Review: Free to Play: Documentary – Valve’s Magnifier on eSports

Free to Play

Today, Valve’s highly-anticipated documentary, Free to Play has been released. Free to Play’s platform and subject is Valve’s own free-to-play game: Dota 2 and while the main content has some focus around the competitive game, the beauty of this documentary is how representative it is for all eSports whether StarCraft or any other eSport. The three main protagonists, Benedict ‘Hyhy‘ Lim Han Yong, Danylo ‘Dendi‘ Ishutin and Clinton ‘Fear‘ Loomis symbolize the question of choosing what life expects from you; what is the safest route, and following through on your passion, the chase to be the best in something – in Dota 2. Free to Play uses Dota 2 as a platform to introduce these three players and expose its audience the adversities we all face.

Though it is unfortunate that in many areas, this documentary is dated both in how far Dota 2 has come along as well as how much the scene as a whole has grown, it is something that all documentaries will suffer on gaming-related subcultures; especially eSports when everything moves so fast. The timeline of this documentary is set throughout Valve’s first major tournament: The International 2011 where Na’Vi claims first and EHOME ends second. They transition between in-game footage and Source Filmmaker-created content to alleviate the outdated graphics and further inject excitement in the matches for those unfamiliar with the game.

However, on the other hand, Valve plays strongly on its consistency in emotion, story-telling and pacing. They shrug off the small fact that it is outdated and push forward with its exposé of the three main pro-gamers: Singaporean player, Hyhy, Ukrainian Na’Vi competitor, Dendi, and American Evil Geniuses star, Fear. In short, Free to Play has some dated parts, but the stories, emotions and prevalent problems are timeless and culturally contextual.

Free to Play sits on a unique fence of being an easy-to-understand overview of what makes eSports so compelling and so risky as a career for newcomers to the electronic sphere but also intriguing and curious on the inside lives of the players on an individual level and on a cultural level between Eastern Europe, China and North America.

The Free to Play documentary highlights what most of us already involved know, on any level; that eSports is a transitional valued competition. That older generations value what they know; education, sports, music; skills that can be displayed, used or even marketable in the real world. eSports embodies sports through its players, their dedication, determination and passion. The sacrifices these players make, to convince or ignore those who did not initially support them is what we can all resonate with and further shows how much of a leap this transitional generation we are in. A generation where technology captures the timeless essence of our desire to thrive, compete and become the best.

All in all, Free to Play does not break new grounds for most of us, but helps set a presentable front a relatable front for those new to eSports and curious of looking deeper in this new body of subcultural water known as competitive gaming.

You can watch the full documentary on Youtube.com and/or via the Steam Client!

Feature on GLHF Magazine: Getting the Formula Right

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Click the header image to take a look at GLHF Magazine. 

In a special edition of Armchair Athleticism, we’ve been asked to write a piece for GLHF Magazine where we introduce the nuances and differences of eSports competitive infrastructures and goals set by the publishers (mainly: Blizzard Entertainment, Riot Games and Valve).

We will also take a gander at the incorporation of publisher involvement in their respective scenes as well as the obligations expected from each perspective audience already involved (players, fans and established tournament organizers).

Below is an extract of the insight you can find within the article. Click the image above to jump right into the issue.

With the reality of publishers’ now getting involved in eSports; fitting in their view alongside those who have been following eSports for years and actively growing it, can be a difficult project. On the one hand, publishers’ want to ensure the longevity of their game through keeping eSports alive, as it is an emblem of new generation values and the long-standing human nature of competition. On the other hand, event organizations have been surviving on their own alongside teams and players for quite some time now. While a publishers’ blessing can help advertising and marketing for these event organizers’, their demands can sometimes be detrimental to overall business interest or severely limiting in terms of actual growth in that specific eSports title. As time moves forward, it would not be a surprise to see companies be more hands-on with their games and the direction of the eSports sector, but will it be for the better? While we have three clearly distinct forms of growing eSports, neither one nor the other can be truly crowned as ideal for every party involved. Is it better to just put everything in the hands of game publishers like Riot Games, dropping  a ceiling on companies like Turtle Entertainment, Major League Gaming and OnGameNet who have been doing tournaments for years and practically created a sustaining business model. Or should it be more of an open-market like with Dota 2, a sphere everyone can get involved, though it is a dog-eat-dog world where budget and experience trumps out those looking to start from scratch. eSports is a new venture and yet one ideal world or the other also means doors of opportunities close and so do the interest of certain ambitious individuals. In the grand scheme of things, those truly affected by these different models are the fans and the teams/organizations who must play by the rules of the groups that provides them with the prize-money and the stage to compete and entertain [...]

