Earlier this spring, a significant chunk of the whos-who of professional gaming gathered in Katowice, Poland for the first annual Global Esports Forum. Timed to coincide with Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, one of the largest gaming tournaments of the year, the Forum was a celebration of all that esports have achieved over the last eight years.
Until recently, esports executives liked to describe the industry as the “wild wild west,” a metaphor meant as a compliment, a warning, and an offer: if you want to invest here, hire a guide. In 2018, as esports consolidates around a dwindling number of companies, colonialism might be the more apt analogy. Esports isn’t nearly as lawless as it used to be, but it is a whole lot richer. Wealth has transfigured those roughneck guides into viceroys, now dressed in the same clothes as the investors whose attention they now command. The men and women who spoke at the Forum—higher-ups from companies like ESL, Intel, Team Liquid, and the other victors of the scramble for cyberspace—now command vast empires arcing across virtual and physical lands, and their intended message could hardly be clearer: esports has arrived.
As the day wore on and attention spans waned, an analyst from the market intelligence firm Newzoo presented the company’s annual report (available, here, for $7,500), which takes on the unenviable task of estimating the gross value of a messy industry. Armed with plenty of cheerful graphs, he guided the audience—mostly journalists and would-be investors—through the same story of growth told by any metric you could think of. Finally, one bleary-eyed hedge fund suit, clearly skeptical of and a bit exasperated by yet another pitch for esports with no downsides, mustered up the question that no one else had dared to ask.
“Are any of these games not growing?”
Newzoo’s analyst thought about it for a moment, then shrugged.
“’StarCraft,’ I guess.”
If you’re an esports fan today, there’s a decent chance that your interest in competitive gaming began with Activision-Blizzard’s legendary strategy franchise, “StarCraft.” But it’s also, I’m sorry to say, likely that you haven’t touched the game in years.
When “StarCraft II” was released in 2010, it signaled to audiences across the world that a new era of esports had arrived. Designed with professional play in mind and timed to coincide with the rise of livestreaming, “StarCraft II”-the-esport was an instant hit. For a period of time in the early 2010s, “StarCraft II” it was the most-watched game in the world, a sign that esports might actually take root outside of South Korea, where the game was, more-or-less, a national sport.
Then everything fell apart. After two years of growth, “StarCraft II’s” viewer- and player-base began to contract, then went into freefall. And while “StarCraft” is not the only would-be esport to “fail” – most do, in fact – it is, as of now, perhaps the only game to be humbled to the degree it has, tumbling from lofty heights and coming to rest in the humble margins of esports. By the end of 2013, “StarCraft II” had, for many, become a painful reminder of what was, or what could have been. Esports, by and large, moved on to new games with brighter futures.
But just how far “StarCraft II” has fallen—and who or what is to blame—is more of an open question than many give it credit for. And if you’re still a fan of “StarCraft II” in 2018, it also happens to be a matter of pride. When I wrote, for the first time in years, about StarCraft for Rolling Stone in February, I suggested, in passing, that the game’s decline had “left behind a ruin.” Fans on the “StarCraft II” subreddit disagreed with my interpretation, feeling that I’d succumbed to a fatalist, “dead game” mentality that has haunted “StarCraft” for years.
They were right; I did have that preconception, which then begs the question: As “StarCraft” slouches into its third decade: have reports of its death been greatly exaggerated?
When “StarCraft” began development in 1995, Blizzard was a modest studio best known for its high fantasy series, “Warcraft.” While ideating for their next game, the company’s designers, settled on taking “Warcraft’s” basic formula – an asymmetrical real-time strategy – and copying it in space. Despite its tortuous development (chronicled at length by The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh), the game was well-received by audiences and critics alike upon its release in March 1998. Praise, in particular, was heaped on “StarCraft II’s” multiplayer mode.
“Because we had Battle.net, we could watch as people got online … the concurrency just shot up and people started playing lots of games,” Patrick Wyatt, now VP of R&D at Activision-Blizzard, said earlier this year. “We could just tell we had something big on our hands.”
Surprisingly, “StarCraft” began selling millions of copies in South Korea, a market for which Blizzard hadn’t even bothered to localize the game. Though “StarCraft’s” designers couldn’t have known it at the time, conditions in South Korea were perfect for a game like “StarCraft” to catch on. In the wake of a region-wide recession, PC Bangs—the Korean take on the LAN café—were popping up across the country to serve a generation of underemployed young people in need of cheap entertainment. “StarCraft” was a remarkable game, yes, but every esport is more than its game, and out of this fertile ground, a rich culture of competition blossomed.
This was news to Blizzard. “We went to an event celebrating two million copies of ‘StarCraft’ and ‘Brood War’ sold in Korea,” remembered Mike Morhaime, who had produced both games, in one of several retrospectives celebrating the game’s 20th anniversary. “We drove up to the event hall, and there were people everywhere. We were like, wait—what are all these people here for? Is there something else going on? They were there for the ‘StarCraft’ match.”
