea.

The folks at influential StarCraft fansite TeamLiquid will definitely mourn this team’s passing, as IefNaij was a frequent victor in the site’s popular Liquibition series which features top foreign players duking it out in best-of-seven 1v1s every week with live casting. It’s not a complete shock that MYM would cut its SC team, as it’s proved very difficult to maintain profitability in StarCraft outside of Korea.

It is the loss of the WarCraft III team, however, which truly resonates throughout the eSports scene – particularly the non-Korean RTS scene – because of the pure shock of seeing two of WC3’s biggest names stripped of their prestigious tag. Grubby and Moon, listed as #10 and #2 on GosuGamers’ WC3 rankings respectively, are tremendous players with genre-crossing name recognition and star power. The consequences of this seemingly abrupt decision by MYM’s parent company ESNation couldn’t be more disparate between the two, however.

Dutch Orc player Grubby, 22 years old, is second worldwide among WC3 players when it comes to the amount of prize money he’s earned during his career (almost $165,000 from 2004-2009, according to SK Gaming). According to girlfriend Cassandra’s blog, the news that the entire WC3 squad would be cut was a complete surprise to Grubby and it seems he is currently considering retiring from WC3 altogether. Moon, on the other hand, is rumored to be moving to well-known Korean StarCraft team Wemade Fox, home to the much-beloved SC pro NaDa, perhaps to prepare for a career as a pro StarCraft II player. This switch would not be completely unexpected, since it was reported a year ago at SK that Korean SC teams were already "courting" Moon after finding out that "he won more money in 2007 than any of the StarCraft pros" that year.

What’s a WarCraft III pro to do? Gravitas Gaming unexpectedly cut its WC3 division a little over a month ago even though top players ToD and HoT had brought the organization new growth and popularity in Europe, but also at that time the WC3L announced new tournament rules that many predicted would breathe new life into the league and the WC3 scene in general. The outlook seemed, on balance, cautiously positive. But if Moon and Grubby aren’t safe from the new hack-and-slash approach in vogue among teams boasting top WC3 players, who is? And with Grubby and other top WC3 pros now rumored to be seriously considering retirement while still arguably in their prime, the short list of international fan favorites will only dwindle further. If the disbanding of the legendary 4K WC3 team heralded the beginning of the end of pro WC3’s golden age, the news from MYM seems to sound its death knell.

There is certainly no shortage of up-and-coming players to fill the rosters of eSports teams, but it takes time for great players to become stars, especially with the kind of poster-child pull Moon and Grubby developed. What other European eSports stars get mobbed on the street outside high schools in China? MYM’s decision may have been fiscally responsible, as the WC3 team’s expenses were astronomical, but the lack of warning and the shock to the WC3 community may be far worse in the long run.

The RTS crowd has one more disappointing reason to just hunker down and wait for the arrival of StarCraft II.

Pictures in courtesy of GGL.com

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Is it “Sports”?

According to the London Review of Books, 2008 was the first year in which "video games overtook music and video, combined, in the UK."  The author of this article claims that this represents an economic milestone in the entertainment industry, and I fully agree with him.  As much as Hollywood, Bollywood, and the RIAA would like to think otherwise, people are gravitating away from the traditional "sit down in front of the tube" passive method of being entertained and towards a new model of interactive fun: video games. 

The London Review article poses the question of whether video games are art, which is certainly a good question with its own interesting consequences.  One thing that everyone can agree on is that video games are entertainment, but as the genre becomes more refined in terms of content and player participation, the classification of certain stand-out examples becomes a little more dicey.  Just as the Review wonders whether or not a game like Spore can be considered art, many people (including myself) wonder whether competitive gaming can be considered sports.  The answer to this question has significant value, since "sports" as we know them constitute a multi-billion dollar international industry with a mostly positive reputation which would benefit gaming by association.  If competitive gaming were accepted as "sports," or at least "eSports," there would be many more opportunities for competitive gaming to attract media attention, sponsorship deals, and talented people to work in the industry.  This change would not come without its downsides, and die-hard gaming fans might object to the way competitive gaming would be forced to adapt, but there’s no doubt that the scene would grow and thrive because of it.