Filtered Growth & Resulted Decline of StarCraft II

Before Heart of the Swarm, there were mentions about how the scene of StarCraft II was ‘dying’; an unclear term as to what extent the eSports competition of StarCraft would dissolve to. While no one denies that the height of StarCraft II has passed after the mid-season of 2012, it’s important to note that some parts of the scene are, in fact, at a decline while others are just the natural filter of a growing subculture. The need to highlight what is worrisome and what is a natural filtered growth of StarCraft II can help create proper direction in terms of focus and urging for future endeavors in those specific fields.

For the past two or three months, I have been thinking about writing something about StarCraft’s situation overall. Actually, since Travis from League of Legends, mentioned, minorly, about how StarCraft is dying (six months ago) and in relation to how people are jumping ship to produce content for League of Legends; I have always wanted to magnify how StarCraft is coming down from its height of new content, personalities and organizations. In October and November, I noted how we were oversupplied on tournaments, new content and a lack of rotation in terms of progaming champions. Now we are starting to see new victors (usually from South Korea) but perceptively less tournaments and webshows. When people highlight the state of StarCraft, they often compare it to that of late 2011, as if the people involved and those on the outside, maintain a consistent and constant interest in a game for years on end. This coming and going, both business-wise and in general, is a filtered growth of the scene: it is the narrowing of relevant content and the decline of new events, streams and bad practices. I do think, in a lot of ways, StarCraft can be improved ranging from spread player-exposure, cycling through newer iconic people as well as Blizzard’s policy/approach in being involved with the community.

(It starts at 6:15) I suggest you take a listen to it, not all of it is relevant to StarCraft, but his personal concerns are mirrored in all eSports of today and the future. It’s insightful because they were concerns mentioned here or within communities in the past.

However, to claim StarCraft II is dying is to overlook the grand scheme of things and to ignore anything from 2010 to now. In essence, just because there is less of something, does not mean there is less popularity or interest. To put into context: despite there being more talk and more support for Dota 2 and League of Legends, does not necessarily correlate to a major decline in StarCraft II. Audiences are not exclusive to games and they are certainly not a limited resource. We’re concluding that the interest of eSports titles has grown.

It’s dying, right? That scene is kind of dying. Maybe Heart of the Swarm will reinvigorate and I will be laughed at whenever it is a much bigger eSport than League of Legends. But I don’t think that’s the case, I don’t think it will die anytime soon, right? But basically in the StarCraft scene: things got really big but it stopped growing shortly after I sorta started following it and then it just sorta started going  downhill, right? But at the same time, the content started going up and up and there was so much saturation of people doing interviews and shows. It just everything got diluted and what I think is happening right now is that there are a lot of StarCraft personalities and content-creators moving over to League of Legends side […]

- Travis from his Youtube series: Monday Musings

The mix understanding of StarCraft’s actual growth is due, in part, of the organizers who stretched their numbers and overhyped their achievements. It’s easy, in retrospect, to look at where we saw StarCraft going and now realizing that perhaps we exaggerated a bit in our feelings of grandeur. Now with RIOT and League of Legends setting new innovations about creating a standard of competition, eSports financial support (Valve especially here) and backing for their competitors, we can’t help but compare it to that of StarCraft II. The notion of the scene dying is due to the disproportion of players in specific regions and the dropping out of organizations, both big and small. However, these should not be the sole factors to make a basis of the scene’s death and in fact, evidence can claim that the fluctuation of tournaments featuring StarCraft and viewership are not as poor as some describe. When the StarCraft scene compares themselves to other E-Sports, the numbers are lost and the discouraged view of “what could have been” ensues. It’s a common issue where people will compare scenes without taking into circumstances of the separate games’ context and this is amongst the strongest reasons these misplaced ideas propagate into real worries.