The success of Brood War as an esport, in other words, caught the company off-guard. And while just about everyone who had been involved in making “StarCraft” was thrilled that the game was taking off in South Korea, the situation raised questions that no one had thought they’d have to ask. What should Blizzard’s role be in fostering this nascent esports scene? Should the game’s designers update the game when unfairly strong strategies emerged, or wait for players to figure something out on their own? Did the company have a responsibility—legal, ethical, or otherwise—to support those who wanted to turn “StarCraft” into a career? And, above all, how was Blizzard going to monetize the cultural vein they’d struck? If you were one of “StarCraft’s” designers, after all, you probably saw the game’s professional scene as one sign of a job well done. But if you were an investor, you saw value being created, and lost.
Unfortunately, there probably wasn’t much that Blizzard could do, even if they’d wanted to. No matter what policies the company considered to profit from the emerging esports scene in South Korea, it faced serious legal and technical barriers to implementation. Dan Burk, a legal scholar at University of California – Irvine, has written about these challenges, concluding that Blizzard’s hands were tied in three ways: one, their terms of service agreement was never designed to accommodate a professional gaming infrastructure built up around “StarCraft;” two, the presence of locally hosted games meant that it was nearly impossible for Blizzard to exert technical control over “rogue” tournaments; three, intellectual property treaties between the United States and South Korea were decades old and in no way prepared to regulate digital commerce. Blizzard could update their terms of service, of course, but overhauling the entire multiplayer system, let alone rewriting treaties, was out of the question.
The creation of a sustainable professional scene was a great boon for top “StarCraft” players, who found themselves in possession of fame and fortune. But it wasn’t necessarily great for Blizzard. Though professional “StarCraft” was an effective advertisement for “StarCraft” and its expansion, Brood War, Blizzard had no practical way to capture the value that esports was creating after the point of sale. Though KeSPA, the Korean eSports Association, the governing body for esports in South Korea, agreed that Blizzard had a right to a “rational level of usage fee [for ‘StarCraft’],” the lack of legal and technical protections for “Brood War” meant that Blizzard was always negotiating with KeSPA at a serious disadvantage. Like a prodigy, “StarCraft” had quickly outpaced its maker’s reach, and, despite the fact that they “owned’ “StarCraft,” Blizzard played only a marginal role in shaping its esports scene in South Korea.
“StarCraft II”, then, was an opportunity for Blizzard to make itself a protagonist once more. Wizened by its missed opportunities, the company began to develop an anticipatory, rather than reactive, approach to “StarCraft II” esports. This strategy, Blizzard wagered, would provide real (and profitable) answers to the questions “Brood War” posed, but circumstance left unanswered.
The eleven years between the release of “StarCraft” and “StarCraft II” brought massive changes to the digital games industry. International laws were updated to account for internet commerce, in-home broadband became ubiquitous in developed nations, and social media and other Web 2.0 platforms reshaped the web and its culture. Many game studios were consolidated into publicly traded media conglomerates, including Blizzard, which became Activision-Blizzard in 2008 after being acquired for around $19 billion. Publishers began to think of their games not simply as products, but services that could sustain players’ attention over a period of years. Esports was one such strategy, and publishers began to see professional play not as an interesting, but inconsequential, offshoot of their games, but an integral part of their strategy.
“StarCraft II” would take advantage of and exemplify the changing nature of the game industry, while also eliminating the challenges Blizzard faced in professional “Brood War.” Though “StarCraft II” would continue its predecessor’s story and preserve its trio of playable races, it promised to be profoundly different in other ways. In one infamous 2009 interview, design director Rob Pardo revealed that “StarCraft II” would no longer include local area network (LAN) support, which all professional tournaments hitherto had depended upon. Instead, the game would be the first to run on Activision-Blizzard’s new Battle.net 2.0 platform.
Players revolted, seeing the move as a power-grab by Blizzard (A Team Liquid poll from this period suggests that only 5% players welcomed this change; 83% promised to bomb “StarCraft II” with one-star ratings on Amazon unless LAN was reinstated). Though Battle.net 2.0 was pitched as a consumer convenience, it was also a way for Activision-Blizzard to preemptively consolidate power over “StarCraft II’s” professional scene. In a single swoop, the company ensured that all “StarCraft II” games, professional or not, would be routed through the company’s servers, giving them unprecedented control over the game and an inherent advantage in negotiations with potential broadcast partners.
What’s more, new treaties between the United States and South Korea further strengthened the Activision-Blizzard’s position. Announced in 2007 and finalized around the time of “StarCraft II’s” release, the United States–Korea Free Trade Agreement was the most significant treaty between the two countries in decades, updating trade regulation to the 21st century and affording multinational companies new legal protections, including for intellectual property. Finally, a new end-user agreement for “StarCraft II” suggested that players no longer owned the game, but merely licensed it from Blizzard. In practice, this meant that breaking “StarCraft II’s” terms of service was not just a breach of contract, but copyright infringement too.
For KeSPA and those that had run “StarCraft” tournaments without much interference from Blizzard for the last decade, these were unwelcome developments. Ultimately, the always-tense relationship between Activision-Blizzard and KeSPA collapsed over broadcast rights for “StarCraft II,” and, in 2010, Activision-Blizzard instead signed a deal with another South Korean group, GomTV. By being willing to accept a deal KeSPA would never have consented to, GomTV received exclusive rights to broadcast “StarCraft II” in its premier tournament, the Global StarCraft League (GSL).