So can eSports be considered "sports"?  It’s a tough question because the concept of a sport is linked so closely to a misty-eyed image of wholesome young men and women running around in the fresh air improving their physical fitness and learning life lessons all at once.  The sports ideal can’t be separated from the idea that competitions of physical skill are the only competitions worth elevating to the coveted status of a "sport."  However, there are loopholes in this ideal.  There’s a difference between our images of "pure sports" and the focus of big budget sports-as-entertainment sports.  Basketball is a sport, but when we think of basketball-as-entertainment we think of the NBA, which is a business.  Spectators aren’t interested in paying to watch nameless youth run around a dirt field without jerseys and logos and team rivalries and the context of a high-stakes national/international tournament.  To illustrate further, when people think of basketball-as-entertainment, especially in countries where basketball isn’t very well-known, they think of Michael Jordan.  Michael Jordan is exceptionally talented, but he would not represent basketball in the way that he does in the minds of so many millions without the help of factors that have little or nothing to do with physical prowess per se.  If not for the international growth of the NBA and especially for his sponsorship of Nike products, Michael Jordan wouldn’t be a star.  In the grand scheme of things, sneakers and logos don’t contribute anything to how basketball is played, but they do drastically influence the way it is perceived by the public – that is, its entertainment value.  In the entertainment world, presentation matters as much as content, which is what the CGS was banking on in its showbusinessy efforts to bring eSports to mainstream television.  Sadly, the CGS folded after its second year due more to bureaucratic politics than ratings, but I’m willing to bet that the television networks involved in it will want to try something like that again in the future.

So, competitive gaming may end up slipping under the sports umbrella through sports-as-entertainment if the industry’s economic potential seems to outweigh the incredulity factor ("that’s a sport?!").  There’s an argument to be made that eSports only differs from sports in that the "mind game" prevails over the physical aspect of competition, but it’s a difficult argument to justify to most sports fans.  eSports certainly has compelling content and a large potential audience, and in Korea it’s already been catapulted to the glamor of the "sports" label.  We’ll see if eSports in the West can similarly live up to its ambitious name.

 

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What’s an eSports Professional?

In a messageboard conversation with other people working in various areas of the eSports industry, the question arose: what is an eSports professional?  What defines a professional eSports organization? 

The question is not an insignificant one, mostly because it’s such a contentious issue.  Partly because eSports is still an up-and-coming phenomenon, the line between professional and amateur is much fuzzier than in other entertainment industries.  Many respected writers, team managers, players, and other key people in the various worldwide eSports communities don’t look like canonical "professionals" on paper.  They’re often in school or have fulltime jobs completely unrelated to their eSports work.  This is the case particularly in the StarCraft-as-eSport scene, and yet paradoxically nowhere does the difference between the passionate, unpaid amateur and the disaffected, salaried professional create such an enormous gap.  The gap looms large between Korea and the rest of the world.

It may seem strange to many that there are people who have well-paid, fulltime, high-profile jobs in the pro StarCraft industry who aren’t passionate about what they do.  An example is Chen Yongjun, lead eSports commentator for Korean television channel MBCGame, producer of the renowned MBCGame StarLeague (MSL) and owner of the team MBC Heros.  He sits in the Yongsan I’Park mall eSports stadium almost every day on the stage right between the player booths, only a few steps away from the likes of Boxer and NaDa, and millions of people in Korea and around the world watch him describe the intricate goings-on of StarCraft games on TV and online.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Mr. Chen on several occasions in Korea, and what I learned about his outlook surprised me.  At that point I was still convinced I was going to become an SC commentator, and so I enthusiastically sought him out for information and advice.  This well-dressed, handsome man in his mid-thirties looked me seriously in the face and told me not to try to pursue SC commentary as a fulltime job.  "Perhaps part-time or as a hobby," he said, "but that’s it."  Despite the fact that there are people around the world who would kill for the chance to be in his shoes for just a day, he sees his job as just that – a job.  "It provides food for my family," he explained. He already considered himself fortunate in life because of his family and financial stability, but from his perspective, his line of work only enabled that fortune and didn’t add to it.  He thought I would be better off becoming a doctor or a lawyer.

In stark contrast to Mr. Chen’s point of view, the young diehards in their teens, twenties, and early thirties who populate the staff forums of community sites such as TeamLiquid, GosuGamers, and SC2GG are fiercely passionate … and largely unpaid.  These students, engineers, computer technicians, teachers, writers, and paralegals in the States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere all set aside significant amounts of time during their busy lives to contribute to the online StarCraft community in some fashion.  The fascinating capability of the internet to provide niches for specialized communities – along with the allure of building a new identity from scratch with a non-arbitrary name and personality – ensures that as long as fascinating video footage of pro StarCraft players in Korea keeps being leaked to YouTube, there will be something to capture Joe Browser’s imagination and lead him down the rabbit hole.  The uniqueness of Korean StarCraft inspires interaction, analysis, reaction, and organization.  But, to return to the original question, at what point does ordinary fandom turn into hobby, into personal obsession, into a career path?  If a 19-year-old writes 700-word news articles for TeamLiquid which are read regularly by people at Blizzard and WCG, does that make TL a professional eSports organization?  If ICCup -operating outside the battlenet fold and presumably not making much of a profit – is an international standard for StarCraft skill and a better-run ladder than Blizzard ever came up with, does that make the unpaid admins "professionals" or just experienced, capable hobbyists?