Monthly viewers 2013 08 all

“What we can say is that SC2 is not dying. The numbers are not going up, clearly, but they are largely stable. Interest in player streams seems to be getting lower, but WCS and other tournaments seem to easily take up the slack to keep the people watching their favorite game.” – courtesy of Conti and his tremendous work regarding Livestream and StarCraft II! I suggest you read all of the topic as there are showings of StarCraft event viewership declining.

Make no mistake, StarCraft II is still a major eSport title and will be for many months and possibly years to come. But the ideologies of it continuing to lead the pack in terms of trend-setting and ushering the general audience of traditional entertainment to eSports is definitely not in the cards. In terms of tournaments, from August 2012 to 2013, we’re actually seeing steady numbers of prize-pools (300 to 650k) across the region (less for North-American and more for Europe and South Korea – thanks to WCS) as well as inclusion of StarCraft II at multi-game events (20 to 18 more or less). We’re not in quite as dire situation as some may be lead to believe, we are just not leading the pack anymore and this is normal in a growing subculture. New foundations are always made to further up the expectations and pull for larger audiences.

Mixed Tournaments

Researched on the 15th of August, so the money is a little outdated (still in favour of the argument however)

eSports Earnings provides a great tool to compare years of tournaments and player earnings. The graphs may feel incomplete, but we’re mainly interested in the prize numbers for 2013 as well as how many multi-game tournaments still include StarCraft II.

What we do see here is less tournament opportunities in place for larger prize-pools by Blizzard Entertainment for each region. So while prize output is good, if not better, the amount of tournaments available for the average competitor is much less. However, without a region lock, we’re seeing a bit of starvation with North-American especially. This starvation of both quantity of major tournaments as well as unlocked regions pushes early retirements for players (fueled by their growing disinterest with the game).

How do we distinguish which is filtered growth and which is true signs of the decline of StarCraft? It’s a matter of context. IGN Pro League’s end and Major League Gaming’s redirection are signs of business: one had bad business practices, as anyone can tell you (though great public presentation), and another saw valuable markets to explore (it could be other aspects as well, there’s never one true reason; just a variety of strong justifications). KeSPA’s restructuring to a more open practice is because of the lack of popularity of StarCraft II in Korea, the WCS format that bottlenecked events and thus the need for that many teams in such a small region (eSF + KeSPA teams all for Proleague and WCS Korea [now OSL & GSL]). These are dissected examples that emphasize context to show which areas are suffering and which are simply moving on.

What I consider to be filtered growth is mostly based on opinion and perception. In 2012, we saw leaps and bounds of major production organization and presentation from the big event organizations. DreamHack always impressed me, but NASL and Turtle Entertainment [IEM/ESL] have also set the notch higher. There is an emphasis on presenters, observers (something Dota 2 hasn’t incorporated yet) and hype. Schedule and time organization have improved and attendance numbers are still very, very high. In essence, while StarCraft is readjusting in their new waistline of competitions and competitors, event organizations are setting new standards of professional work.

Let’s summarize:

  • Prize-pool numbers: Not any lower than we may think, just not as scattered across multiple games. I would say the lack of WCS regions within China and SEA (including Oceania) are issues, including the lack of a region lock to prevent a complete failure of a particular region. Blizzard’s position should be to keep all regions plump with healthy competition while relying on the organizers they commission for WCS production, to attract new audiences (as IEM does with Gamescom and IEM NY with Comic-Con).
  • Tournaments: With amount of reserved time WCS takes, to which no other tournament organizers can broadcast simultaneously with, tournament opportunities have shrunk causing many players to reconsider their options; it also causes team organizations to look into new eSports titles that offer a bit more liberty and marketable numbers for their sponsors.

Additionally, with game developers taking the reins of their scenes, they are also delegating responsibilities and excluding other organizations from producing content. Think how restricted NASL was with StarCraft II content because of Blizzard’s partnership with MLG? This is mirrored across the world and does put a hinder on new businesses. League of Legends also suffers similarly from this issue.

  • Viewership: I find Conti’s consistent work on the subject gives the best evidence. Within this topic, he notes that there are lower viewership numbers, but also that WCS stands on its own successfully. Overall, numbers are stable since Wings of Liberty (more or less) with events still garnering a huge interest (specifically WCS).