Anticipating controversy, Mike Morhaime penned an open letter to the Korean StarCraft community explaining the decision.
“We tried very hard to have negotiations [with KeSPA] where we could correct a skewed situation and reach mutual understanding. However, during this process, what we learned was that KeSPA did not recognize our intellectual property rights, and that our suggestions, even up to this day, echoed unheard while KeSPA offered no solutions of their own.”
“With the release of ‘StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’ approaching,” Morhaime concluded, “we signed a contract with GomTV … [with whom] we have cooperated closely in the past, and discovered in the process that we have similar values and goals in esports.”
“StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty” was finally released on July 2010, garnering rave reviews and introducing esports to a new generation of players. As part of its launch strategy, Activision-Blizzard supported two North American tournaments, including community favorite Sean “Day” Plott’s King of the Beta, in the weeks leading up to the game’s release. In South Korea, the newly-minted GSL held two “open tournaments” to populate its league with a new generation of elite players. And while top “Brood War” pros in South Korea refused to switch games, many second-tier ones, including future bonjwa Jung “MVP” Jong Hyun, readily took up the new game, hoping it would come close to “Brood War’s” success. They were in luck.
“’StarCraft II’ really started the modern era of esports,” said Adrian Harris, who leads “StarCraft” esports program, in an interview with Variety. “We had this period between 2010 and 2012 when we were the only kid on the block. I remember being at IPL4, where ‘League of Legends’ had this tiny side stage, and saying ‘What’s this game?!’”
Across “StarCraft II,” optimism reigned. Western esports teams began signing “StarCraft II” players, and tournament organizers started trying to capitalize on the rush of interest in the game, taking on investment – or, when that wasn’t available – debt.
Initially, Blizzard kept a light hand over the growing constellation of competitions available to aspiring professional players outside of South Korea, including Major League Gaming, North American StarLeague, IGN ProLeague, DreamHack, and ESL, to name only a few. Unlike “League of Legends,” over which Riot Games practiced near-Mussolinian control, there were very few barriers for entry in “StarCraft II”, and no publisher-mandated cap on who or how many could participate. Any organizer willing to negotiate a licensing fee was free to run “StarCraft II” tournaments in whatever way they liked. In effect, Blizzard had managed to position itself at the center of the ecosystem, while simultaneously externalizing most of the burden (and risk) of running “StarCraft” esports to third-party groups.
“StarCraft II” also proved endlessly adaptable to its fans’ talents and proclivities. Writers found themselves presented with a game in need of a mythology, and the emerging esports press set about making gods of the game’s rising stars, and elucidating the petty rivalries between them. The foul-mouthed American Zerg Greg “IdrA” Fields, for example, was a mechanically-gifted player, but temperamental and prone to self-sabotage; his chief antagonist, Chris “HuK” Loranger, was a puckish trickster, uniquely gifted at getting under IdrA’s skin. Elsewhere, Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri, a French-Tunisian player with a wild hive of hair and swagger to match, was the closest thing “StarCraft II” had to a rock star; his arrest for public drunkenness after a tournament led to one of the most famous photos in esports history.
This was esports at its best. Around the world, “StarCraft II” became the rare game that was also a culture, as a decade’s worth of anticipation flooded into the scene. University students organized intercollegiate leagues, while mapmakers produced an endless parade of new battlefields, going so far as to organize meta-tournaments for map-making. Gaming bars across North America opened their doors for “barcraft” viewing parties, and documentarians rushed to put out a stream of documentaries of highly uneven quality. A cottage industry of YouTubers produced an endless stream of content for “StarCraft II”’s ravenous fans to consume. Some, like the hyperactive caster Mike “Husky” Lamond, even managed to make a temporarily lucrative career out of it.
“I started making ‘StarCraft’ content,” recalls Jaycie “Gillyweed” Gluck, who is now a full-time “Heroes of the Storm” caster, in an interview with “Variety.” “I had two YouTube shows, one for making audio for build orders so that people could listen along and know when to build certain things to perfect their in-game timings. And the other was highlighting all the fanart from people who loved ‘StarCraft.’”
Yet if being the first modern esport came with certain advantages, it also brought along new problems. All esports experience growing pains, and Blizzard was not alone in grappling with questions about how publishers should support their esports. But “StarCraft II” was an icebreaker, and Blizzard often faced these challenges first. Eventually, the lack of timely, adequate solutions to “StarCraft II”’s growing pains made its professional more fragile than anybody realized.
Today, even “StarCraft II”’s diehard fans concede that the game’s professional circuit went into a tailspin sometime around 2012 to 2013. And while everyone has their own explanation for the game’s fall from grace, most boil down to two categories: well-intentioned but ineffective organizational choices outside the game, and bad design decisions in it.
One side effect of Blizzard’s relatively hands-off approach to “StarCraft II” in the early 2010s was that competitions varied widely in quality, and without a truly global circuit, it was often hard to say who was the “best” player in the world. Though easy to overlook while the game’s player- and viewer-base was still rising, “StarCraft II”’s success also meant that third-party tournaments started to encroach on each other’s audiences. On many weekends, multiple global tournaments ran concurrently, cannibalizing each other’s viewership and talent, creating dilemmas for players and viewers alike.
