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

In the first post in this series, I gave a very high level summary of professional gaming. In part 2, I will cover in some more detail the Starcraft 2 pro-gaming scene.

The Game

Starcraft 2 officially launched at the end of July this year, but really, gamers have been beta playing starting February of this year. Going further back, development was officially announced in 07, but had been in stealth mode since 2003 – making it a game 7 years in the making. That’s actually quite dangerous territory in video game development, since technology follows Moore’s Law – you may easily end up in vaporware territory like Duke Nukem Forever, the granddaddy of vaporware jokes. But Blizzard is probably in a league of its own, and has always been known for pushing back release dates. And if they think the game is going to flop, they just cancel it, which is why they have a perfect track record of hits.

Anyhow, the most interesting thing about Starcraft 2, from a content perspective, is in terms of the learning curve. For any Starcraft: Brood War veteran, the sequel is immediately approachable. I would say roughly speaking about 50% of the game is the same as before, in terms of buildings, units and spells, and even the hotkeys have not changed that much. So a Starcraft veteran can start playing instantly and feel very comfortable. But that’s deceptive, because the other 50% of the game which is new completely throws off the competitive play. Few battle-tested Brood War tactics still work in the sequel, and a lot more thinking has gone into the dynamics among units – which units counter which, which work well together. It feels familiar but it really is a new game – very well designed learning curve.

In terms of sales, Blizzard announced 3 million copies sold in the first month, which is a cool ~$200MM in terms of retail value. However, Starcraft 2 is not going to be beating video game sales (except for its own RTS category), since its tied to the PC platform (PC+Mac), whereas the mega box office hits (like Call of Duty Modern Warfare) are really cross platform on the Xbox 360 and PS3 consoles. Back in the day, RTS games have been ported to consoles, but they never really work out well in user experience – perhaps you really do need a mouse sometimes. It will be interesting to see how the new generation of input devices (Kinect etc.) inspires game development – can we see an RTS using a Minority Report type of input any day soon?

The Korean Pro Scene, and Blizzard vs. KeSPA

As said before, the biggest pro gaming scene is to be found in Korea, especially for RTS games. Interestingly, Blizzard used Starcraft 2 as an opportunity to regain control of the Starcraft “platform”. What had happened previously was that KeSPA (the Korean eSPorts Association) had been a driving force in pushing the commercialization of Starcraft in Korea, e.g. establishing the pro-leagues and handing out the TV distribution rights. Meanwhile Blizzard seemed to had taken a passive stance (it didn’t co-invest, but it didn’t charge licensing fees / royalties – it allowed KeSPA to use the game for commercial purposes, including TV broadcasting).

The growth of the sport in Korea probably surprised / delighted Blizzard, except for one thing – they weren’t getting any direct revenue from it. KeSPA had established such a strong control, to the point that pro-gamers needed licenses from KeSPA to compete in KeSPA competitions, and these licenses included some very restrictive terms (e.g.what types of commercial activities and matches the players could participate in, see this recent controversy over an exhibition match in Germany) – essentially, KeSPA was monopolizing the talent and therefore the entire market.

Blizzard saw Starcraft 2 as a chance to negotiate with KeSPA over royalties / licensing. Apparently the talks fell apart, and Starcraft 2 at one point got a “mature – 18+” rating in Korea by authorities (which people speculate as a retaliation move from KeSPA). Blizzard eventually struck a deal with GomTV, which seems to have had clashes with KeSPA before (the enemy of my enemy is my friend). One big implication, though, is that the best Brood War players will probably stick with KeSPA for a while, since that’s where the real money still is – although we have seen legendary players such as “Boxer” and “Nada” join the Starcraft 2 scene.

GomTV launched Season 1 of the GSL (Global SC2 League) in late August, and Season 2 is currently in full swing. Each season has a series of pre-season qualifiers, while the main season is a straight 64-player tournament. The total prize money for the 3 seasons planned this year is about $500,000. As expected, the tournament is dominated by Koreans, with non-Korean players collectively referred to as “Foreigners” – in Season 2, I think a total of 3 “Foreigners” qualified for the main tournament.

The Pro-Scene Outside of Korea

There are many semi-pro competitions organized via globally, and players compete in the comfort of their own homes. The pro-scene has and probably always will be about big offline events (however Blizzard hampered that with the decision to remove LAN gaming from the game, which means even “offline” events are now actually gaming). In the US, the MLG (Major League Gaming) promotes a range of games (e.g. Halo3, Tekken 6) and has incorporated Starcraft 2 as of their Raleigh event in late August. In the recent MLG DC event, the top Starcraft 2 player walked away with $2,500, which indeed is exponentially lower than prize money of the Korean scene (and anyone can register, for $60, so not really a strong pro-scene). In Europe, ESL (Electronic Sports League) has incorporated Starcraft 2 into the Intel Extreme Masters competition.

To be continued…

In the next post, I’ll (finally) talk about the community and the social media related to Starcraft 2. Stay tuned!

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