“Dead Game”, for the past couple of months, this simple statement has reverberated throughout Twitch chat rooms, Reddit sub forums, and community fan sites. While many use the statement as a tongue in cheek gist at the outlandish claims that the game and community is rotting away at the seams. But with the constant news of team disbandment, sponsorship pulling, and diminishing viewership numbers when does that simple statement begin to actually hold water?
Lets take a step back for a moment as many reading probably have no idea what I am talking about. StarCraft 2 is the successor to the most popular competitive real-time strategy game of all time, StarCraft or more notably it’s expansion StarCraft: Brood War. While the game was popular in the States and Europe, the place that truly adopted the original StarCraft was the country of South Korea. The game became a popular “e-sport” eventually gaining high viewership and tv ratings second behind Baseball. Due to this many players became pseudo-celebrities in their country: Boxer, Savior, Nada, Bisu, Flash, Jaedong, these were names known throughout the country while gaining cult status elsewhere in the world.
The sequel to StarCraft, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty came out in July of 2010 nearly 12 years after it’s Brood War predecessor. The hype was strong among fans of the series as they’re finally getting the sequel to, in their opinion, the most beautiful game in the world. Until recently Blizzard had a track record as being one of the most stable game developers in the world. Every game was a hit and classic, WarCraft and StarCraft revolutionized the RTS genre giving a rise to the growing popularity of competitive gaming. Diablo I and II turned the RPG genre on it’s head becoming the crack of video games. And finally how can we all not forget the most successful MMORPG of all time, World of Warcraft.
With a track record second to none, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty set loose on the PC gaming world. Selling 3 million copies within a month of release StarCraft 2 became the best-selling RTS of all time. With the rise of SC2 also saw the rise of an industry, the competitive gaming scene. With advent of gaming streaming service Twitch.TV as well as competitive gaming organizations such as: Major League Gaming (MLG), International Pro League (IPL), and European based E-Sports League (ESL), the industry of “E-Sports” was a hot commodity, gaining attention of fans and venture capitalists alike.
With the release of the prototypical E-Sport title as well as the new-found growth of the industry, you can say that it was a match made in heaven. StarCraft tournaments and teams began popping up throughout Europe and America similar to Korea 5-10 years earlier, signing talent from Brood War and the now-dying WarCraft 3 community. StarCraft 2 began pushing to new heights. StarCraft 2 was at the top of the world, everywhere except the mecca of E-Sports itself, Seoul, South Korea.
The South Koreans were hesitant at throwing away their Brood War past and joining the SC2 community. Their entire infrastructure built on Brood War. Team houses, team leagues, and company sponsorships by the likes of Samsung, KT, and SK Telecom held Brood War as their game not StarCraft 2. While SC2 had garnered interest by some (enough to start a new company and league known as GOM TV’s GSL) the popularity and money was still held by Brood War.
Another thing to note is the skill of Koreans compared to Non-Korean (Foreigner) players. While the Foreign scene had a couple of extremely high level players, none could compare or compete with the Koreans. This caused a problem as very few of the high level players in Brood War were playing StarCraft 2. In hindsight this probably wasn’t as important as first thought but Blizzard, wanting consolidation under one game, “influenced” KeSPA (Korean E-sports association) and it’s legendary players and teams, to stop playing Brood War and begin playing StarCraft 2.
begrudged, KeSPA and their affiliate OnGameNet began duel casting StarCraft 2 and Brood War leagues until late 2012 when they would make the full switch to StarCraft 2. What seemed like a sign of growth and stability in the Korean StarCraft Scene was short-lived. Korean gamers refused to acknowledge StarCraft 2 as Brood War’s successor. Instead Koreans began playing a future behemoth of E-Sports, Riot Games League of Legends.
Nearing the end of Wings of Liberty’s run the game began to grow stale. With the metagame figured out, games were boring and the same race and style of games began winning every tournament. But in March of 2013, Blizzard released the sequel to Wings of Liberty, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm. The release meant to jumpstart the stagnant metagame and give new life to the scene. After the release, Blizzard also revealed their new WCS system. The WCS, based on Riots LCS is a 3 region 3-4 season league which culminates in the world championships at Blizzcon. The three regions based on the North America, Europe, and South Korea regions served as catalysts for the StarCraft tournament season.