“We were running into issues with scheduling or conflicts,” remembers Harris. “Players’ and tournaments’ scheduling was very much out of our control. There were conflicts, and we weren’t getting the best “StarCraft” we could. There was viewer and player fatigue.”
“Consistency was also a problem,” Tim Morton, now the lead producer of “StarCraft II”, told Variety. “The different ways that matches are presented, the interface that gets used, the format, varied production values – all of these cause a feeling of fragmentation. If there’s no centralized effort to provide a standard, am I even watching the same game?”
Faced with an increasingly disorganized network of tournaments of uneven quality, Blizzard’s response was to take a more active role in managing professional “StarCraft II” by creating the World Championship Series. In essence, the WCS took GomTV’s GSL – widely seen as “StarCraft II”’s best and most prestigious tournament – and cloned it in North America and Europe. Together, the three leagues comprised a global circuit that was intended to give “StarCraft II”’s competitive circuit the center of gravity it had been lacking.
On the logic that the WCS was meant to be a global circuit, Activision-Blizzard allowed all players to choose what region they wanted to compete in, regardless of their nationality.
“Rather than creating residency requirements for competitors,” the company wrote in its announcement of the WCS 2013 format, “we, in cooperation with our partners, aim to encourage players to choose a region as their base by having them participate in offline studio matches within that region.”
Though the choice made a certain kind of sense, the policy came with unintended consequences. South Korean players, faced with the choice of continuing to compete in the world’s most competitive region or embarking for less-developed scenes, abandoned Seoul in droves. Foreign “StarCraft II” scenes were flooded with superior Korean players against whom homegrown talent stood no chance, cutting foreigners off from prize money that might have otherwise sustained their development. Within a single year, 18 of the 32 players competing in North American World Championship Series’ premiere league were South Korean.
Meanwhile, to help standardize the scene, Activision-Blizzard introduced a running tally of WCS points, which could be earned either by placing well at WCS events or third-party tournaments. The 16 players with the most WCS points at the end of the year would be invited to Blizzcon to compete in a global final. Initially, Blizzard hoped that this would incentivize teams to invest in sending their players around the globe. Yet the actual effect was to reward those teams who could already afford to fly their players to tournaments, squeezing out organizations with more modest budgets and who had to pick and choose what events to send players to. Evil Geniuses’ Lee “Jaedong” Jae-Dong, for example, played in 10 and 14 tournaments beyond WCS in 2013 and 2014, respectively, largely because his deep-pocketed team could afford to. And while Jaedong won only two of these third-party tournaments, the constant trickle of WCS points from middling finishes was enough to secure him a seed to the global finals each year.
Most of all, these changes radically altered audiences’ perception of “StarCraft II”. WCS, in effect, wrote an unceremonious conclusion to one of “StarCraft II”’s longest-running stories: whether or not foreign players could ever go toe-to-toe with top Korean talent. The answer, it seemed, was no. At the 2013 Global Finals, 15 of 16 competitors were South Korean; in 2014, no foreigners qualified at all. And when it became abundantly clear that North Americans and Europeans players were little more than grist for the South Korean mill, Western audiences rapidly lost interest.
“‘StarCraft II’ is a global game with global viewership, but there was a perception that non-Koreans could never keep up,” remembered Harris. “There was this sense of an inherent cultural divide that prevented non-Koreans from competing in ‘StarCraft II.’”
To make matters worse, the WCS exacerbating existing problems with tournament oversaturation. Though viewers had wondered as early as 2011 whether or not vast amount of “StarCraft II” being broadcasted would be detrimental to the game’s long-term health, WCS brought a longstanding problem to the fore.
“We pushed hard on content saturation in 2012,” said Harris, explaining the institutional reasoning behind the first season of WCS’s design. “The plan for the 2012 WCS was this nation based competition, and we actually ran 60 or 70 live events in one year. And that was just us, during the peak of individual tournaments operating in “StarCraft II”. There was a clamor to be the top one.”
Forced, in effect, to compete with the publisher for attention of players and viewers alike, a significant portion of tournament organizers in “StarCraft II” folded, especially those that had not diversified their business.
“[WCS] easily became the top league on every continent, and it negatively affected the viewership of independent events by taking the halo and attention away from those events,” says Michal “Carmac” Blicharz, who was then the head of pro gaming at ESL, the most prolific tournament organizer in the world.
In March 2013, IGN ProLeague, one of North America’s biggest leagues, announced it could no longer afford to operate “StarCraft II” tournament (“When we launched IPL two years ago, the eSports landscape was very different with far fewer events than we have now,” the letter announcing its closure read); one month later, the company was acquired by Blizzard for the price of its debt. The next spring, North American Star League ended its operations, and Major League Gaming stopped hosting StarCraft II tournaments entirely.
With the decline of third-party tournaments, foreign players didn’t have as much access to prize money outside of WCS, compounding their financial misfortunes. Between 2013 and 2014, in fact, total prize money available in “StarCraft II” fell 25%, from $4 to $3 million. Teams that, in turn, relied on a cut of their players’ prize money saw their revenues fall. And while some large, diversified teams could afford to continue sponsoring “StarCraft II” players, many simply ceased to exist.