The fundamental dilemma is whether or not the definition of a "professional" rests on attitude and intention (aka "professionalism") or getting paid for what you do.  Ideally a high level of professionalism should correspond to getting a salary or some kind of financial compensation, no matter what the field is, but there’s still a huge discrepancy between the two when it comes to eSports.  Eventually, as eSports grows and becomes recognized for the huge marketing potential it offers for sponsors and perhaps even the tourism dollars that live events bring to local economies, the people who are talented and hardworking will be recognized for their contributions in the lingua franca of the business world – cash, and lots of it.  Until then, people who have made it to the top of eSports and are getting paid well should cut the rest of us some slack.  Until we reach the day when sponsors and entertainment media give eSports its due, an eSports "professional" should be defined as someone who works hard to expand whatever branch of eSports he or she is in and who other eSports people rely on to a great extent to get things done, whether or not that person receives money for their efforts.

 

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An Idea Whose Time Has Come

Or, “A New Idea in College Sports”

In the last few weeks, 23 of North America’s top universities have signed up to join a brand-new competitive collegiate league. Students from McGill, Princeton, Stanford, University of Chicago, Yale, and Harvard have answered an irresistible call: the opportunity to introduce an entirely new game into the hallowed halls of college sports. Instead of pads and helmets, this sport merely requires a computer, keyboard, mouse, and Internet connection. These tools are standard for any college student, and travel costs are negligible, since the opposing teams can play each other online. The game is “StarCraft: Brood War,” and by starting the Collegiate StarCraft League, the Princeton gaming club, “SmashCraft Heroes,” might be setting a new precedent in North America. However, it follows a model that has been tested for years elsewhere in the world with incredible results.

In South Korea, professional video and computer gaming – also known as "electronic sports," or eSports – is an $81 million-per-year industry. The bedrock of this relatively recent phenomenon is the game StarCraft, published in 1997 by American company Blizzard Entertainment (now Activision Blizzard, a Viacom company). There are four major StarCraft tournaments that play three seasons per year, at around two months per season. The matches are recorded in front of a live studio audience (comprised mostly of high school age, female fans) in one of the three or four high-tech “eSports stadiums” sprinkled across Seoul. The footage is televised on one of the two cable channels or one Internet TV channel devoted exclusively to eSports content. In estimate, there are 18 million eSports fans in the country of 50 million people, which means that professional StarCraft and other games receive the second highest television ratings of any televised sports.

A top StarCraft player In Korea may not be perceived at the same level as Tom Brady or Manny Ramirez are here, but he or she is certainly well-known among the younger set and rakes in over $100,000 per year in salary. Professional StarCraft players in Korea – players with pro gaming licenses – are paid yearly salaries on an average of $20,000 per year just to compete in a computer game Top players, of course, earn more. Ever heard of Lim Yo-hwan, also known as “SlayerS.BoxeR”? Additionally known as “Terran Emperor,” this 28 year old was earning $300,000 per year in salary alone, not counting product endorsements, before he entered the Korean air force two years ago. His fan club includes more than 500,000 members. This does not even count the many international fans that stay up until 4:00 a.m. to watch his matches live over the Internet. In 2006, MTV.com included him in their article “The 10 Most Influential Video Gamers of All Time” alongside the creators of the web-comic “Penny Arcade” and the folks who modified “Half-Life” to make a game called "Counter-Strike." But beyond his hall of fame status in the eSports scene, this competitor has all the hallmarks of a true blue, larger than life sports star.

There is no secret that the CSL derives most of its inspiration and organizational structure from Korean StarCraft – even its name is an adaptation of the names of two tournaments called the “OGN StarLeague” and the “MBCGame StarLeague”. But while this student-organized league aims to emulate its more established cousins across the pond, only time will tell whether the similarities will extend beyond a snappy acronym.

On February 7, the CSL had its inaugural match between Princeton and MIT. Two groups of college students occupied rooms hundreds of miles away from each other, and yet they and their audience (the matches were streamed live online) were very close in spirit. The Daily Princetonian covered the match in a Sports section article that will become a weekly feature. I recommend that The Harvard Crimson follow suit for when the Harvard team plays.

The video game industry is already predicted to grow – not shrink – during this economic recession, and as many competitive games reward high levels of skill and talent, it was inevitable that eSports would come into being. Despite the superficial differences between athletic sports such as football and competitive StarCraft, both activities have achieved great popularity and generated entire entertainment industries because they tap into the natural human desire to enjoy and identify with excellence. The CSL might not ever attract the same eSports following in North America that the OSL and MSL enjoy in Korea, but I will certainly be watching this historical league grow and mature. And besides, there’s nothing better than kicking back and watching a good game of StarCraft.