In summary, when we saw the strides other eSports titles are hitting, we feel this sense of unaccomplished worth. We compare ourselves to StarCraft of 2009 or StarCraft II of 2011 (Anaheim anyone?) or of Dota 2 and League of Legends. However we never really account for the major flaws of those two games. In many ways, they get things right and take a bigger investment step than Blizzard, but in other forms; the scene still needs growth; similarly with StarCraft. That is not to say that they aren’t doing better than StarCraft, they are just doing things differently and solving areas StarCraft currently suffers from (I’m sure you can think of plenty). Despite this, interest in StarCraft is steady. Declining? At times, but slowly and not looming as near as people may think. It may feel like I’m downplaying the spiraling of this scene, but I rather see it as more of refocusing the factors that matter most and then making note of where we truly stand.

Players Union – Good in Theory

In our last article, we discussed the volatility of a pro gaming career ranging from poor tournament structure and plans to basic game balance and latency. We noted that although these effects are not the final nail towards a player’s career’s coffin, they do play some majoring influences on the mentality of the players, their enjoyment of the game as well as their ultimate future (especially with Blizzard’s World Championship Series being the playing field now). In this article, we aim to consider the idea of a players union; a ‘safety net’ revolving around representing the interests of players and having the support they need throughout their career. While in theory, this idea sounds quintessential towards creating more stability for pro gamers careers, putting it into practice might require more than just organization. Questions such as what would a pro gamer’s association offer, what would be needed to make it successful and is it solvent (financially sound) are amongst the many questions that plague this starting idea and leveling of standard practices.

A couple of months ago, the idea of players unionizing was posted by Evil Geniuses StarCraft II player, Chris ‘HuK’ Loranger. The conversation that ensued seemed optimistic, but little came out of it. This isn’t the first time that unions, in general, have come up in E-Sports : Team Natus Vincere, back in March, pulled out of the Copenhagen Games in view of “disrespectful approach” to create a team association:

Such a disrespectful approach towards the teams causes me to feel an utmost disappointment in modern e-Sports”, says Natus Vincere CEO Alexander “ZeroGravity” Kokhanovsky. I ask all the teams who know me as an individual and trust me as e-Sports functionary to think about the treatment we received this very time. Next week Na`Vi initiates the creation of e-Sports Team Association together with other prominent teams. This organization will drastically change the face of modern e-Sports from the very first day of its creation.”

source: navi-gaming.com

No follow-up on the idea has come up either. The concept of teams or players banding together sounds like a dream come true but nothing has officially materialized. In fact, it took Blizzard Entertainment nearly three years (discounting Brood War times) before creating a form of an association between event organizers across regions. Even this form of event regulating is immensely flawed and detrimental to the growths of these companies. Why does it take so long for any form of representative associations to form and maintain itself for the sake of the groups they aim to support?

Adam Apicella, Operations of Major League Gaming, stated that a player association would create consolidated feedback that would forward event-organizing business as well as enforcing players adhering to standard conduct. However, what it demands from the players as well as those supporting the idea is a lot more crucial to consider than how far an association can reach in terms of influence and control. Below is a concise list of some basic issues a player association faces from its planning to inception:

  • Who will start up an association (who is available to do it)? It is without a doubt that an association would not only be a huge charity of time, but also demand a lot of unbiased perspective from its board of members. Who would be representing and running this association? On what grounds do we establish someone capable of planning and jumpstarting this much-needed org.
  • What are the limits and power of this association? There are many things an association can do, is expected to do and would realistically feel it can achieve. However, there are also many things the scene cannot promise but is expected by most pro gamers. The expectations of treatment of the player’s at events, as a part of a major team and vice-versa would be difficult to uphold and re-enforce. On the opposite end, how would a players union punish a player for not upholding an agreement? Would teams feel comfortably relinquishing that responsibility to a secondary group? When it comes to power and political influence, there is no true line to set, but many gray-zones to discuss and negotiate with all major parties.
  • How would a players union keep and maintain its membership? Because the majority of pro gamers are young male adults, many of them do not apprehend the benefits of a union beyond their own self-benefit. When you are earning below minimum wage and seeking every opportunity to advance yourself; a players union may seem beneficial in the short-run, but demand too much from them in the long-run given the start of this association would be an uphill battle (and require many sacrifices). Either the players union would have an exclusive membership reserved for a small group of the pro gaming population (thus nullifying its relevance and capabilities in political power) or welcome everyone, but be disproportionate in its decisions and enforcement of those (especially when that decision goes against the bottom-majority).