The situation was scarcely better in Korea, where the mass exodus to North America stripped South Korean “StarCraft” of much of its talent. Speaking with Variety, Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski and Nick “Tasteless” Plott, the most famous casting duo in “StarCraft,” and who have cast the English GSL stream since its inception, recalled this difficult moment in their game’s history.
“[Activision-Blizzard] made GSL clones around the world, and a bunch of Koreans were allowed to move to other regions, where they’d win easier tournaments,” remembers Plott. “We lost a lot of our star power, and the GSL clone tournaments never really picked up well because it was just a bunch of top Korean guys just bashing everyone.”
“There was one day [in the GSL studio] where just one guy came into watch. We’d gone from having a full studio to just one guy,” said Stemkoski.
“The decline definitely hurt,” Plott adds. “Everything was getting diced up and our show’s ratings fell, and, with that, our paychecks. There were definitely a few moments where we were like ‘Like oh god, do we need to do something else? Is this doing poorly?’”
The troubles that “StarCraft II” had encountered and, for the moment, was failing to address were cast into sharp relief by the simultaneous rise of “Dota 2” and “League of Legends”. As “StarCraft II” foundered, these titles siphoned off players, viewers, and, most of all, the perception of growth.
“Shifts in the ‘StarCraft II’ ecosystem were mostly driven by external factors, and not by anything that establishing a premiere league did,” says Harris, when asked why “StarCraft” didn’t grow like its rivals. “Blizzard has always been cognizant of how what we do impacts other tournament operators and organizations. We really care about those relationships.”
That’s the diplomatic answer one expects from someone on Activision-Blizzard’s payroll. And, to be sure, it’s impossible to know whether or not, had the company made different decisions, if “StarCraft II” game would have kept pace with its competition. Esports is a difficult business, notoriously hostile to long-term thinking and prone to rapid disruption; even the best-laid plans are subject to the whims of history. But the story of “StarCraft II’s” difficulties would not be complete without acknowledging that they weren’t just organizational; they cut to the heart of the game itself.
Designing a game suitable for professional play is an extraordinarily complex endeavor. It requires balancing three closely related but mutually antagonistic ideals: one, it must be enjoyable for the vast majority of players; two, it must be deep enough to retain the interest of elite players; and, three, it must be fun to watch. This balancing act is made even more treacherous by the fact that the lifespan of an esport is measured in years, and expectations about what makes things fun shift over time. Whatever other challenges “StarCraft II” faced, it was also hurt by the long-term decline of the real-time strategy as a genre, which gradually saw its player base migrate to MOBAs like “Dota 2” and “League of Legends”.
“StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty”, the first of three iterations of “StarCraft II”, was, by all accounts, a resounding success. During its first year, as players grew in skill and experimented with the game’s lattice of checks and balances, the professional scene conjured a vast array of viable strategies expressive of any number of playstyles. Some players gravitated towards early-game gambits, while others preferred long wars of attrition. At its best, watching great “StarCraft II” was like listening to a virtuoso jazz solo – improvisatory, kinetic, and yet never less than intentional. It was a joy, and the period’s best matches and series – Boxer vs. IdrA, Squirtle vs. MVP, Bomber vs. Scarlett, to name a few – rank among the finest in all of esports.
Understandably, expectations were high for “Heart of the Swarm”, the first major update to “StarCraft II”’s winning formula, which was announced in Spring 2012 and released about a year later. Despite months of beta testing, however, “Heart of the Swarm” undermined, rather than built upon, the foundation that “Wings of Liberty” laid, slowing down the game and stripping it of much of the dynamism that had made it a classic.
“‘Heart of the Swarm’ was not the best expansion. The game really slowed down, and it wasn’t as dynamic or exciting,” says Stemkoski.
For many, “Heart of the Swarm”’s failures were crystallized in a single unit, one that still brings shudders to long-time fans of “StarCraft”: Swarm Hosts. Initially pitched as a “crawling monstrosity [that] burrows into the ground in order to provide a seemingly endless supply of ferocious biological minions,” Swarm Hosts were, thematically, a perfect addition to the Zerg’s biological arsenal. In theory, Swarm Hosts would force defenders to defend against an infinite supply of weak units, like waves slowly wearing down a breakwater. In practice, though, Swarm Hosts were tortuously boring to use, and even more miserable to watch. Rather than the tense wars of attrition they were meant to create, Swarm Hosts largely led to stalemates. In January 2015, one such match reached an agonizing four hours in length (the Zerg player, Sébastien “Firecake” Lebbe, reportedly got so bored that he tabbed out to browse Reddit, a violation that led to his eventual disqualification).
“Backend data said [Swarm Hosts] were balanced,” concedes Morton. “But, perceptually, Swarm Host games weren’t it fun to watch or fun to play. People got frustrated.”
And yet, Swarm Hosts won games. Though just about everyone agreed that the unit was deeply unfun, professionals who, above all, needed to win, were forced to rely on it, and it became a standard feature of professional matches to everyone’s dismay (Stephano jokingly apologized at once point during a WCS broadcast for using Swarm Hosts).