Now almost 6 months after Heart of the Swarm’s release, StarCraft 2 is at the worst point it’s history. The once stable as stone infrastructure began crumbling. Prestigious Korean teams are now either cutting back the amount of players substantially or shutting down their team completely. The once famous proleague may have seen its last season and legends from Brood War have begun to retire.
While the scene on the foreign front is stronger than the dire Korean side, stagnant viewing numbers and the death of personal streaming numbers hasn’t exactly showed the foreign scenes stability either. What can Blizzard do to save its once flagship franchise from turning into another WarCraft III? Let me put on my Blizzard Director of E-Sports hat on a second (Or you can hire me, just shoot me an email Blizzard HR) and try to salvage this Titanic of E-Sports.
Turn StarCraft Multiplayer Free-To-Play Immediately
As the new imaginary director of E-Sports, my very first action on my very first day would be to make the multiplayer portion of StarCraft 2 Free-to-Play. A competitive online game cannot survive in the current environment of Free-to-play as a traditional boxed model. You need to get the game in as many people's hands as possible, and if that means releasing the main part of your game for free than so be it. Let players buy unit skins and portraits, or even let players design their own, selling them on a blizzard bazaar. I’m certain that if Blizzard keeps its customer model as is, the community may leave by Legacy of the Void.
The biggest complaint fans have had with StarCraft II from the day of release is the awful layout of the Battle.net client. Terrible chat list, non-existent arcade, and a giant button yelling at you to find that next 1v1 match. The inherent problem with StarCraft II was that the game's designed for competitive gaming instead of designing the game for fun. In StarCraft I, 1v1 was one of the least popular portions of the game, instead the arcade system was where most casual fans played and hung out. With the dysfunctional arcade system in the battle.net 2.0 interface there is no place for the casual crowd to hang out and play except for 1v1 which is simply not very fun except for a small minority of players.
My solution is to make the arcade and chat portions more important than the ladder in the client. make it easy for players to chat with friends, create groups, and find arcade games, while keeping the ladder on the back-burner. Battle.net should also take a lesson from the DOTA2 client and put WCS and other major tournament events on the forefront of the client as a free promotion to your player base that is unaware to the competitive aspect of the game.
Eliminate the Grand Slam Tournaments
At the end of every season the top performers in every region get together for a “grand slam” event to find out who was the overall best player of the season. While sounding good in theory, having at least 3 grand slam events before blizzcon, destroys any storylines built during the season. Whats the use of having a Grand finals at Blizzcon after having a grand finals event 2 weeks earlier?
Eliminating the season finals would help in building the player storylines that the game desperately needs. Truly making one super bowl like event similar to Valve’s The International could help draw interest and hype for the event, it certainly works for Valve and Riot, why not Blizzard?
*Note They recently eliminated the season finals events for the 2014 season so, kudos Blizzard
Adding an Offseason
As of now there are no offseason in e-sports. Events for a game generally run year round, this can lead to fatigue and staleness of play by the players. Adding a break between seasons of the WCS could help rest players, as well as offer a timeframe for other tournaments to air. Now I wouldn’t implement an offseason similar to traditional American sports where they take 4-5 months off between seasons. Instead install month-long breaks between seasons and a 6 week break after Blizzcon before restarting season 1. Here would be a basic outline.
Season 1: Mid January-Mid March
Season 2: Mid April-Mid June
Season 3: Mid July-Mid October
Blizzcon Grand Finals: November
Each Season runs an estimated 8 weeks with roughly 4 weeks between the seasons as well as 2-3 weeks between the end of Season 3 and the Blizzcon Grand finals. After the finals, players will get 6-8 weeks off after finals to rest and enjoy the holiday season.
We need a region lock, simple as that. There is no reason for Koreans players who live in South Korea, play in South Korea, practice in South Korea, and then play in WCS North America. Everyone knows that the skill level in Korea is head and shoulders above the rest, and the WCS should take that into account when it comes to tournament prize pool and WCS points. But just because the talent is much lower in the other regions, doesn’t mean that a Korean can fly over to a region for 4 days a season and pull in most of the points and prize money. That's not being racist or nationalistic just pragmatic.
The North American scene is hurting, not necessarily in the South Korean way of hurting, there's money, but the competitive scene with North American players is dead. There are a handful of NA and European born players with the ability to compete with Korean players and most of them are practicing in Korea most of the time anyway. The NA ladder is in a very sad state as most foreign players play on either EU or KR servers leaving the skill level in NA not up to par.