The end-result of a player union would be one that either makes sure the basics are provided for the players (from teams and event accommodations) and the same is expected of them in terms of mannerisms and upholding agreed terms of contract/participation. Because the finances of each event differs so greatly, the common basis of expectancies that a players association can uphold would be rather low, almost redundant in that teams can follow-through themselves and handle each issue on an individual basis. At the start, a players union may be as redundant as foretold here, however in the future we may see the better demand and more rounded services it can offer and follow-up with.

emglogo2 eSports Management Group [LLC.] offers a further middle-man for individual personalities and eSports popular members. Though it is no players union, they offer stronger negotiating power, marketing and content support for a small cut of the client’s earnings.

All in all, a player’s union would be a great asset to establish and improve, but the fundamental adversities it would need to overcome and the amount of constant communication it would have to maintain with players, teams, sponsors, event organizations and game companies might be just too overwhelming currently. I find companies such as the eSports Management Group (LLC.) are a great tool for individual players to rely on for negotiating power and support team to improve their reputability and would like something that for players of all backgrounds and popularity levels. So while there may not be a players union in the near future, a supportive group to back up pro gamers is always in demand and appreciated.

Professional Gamer – A Volatile Career

The idea of a career as a professional gaming competitor is met with skepticism and dismissal as a financially secure path. Making a living out of something that isn’t necessarily seen as either challenging or requiring a lot of general job skills goes against the common norm and values most adults expect in work. With salaries of most pro gaming players below minimum wage, the actual decision to go into a sector of work that is completely underdeveloped is risky and not usually suggested by the E-sports community. Despite these views, the reality of a professional gamer is that it is the foundation of the idea behind this E-sports phenomenon. It is also the factor all other companies depend on to make their service(s) a success. Yet pro gaming is also the most volatile and least secure job in the scene dependent entirely on success of the player and his marketable popularity (in conjunction with his successes). With the issues concerning Blizzard’s World Championship Series and the slow growth of personal sponsorships/support, I continue my public worry about the careers of pro gamers.  Their career’s survivability depends both on their ability to play, but also the details of both their competitive game and potential flaws of tournament structure.

Pro gaming players are the central unit of both community attraction and the piece that all other involved parties, event companies, journalists, team organizations, production crews and commentators, rely on. Yet, they are in a career where they can be treated the least well and with the least financial security both long-term as well as the short. For some well-established players and their parent team, there is no fear of being cut or replaced; teams like Team Liquid, Complexity and Evil Geniuses have shown an outstanding dedication to all their players. But is that the case for all teams? Do all teams have that kind of dedication and experience to responsibly understand the ups and downs of players? Some would argue not and with Blizzard’s World Championship Series laying out the foundation for an extended league series, some teams’ understanding and finances may be tested.

When Blizzard’s World Championship for North-America started with a barrage of issues ranging from site delays to reverse effects in terms of qualifying regional players, concerns about the careers of players started being publicly outspoken. The depth of the issue was outspoken best by Michael ‘Adebisi’ Van Driel, to which he said (in response): “[…] think about how many pro gamers were relying on this [WCS NA Qualifiers] and the difference between being a pro gamer for another six months or not.” This scenario is true for players in China, who are not especially promoted in the scene nor have any qualifiers for their region to stand out from (unlike Korea, Europe and North-America). Their opportunities both at home and abroad are limited and with WCS setting the traffic stops on which tournaments can run simultaneously as other events sanctioned by Blizzard, the likelihood that we will see a prominence in Chinese StarCraft II is limited; can the said the same for the North-American scene.

The NSL Neo Star League is of the few remaining leagues for Chinese players to participate in. Forbes recently released an article detailing League of Legends popularity in China (with Dota 2′s beta just released as well).