Meanwhile, players started to retire en masse, mostly blaming a lack of opportunities in professional “StarCraft II” and frustration with the game. In August 2013, just months after “Heart of the Swarm”’s release, Stephano, Western StarCraft II’s winningest and most beloved player, announced his retirement in characteristically dramatic fashion. As he was being eliminated from WCS Europe, instead of the typical missive of surrender (“gg”), Stephano typed out the message visible to all viewers that encapsulated the grim state of “StarCraft II”.
“Sorry for the fans. This game is not for me anymore. Goodbye.”
Two weeks later, “League of Legends” World Championship sold out the Staples Center in less than an hour.
Things came to a head for “StarCraft II” in 2015. In virtually every sector, the situation was bleak. The game’s player-base had flatlined, and its viewership had cratered. Elite players had either retired in frustration (“‘StarCraft [II]’ isn’t as interesting, challenging, or satisfying to me as it used to be … the game pales in comparison to ‘Brood War’,” said IdrA at the time of his retirement), or moved onto other games. Many teams had gone out of business, or dropped their StarCraft squads wholesale, forcing the players that remained to either compete without sponsorship or sign with underfunded and sometimes fraudulent organizations. Even Sean “Day9” Plott, long one of “StarCraft II”’s biggest cheerleaders, moved on to other more profitable titles, going so far as to reportedly block Twitter users who asked him whether or not he’d stream “StarCraft” again.
Faced with disaster on all fronts, Blizzard had little choice but to hit reset on “StarCraft II”, committing to redesigning the game and its professional scene from the ground up. Humbled by the lessons of the preceding years, Blizzard’s status as one of the few solvent entities left in “StarCraft II” meant that the company would have to take more responsibility than ever before to assure that esports’s first truly professional game would live to see its 20th birthday. Restoring “StarCraft II” to its former glory (let alone that of “Brood War”) was likely an impossible task. But stabilizing the professional scene and setting it up for long-term success would be a more manageable challenge.
“We couldn’t change the fact that other esports were succeeding,” says Harris about the company’s change in strategy in 2015. “But we could tackle all of our issues.”
The first step was to introduce a region lock for the WCS, requiring all players to meet residency requirements for the region in which they wished to compete. WCS 2015 also combined into a genuinely global format, while also including guaranteed qualifier spots for traditionally under-served regions, like Latin America and Oceania.
“We focused on growing the international scene, and growing sustainability. Those were the most important cores for “StarCraft II”. Implementing region lock was a way to connect with those local audiences,” says Harris. “We were really scared to shake up the status quo in “StarCraft”, and we should have pulled the trigger much sooner.”
Though some derided region locking as affirmative action for foreign “StarCraft II”, its intended effect was immediate. When WCS 2015 began, the number of South Koreans competing in North America or Europe sunk to four. What’s more, region locking invigorated a demoralized foreign scene. In July 2015, only months after the region lock went into effect, French player David “Lilbow” Moschetto became the first foreigner in years to win a premiere tournament, WCS Season 3, in which South Koreans also competed. One year later, Alex “Neeb” Sunderhaft won 2016 KeSPA Cup in Seoul against an all-Korean field, becoming the first foreigner to win a StarCraft tournament in South Korea in nearly two decades.
Though Koreans still, in the aggregate, dominated professional “StarCraft II”, the rising success of foreigners in this new system has done much to change the perception that no one can square off against South Korean players. Between 2013 and 2014, roughly 30 of all prize money went to non-Koreans; 2015 and 2017, that number was 42.5 percent. (That said, the declining winnings of South Korean players likely played a role in fomenting a 2015 match-fixing scandal that roiled elite Korean StarCraft). Likewise, the prize pool for “StarCraft II” as a whole began to rise – from roughly $2 million in 2015, to $3 million in 2016, and $3.5 in 2017. That of 2018 will likely be even higher, meaning that there is now at least as much money for players in “StarCraft II” today as there was at the game’s peak.
Increasing opportunities for foreigners also incentivized a number of players who had retired, like Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, to return to StarCraft II. Blizzard also began providing support for a team house in Seoul, where foreign players can train with and compete against the best players in South Korea.
“Since 2015, we’re on an upward trend,” summarized Stemkowski. “The scene is more diverse. It’s no longer just GSL clones, but a circuit. GSL is intact, and the non-Koreans have gotten good.”
“Our studio in Gangnam fills up,” Plott added. “People get denied entry as a fire hazard.”
The release of “Legacy of the Void”, “StarCraft II”’s second and presumably final expansion, also gave Blizzard the opportunity to redesign the game and get back much of what had been lost in “Heart of the Swarm.” Swarm Hosts, obviously, were redesigned, as was anything slowing the game down. The prime directive for “Legacy of the Void”, its development team revealed in a blog post stating the team’s goals for the expansion, would be “more action”: more harassment options, more incentives to be aggressive, and more micromanagement, rewarding players who were willing to master these techniques. Everything “Heart of the Swarm” had gotten wrong, “Legacy of the Void” was fine-tuned to get right.
Despite some initial (and understandable) skepticism, the prevailing sense among “StarCraft II”’s fans is that “Legacy of the Void” largely succeeded at turning the game around.