Make players live in the region they are playing during the season and lock them into playing that regions ladder. If the Korean players that play in the NA region choose to live in the states during the season individually or joining a foreign team then so-be-it, if not compete in Korea. Up the Korean Prize pool and weigh the WCS points in the Koreans favor, that should keep many Korean players enticed to stay the course. If not, then they can start playing League of Legends.
Blizzard has put roughly $1.5 million dollars towards this years WCS. While that is a good start, Blizzard needs to do more. If Blizzard didn’t single handedly shore up the opportunities for players to make money in other tournaments by pretty much eliminating all StarCraft 2 tournaments that aren’t WCS, then I wouldn’t ask Blizzard for a dime. But since that isn’t the case and Blizzard already begun putting skin in the game, its time for them to step up.
If a player makes it into premier or challenger league in any region, regardless of team or personal sponsorship, or other tournament winnings. That player should be paid a decent minimum wage for being there. With my decision to drop the 3 global finals, that adds $450,000 dollars to invest into the current prize pools. Making into challenger league (the league below premier) should garner $1000 dollars minimum per season for all players in the tournament. For Premier league that minimum gets upped to $5000 dollars per season. If Blizzard can’t afford that amount then shut down WCS and let the scene go back to what it was before you became involved.
This topics been discussed to death on community forums and one of the biggest factors in the “Game is Dying” rhetoric being thrown around. The simple fact of the matter is the StarCraft 2 scene was over inflated for the size of the community to support. When KeSPA agreed to put its resources into StarCraft 2, the Korean scene doubled in size overnight. This influx of new teams and players had unknown effects on the Korean and foreign scenes in terms of tournament winnings and team salaries.
The problem with the Korean inflation is that unlike Brood War, most of the audience for StarCraft 2 came from countries other than South Korea. What foreign team and players might lack in overall game skill, they make up for in promotion and marketability. Most Korean teams and players never wanted to market their sponsors or themselves. Refusing to stream, going on community shows, and just having an overall lack of marketability. While I commend the players for believing that there play will do the talking, the sad fact is E-Sports as a whole is still a very weak industry needing sponsorships and at times charity to survive.
With speculative industries comes speculative owners and investors. Many of these teams and organizations run by people who have no business running an organization to begin with. Tournament organizers and team owners refusing to pay players, traveling issues, and incompleted crowd funded projects, have jaded the community and rightfully so. The industry is full of “I need to get mine” types and I think it’s about time we get those kinds of people out of the StarCraft scene for good.
The StarCraft scene has too many pro players to begin with. Instead of 250-300 “Pro” Players there should really be a total of about 100-150 at the moment. Let many of the teams disintegrate, and players retire. It's a tough pill to swallow but it's needed to run a tight ship and try to regrow the game and community in a sustainable and profitable rate.
Reflect and Rebuild
StarCraft is a game that's been beaten and bruised and needs to go back to its lair, lick its wounds, and heal up. Blizzard and it’s development team need to take a step back and look at what the game has done well and not so well. What portions of the game do people like what don’t they like, and most importantly, how can we make it more fun?
Designing the game around it’s potentially competitive aspect is a bad idea. The most important function of a game like StarCraft is, fun. Sadly, StarCraft 2 for majority of people just isn’t fun in it’s present state. While drastically changing the 1v1 environment to make it more casually friendly would cause more harm than good, redesigning and marketing the 2v2, 3v3, and 4v4 portions of the game as well as arcade can help regain that lost casual market. As long as you don’t imbalance the competitive aspect in favor of the casual multiplayer experience you should still see a strong competitive scene.
Blizzard needs to avoid LoL and DOTA 2 at all cost, focusing on making their game and WCS as good as possible and let the chips lie where they fall. Tournament organizers need to check how they host and produce events, thinking outside the box to offer the audience something they can not get from the LCS and DOTA 2 and they may see a resurgence in the viewing scene.
Fixing StarCraft 2 is not an easy task that one person or organization can do on their own. It will need collaboration from developers, tournament organizers, players, and the community itself. Without all parties involved the scene will become more and more niche until the money and support from third-party sources, and eventually Blizzard itself will run out.
I still think StarCraft is the best viewer experience for a competitive game out there. Seeing the history of this vaunted franchise and genre disappear would be a tragic circumstance for the world of competitive gaming as well as the gaming industry. Lets just hope the issues get fixed, and then a new age of StarCraft begins.