Tournament plans, structure and situations have been affecting players since early 2011 (and even before). Issues such as tie-breaking, ‘pointless’ matches and improper administrative decisions have either emotionally affected the players to the point of playing poorly or just not caring for the match such as the situations of NaNiwa vs. NesTea at the Blizzard Cup in late 2011 (courtesy of Liquipedia), XLord vs. Stephano and HomeStory giving the decision of a regame to the players (thanks reddit) or Ret’s poor behavior due to DreamHack’s previously poor  tournament structure of group-play (TeamLiquidPro). User ‘MotBob’ from Team Liquid lays out his opinion and issues with Tie-Breakers (Part 1 & 2), but regardless; these problematic situations occur occasionally between major organizations, even after so much experience. The underlying issue is that despite the occasional hiccup in tournament dilemmas, it still makes or breaks someone’s career and validity in the scene.  In the grand scheme of issues, this amongst the smallest, but also affects the largest and most important body of E-Sports; the players. Evaluating how far this may affect players or how much is just an overreaction to an area that sometimes occurs (no live event happens without some hiccups) would be the tip of the iceberg of pushing towards ideal playing conditions and situations for the players.

What makes pro gaming the most risky and sometimes the most frustrating competitive career (perhaps equal to traditional sports in some aspects) is the fluctuation of balance1. Beyond issues such as latency, improper practice regimen and being on the wrong side of faulty tournament structures, the game that pro gamers dedicate themselves to can be unfavourable. The implicit lack of favouritism in a game’s balance is both unchangeable for the player and a difficulty that scales depending on the developers (and not always in the skillful hands of the player). The issue of balance is both a highly-mentioned complaint of players but also the largest hindrance overlooked by most involved members of the scene. It’s not unusual to read messages from both successful and underachieving players complaining about a certain unit, strategy or a combination of the sorts. In most mainstream sports, the symmetry of rules and capabilities between both teams means all players are typically playing on an even field (at the start) while in video-games, there is, at a minimum, a two-level difficulty scale: one of skillful players improving at different rates and approaches and the balance by game design.

For team games, a debate can be made about how much game balance can affect its participants. Teams outplay one another through strategy, ability to cooperate/communicate as well as through an individual’s aptitude in achieving their role’s tasks.  So in the instance of Dota 2 and League of Legends, one hero/champion may not be the most effective in all situations, players typically must be able to know and play skillfully a large variety of characters that are all characterized with the same intention (or roles: support, ganker, etc.). In addition, to compensate with major perceived imbalances, there is a banning and picking stage to help level the field on both sides (captain’s mode). For StarCraft II, players dedicate themselves to one race for nearly the entirety of their careers (with some exceptions). This dedication must be maintained in order to be able to keep up with other dedicated players as well as the overall demand to execute certain strategies (demand in terms of understanding of key timings to engage your foe as well as actions per minute to execute a vast succession of keystrokes). In addition, maps are changed on a seasonal basis, adding to the layers of possible imbalances or curve disadvantages that may affect the player’s to adapt.

Previously, shows used to revolve around game mechanics and issues within the game. Shows such as Imbalanced! (2011) and Decision-Making (2012) revolved around analyzing and understanding race/team mechanics and their asymmetries.

Typically no one blames balance (minus a few exceptions) for their losses purely because it cannot be changed. Developers, especially within Blizzard Entertainment, make major balance changes on empirical and cumulative showings, meaning; many may lose until they pick up on an issue. Overcoming adversities for players is definitely a part of adaptation. This is an expectancy everyone has on the players but balance has an even larger arching role beyond the game. Sometimes it can be part of the determinant as to whether a player is contracted to a new team or reconsidered , it’s not the deciding factor but an influence either shown through results (or lack thereof) or the trend of current leaders (which is what most premier teams look for).

The impact of game balance, poor tournament structure and administrative rulings may be the least of effects to ultimately bring some professional gamers into retirement, but they are apparent despite. We didn’t discuss the psychological effects of these issues but I’m sure many have read competitors admit to disliking the game they once loved. As mentioned, pro gamers are the center piece to our dining room of a subculture. We revolve around giving them a setting, publicity and exposure, equipment and communication. However making sure they are at work is something that may coincide with those trying to run a business and there is little to help keep players afloat while they transition into a self-supported lifestyle (with future successes or not).  With the ups and downs of players as well as the game, assuring they have a financial safety net or unionized organization to support them as they continue improving without the worries or fears of their financial stability has yet to be truly conceptualized. Few teams support their players after contracts end and even less try referring them to other companies. Who, in the end, looks out for the welfare of the players?