“I honestly think the games we’re doing at [IEM Katowice] and over the last year are the best we’ve ever seen,” says Stemkoski.
He’s biased, of course, but he has a point. “Legacy of the Void” matches are as fast and tense as anything in “StarCraft II”’s history, and the level of play has risen in step (Morton notes that some elite Koreans have actually asked the development team to slow down some aspects of the game). Browse “StarCraft II”’s subreddit or forums, and you’ll find comparatively few complaints about the game’s design.
The final – and perhaps most important – piece of Blizzard’s long-term plan for “StarCraft II” was going free-to-play in November 2017. Two years (almost to the day) after the release of “Legacy of the Void,” by which point sales of the expansion had slowed to a trickle, Activision-Blizzard announced that “StarCraft II”’s multiplayer mode, as well as its first campaign, would be entirely free to play for anyone in the world.
Though free-to-play is sometimes seen as a sign of a game’s failure, it also comes with significant strategic advantages for publishers. Beyond the obvious influx of new players, one such benefit is that free-to-play makes old games newly viable in markets where they once struggled. In particular, going free-to-play with “StarCraft II” meant that gamers in Brazil and Russia’s markets – where young people’s disposable incomes are low, making large, upfront purchases unattractive – became an emerging player-base and audience alike.
“StarCraft II”’s esports team adjusted their strategy accordingly, working to activate long-neglected regional scenes by lifting up local stars. The popularity of Diego “Kelazhur” Schwimer in Brazil, for example, helped galvanize the country’s playing public’s interest in “StarCraft II.”
“We started focusing on regional language streams, and not just the English product. Now, for a normal WCS event, we have eight to ten other streams. It allowed us to grow our Portuguese viewership by 300%,” says Harris, referring to Copa America, whose maximum and average concurrents quadrupled between 2016 and 2017.
Concurrently, Activision-Blizzard also launched War Chest, a seasonal crowdfunding program reminiscent of Valve’s Battle Passes for The International that allowed viewers to make in-game purchases to unlock various rewards. Obviously, War Chest gave Blizzard a way to monetize a now free-to-play game. But because 25% of all War Chest proceeds were earmarked for StarCraft II’s professional scene, it also meant that Blizzard now had a way of sustaining the game as an esport.
“The first War Chest contributed $200,000 to Blizzcon,” says Morton. “The second one, contributed $150,000 to [IEM Katowice] alone. Those are direct contributions, and everything else above that helps offset “StarCraft II” esports. So it’s both good for players, but it’s also a great call to action.”
The couple million dollars a year that War Chest generates isn’t nearly enough to support “StarCraft II’s” entire global circuit. But it does put a major dent in its production costs, and, more importantly, allows Blizzard to distribute money to the points in the scene that need it most.
“Now, we sponsor player travel for sixteen players to every event,” says Harris. “It’s a big point that, if something has WCS points, we encourage open competition. We also move our tournaments around to different parts of the world.”
Likewise, to help support regional tournaments that have become central to the game’s long-term growth. Proceeds from War Chest, for example, were used to help offset the costs of this year’s Nation Wars IV, a novel country-based tournament operated by the lightweight organizer and broadcaster, O’Gaming.tv.
“The prize money for that is coming from War Chest funding,” says Morton. “Now we’re seeing natural growth in other tournament operators coming in.
Even a new generation of teenage players has emerged, suggesting that this generation of professional players will not be “StarCraft’s” last. While speaking with “StarCraft II’s” development team, one showed me a photo of a teenager with a wide smile and flushed cheeks. I assumed was a developer’s son. In fact, it was Riccardo “Raynor” Romiti, a 15-year-old player from Italy who is currently working his way up the ranks of WCS, one of a handful of players who have entered the scene in spite of the public perception of its decline. Appropriately, Romiti says, it was his father – once an amateur competitor in “StarCraft” himself – who introduced him to the game.
“I didn’t really choose “StarCraft,’” Romiti told Variety in an email. “It’s ‘StarCraft” that chose me.”
The rising (or, at the very least, stabilized) fortunes of StarCraft were on display in March of this year at the “StarCraft II” tournament at IEM Katowice, where 24 players (16 Koreans and 8 foreigners, one of whom, Joona “Serral” Sotala, made it as far as the semi-finals) competed for their share of $600,000 in prize money. Though most of the 35,000 or so fans at Katowice were clearly there to see the massive “Counter-Strike” tournament taking place in Spodek Arena a few minutes’ walk away, the modest theatre where “StarCraft II” was sequestered for most of the weekend was almost always full, or close to it.
Though it doesn’t attract the same viewership as “Counter-Strike”, “StarCraft II” does offer certain advantages of organizers like ESL, the organization that puts on IEM.
“Let’s say I want to run an esports tournament,” explains Morton. “‘League of Legends’ is out. ‘Overwatch’ is gone – any game with a strong league is hard to do. ‘CS:GO’ needs $100,000 to even get tier two teams interested.”
