Starcraft 2 and the e-sports eco-system, part I

I have been playing a lot of Starcraft 2 recently. A LOT. So not really a surprise I haven’t blogged at all the past 2 months (the game launched end of July). But I thought I should put on my MBA hat (on top of the nerdy gamer hat), and analyze a bit the gaming eco-system, especially since a lot of it is related to social media.

I plan to cover this in a series of posts. This first post will give a quick overview of “esports“.


Gamers have played competitively since the inception video games (the wiki article linked above gives a historical perspective). Commercialization began in the late 90s, thanks to the popularity of First-Person-Shooters (FPS) such as Quake (which I think gave birth to a lot of the gamer vocabulary today – such as pwnage). But where commercialized gaming really took off, as most people probably knows, is South Korea. The common catalysts quoted are that Korea had great broadband infrastructure, and during the Asian Crisis of 97-98 many people took on Starcraft as a way to kill time (though this second one sounds more unlikely). Anyhow – Starcraft, the Real-Time-Strategy (RTS) from Blizzard, really took off in Korea, and starting from around 2000, Korea has had professional Starcraft gaming, involving professional teams, full-time players, television broadcasting, and around the year tournaments.

Globally, various organizations have attempted to create major global tournaments (the Olympics or World Cup of gaming). Two competitions that I believe have had good longevity are the World Cyber Games (WCG) and the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC). Total prize money for WCG has steadily risen to around $500,000 from $200,000 a decade ago, split over 10 or so games. This is by no means a huge jackpot (for majority of pro-gamers it’s not a sustainable career), but the growth has driven up the popularity of e-sports.

Major Game Genres

Judging by the prize money involved (check out the above links for WCG / ESWC, for prize money per type of game), FPS and RTS are by far the dominant genres, though there are a few up-and-comers such as MMORPG (World of Warcraft) and DotA (a custom map on Warcraft III, which really doesn’t fall under any major genre). Other popular genres including guitar hero, fighting, racing and sports simulation (football etc.).

Interestingly, by and large most of the competitive genres are solo play (one-on-one). While most games, such as Starcraft, support team-based play, the major competitive format has been solo gaming. This has given rise to a series of individual stars over the years, most of which only enjoying celebrity status within the community, but a few who have actually made legitimate money and fame (again, mostly Koreans – look up the Wiki entries on “Nada” Lee Yun-Yeol and “Boxer” Lim Yo-Hwan, probably the two most famous professional Starcraft players ever).

In contrast, the only major team-based genre is FPS, and especially the hit game Counter-Strike. Counter-Strike popularized the 5v5 format, which has been adopted into DotA. Of course, many FPS games are competed in solo, such as Quake.

Major Countries

In terms of where most pro-players are, this is heavily biased by game genre. Korea by and large “owns” RTS, especially Starcraft and now Starcraft 2. The Korean pro-leagues offer the highest prize money (the recent first Starcraft 2 pro-league, GSL Season 1, featured a ~$90,000 cash top prize) and attracts the best players globally, however most of the top players are Korean.

Warcraft III, another popular RTS, is slightly more diversified, with good European and Chinese players alongside the usual Korean suspects. My personal opinion is this is due to Starcraft’s overwhelming popularity in Korea, which has kept many great players away from Warcraft III.

In FPS, the scene is very different, heavily dominated by North American and European teams and players.

Business model of professional teams

Again probably pioneered by the Koreans, the professional team setup involves a manager (who also acts as the agent for his players) and anything from a handful to dozens of players. Players earn salary and are often provided accommodation and food; any prize money won is split between the player and team (I’m not sure of typical ratios).

Teams get income from competition winnings and sponsorships / advertising. Typical sponsors are major IT manufacturers (Intel, Samsung etc.) as well as specialized gaming equipment makers (e.g. Razer, which offers professional gaming grade mice / keyboards). Teams may be based out of a Internet cafe (which sponsors the team), which offers an environment to train in.

Growth Issues

There are several major issues with e-sports / pro-gaming that have hindered commercialization efforts. First of all, outside of Korea, where Starcraft is a national past-time, core gaming remains a subculture in society, mainly followed by adolescent males – the demographics base makes a big media play (such as a dedicated gaming channel on cable) very difficult. Furthermore, this base of core gamers are further segmented by the types of games and the specific games they play (again in contrast to Korea, where most of the commercialization revolves around Blizzard RTS games, such as Starcraft, Warcraft III, and now Starcraft 2). This limits the total advertising dollars and overall market size.

Secondly, the inherent short product life-cycle of video games goes against the needs to build stable spectator sports. New games, even sequels such as Starcraft 2, need to innovate on the gaming mechanics to sell; this however makes following the games harder (imagine if football or any other sport had major changes to its rules and therefore strategies every 2-3 years).

Thirdly, the steep learning curve for a spectator who has not played the games also blocks market growth. Most of these core games are incredibly complex, for example any RTS would feature 30 or more different types of units, each with unique attributes and mechanics. Also, the mechanics of certain games makes spectating boring at times (in Counter-Strike, there is usually pro-longed periods of stalemate with short bursts of intense action).

3 thoughts on “Starcraft 2 and the e-sports eco-system, part I”

  1. Pretty comprehensive article ! You might want to precise that revenue split of professional team is something close to 10% in prize and 90% in sponsorship.

    You made a good job at pointing what are the barriers to make e-sport a big thing. What would be interesting to analyze (as an MBA) is how they might be overcome !

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