In a way, the modesty of “StarCraft II” has become one of its biggest strengths in an esports ecosystem that all too often trades in spectacle. For tournament organizers, “StarCraft II” presents a comparatively simple logistical challenge, requires far less in up-front expenditures on travel, and players do not expect nearly as much when it comes to prize pools. (That said, and as both Stemkoski and Plott are quick to note, there’s still plenty of money to be made if you’re an elite “StarCraft” player: “The winningest player [at IEM Katowice] has won over a half-million dollars, says Plott. “People say ‘ded gaem’ because they see news about the very biggest titles.”). For all these reasons, along with the game’s long history in South Korea, “StarCraft II” was the natural choice for the Olympic expo at IEM Pyeongchang earlier this year.
It’s also true that “StarCraft II”, as the only real-time strategy game with a credible competitive scene, offers something radically different than anything else in esports. It is also, in many ways, the ultimate challenge for competitive gamers – a game so fast, so mechanically intensive, that total mastery is out of the question. For better or worse, it is one of the only esports (excepting fighting games) where you are in complete control of your fate, with no teammates to or carry you or drag you down.
“The games that people are playing right now are easier to play,” says Stemkoski. “‘StarCraft’ is very challenging. It takes an incredibly long time to be good.”
Not all players appreciate this dynamic, naturally, and no one is under any obligation to. But Blizzard, for its part, doesn’t seem all that concerned that some players won’t love “StarCraft II”, because it knows that some players will.
“The skill ceiling is such that no one will ever be the perfect player,” says Morton. “We want that feeling that there’s always room to improve.”
He could, of course, be talking about “StarCraft”, too. In some ways, the story of “StarCraft II” – its rise, its fall, and, if you feel so inclined, its redemption – is a cautionary tale about the immense difficulty of designing and maintaining a healthy esports ecosystem. No game exhibits the lifecycle of an esport better than “StarCraft II”, and there are lessons in its history for players and developers alike. But it’s also a human story about the life that remains when cheap hype is stripped away, and the pulsating heart of passion remains. It is the story of all fandoms, and the slightly irrational love for things that people carry with them even (or especially) as the world moves on.
“I’m super used to people coming up and being like, “Oh, it’s a ded gaem, why are you doing this? What else do you do for a living?,’” says Stemkoski with more than a touch of defiance. “But a lot of people play. There are so many professional tournaments. I’m married. I have three kids. I’m an expat living in South Korea. It’s not the game you’re going to see a popular streamer with 70,000 viewers play. But it’s still there.”
“When you look at the esports space, people like to look at it as a competition,” echoes Morton. “‘What’s the biggest? What’s the best viewership?’ And that’s what they focus on, rather than things like ‘is it profitable’? Can you sell broadcast rights or sponsorships? They want to be part of the esport that’s bringing in the most viewership because that’s exciting. But esports is at a point where if you’re not having millions of people watching, people don’t celebrate it.”
Morton hits on something critical and underappreciated in esports: a collective inability to think about success outside the narrow criterion of spectatorship. There is, of course, no correct way to enjoy esports, and viewers should be free to follow whatever esports they want in whatever ways they want. Yet a focus on “what’s the biggest esport right now” encourages us to see esports as a field of mutual antagonists, among whom only some can win. Understandable though this view may be, it can also blind us to how esports matter outside of the highest echelons of popularity. Esports do things; they are not just to be seen. It’s tempting to say that the old is simply eclipsed by the new, leaving no remainder. But history is never that simple. What if we cared less about how much value esports make, and more about what the nature that value – financial or otherwise – is in the first place?
“‘StarCraft II’ works better at events where it’s not alone,” said Michal Blicharz, now a VP of pro gaming at ESL, said in an interview with Variety at IEM Katowice. “It’s just a perfect blend of everything. It attracts ‘StarCraft’ fans who have been fans for a decade or more, but it also attracts esports generalist fans who know the game, might have played it, and watch it occasionally. It’s lasted a mighty long time.”
What Blicharz says about “StarCraft II” – that it works better at events where it’s not alone – is maybe more significant than he knows. Many of the young people I talked to at IEM Katowice’s “StarCraft” tournament were there because they wanted to experience something different, more intimate, than the spectacle taking place next door, if only to reminisce, or for a moment of comparative calm amid the bright lights of Katowice. This is not an insult to “Counter-Strike”, nor to “StarCraft II”. It’s a simple way of knowing that both games have their place, and yet you need both to know the place they have.
But none of that makes sense unless you see “StarCraft II” as one nexus in the relations between many games and people that, together, we choose to call esports. New games never replace old games; they merely assign them a new place in a system. “StarCraft” will, in all likelihood, never again achieve the kind of widespread success it once had. But who is to say it has no place in esports? And here, bright as a nova, is the truth: Esports is a fabric, not a thread, and every stitch counts. “StarCraft II”, for a large and maybe even growing number of players and viewers around the globe, remains a significant site of meaning, of passion, of community, in part because it is not other games. For people like Plott, Stemkoski, Scarlett, and a great many professionals who can play because it pays, the game is also a way of life. Look closely, and you’ll see that nothing is ever as dead as it seems. “StarCraft” still has much to show you, if only you’re willing to see.
The StarCraft II World Championship Series continues this weekend in Valencia, where 77 top players will compete for more than $100,000. Watch it live, for free, here.