Next article will discuss the proposal of player unions and the lack of financial support for players.

(1 We dictate balance as a part of the game design in which developers configure the strength or power of a  player-controlled unit(s) to either make more ineffective or less effective in its use or influence towards the game’s overall endpoint (victorious/defeat). Imbalanced systems are seen as undermining the intention of the game or dismissing the validity of intended [other] units).

What Blizzard’s World Championship Series Means & Entails

With the announcement of the StarCraft II World Championship Series (2013) made public, many questions and excitement have arose around the scene. Teams, fans and organizers are both delighted with what’s been planned, but also anxious to see how it’ll further the reach of the idea of E-Sports. We called for the idea back in November, 2012 under the article name: Splitting the Scene for Regional Champions with hope that something similar to WCS would be pushed forward to help all scenes and their players prosper and rank amongst one another:

“But at the same time, there is definitely a lack of outlets for foreign players to shine and rank themselves amongst one another with a monetary prize-finish at the end. The suggestion of regional-prized tournaments ranging from different levels helps alleviate the frustrations for many players and connect them back with challengers they can build off from one another.

[…] A good mix of region-based leagues and international tournaments creates a balanced and constant cycling of both aspiring professional players and levels of champions from local to national to international. With a more gradual spread of tournaments, there should be a result of less emphasis on having a Korean (currently the best players) on your team and more demand for foreigners to improve instead of becoming the marketing extremity. This will also add more stable grounds for smaller teams to compete rather than rely on mercenaries to compensate (Team Legion, Check-Six, Alt-Tab) for roster inadequacies.”

This World Championship Series from Blizzard is definitely in the right step, but also has various drawbacks. Their reasons to create this season World Championship Series is a dilemma readers and fans are probably already familiar with:

“First, while the abundance of tournaments spawned tons of lively competition, it also made it difficult for players and teams to avoid scheduling conflicts. More importantly, for spectators, there was nothing tying the events together to create a unified storyline, and it was hard to identify who the best players were from week to week.”

[we wrote the same things in The Lack of Storytelling in E-Sports’ Events (Dec. 2012)  and The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems (Nov. 2012)]

WCS Schedule

Indeed, as explained in the 2013 WCS overview, this system not only creates a proper boundary schedule for any person’s career (between April and November), it also allows for tournament organizations to properly line up their event for equal distribution of fan-interest as well as high-player attendance (both from the reputable players to the aspiring ones).

In 2010 and 2011, Blizzard was in the background, delegating power and rights to various groups to establish a base of major tournaments and organizations. 2012 and 2013, they shifted away from a background position to being the forefront and captain of the E-Sports boat. Their semi-RIOT LCS (League of Legends) and FGC EVO (fighting games) system enables a consistent format for spectators to comprehend. It streamlines importance for all events of all regions equally and events within WCS (ESL, MLG, GSL, OGN/OSL and Proleague) grant seedings to WCS Season Finals. Here are some of the positives that WCS entails:

  • Creates an even schedule of multiple seasons, allowing for proper budgetary planning and scheduling for players and teams (I expect contracts to be drawn up less annually and more every two seasons, especially with newer recruits).
  • It creates regional champions and helps teams earn reputation and reward for their players (see: Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Limits power struggles between organizations and the need to “one-up” one another through amount of prize-pool (to thus attract popular pro gamers) and other tactics
  • Easy system to rank players regionally and worldwide to know who really is the best not through number of achievements, but through consistent performance and ranked points.
  • Allows the possibility of new champions rising and recycles those who longer are ahead of the curve.

The drawbacks to this system are evident, but were also inevitable as the scene expanded beyond its capability and reached.  What people called “oversaturation” was merely a race to be relevant and a staple to the E-Sport. MLG, ESL and OGN/GSL are clearly the winners here and while Blizzard’s point-system can also be attributed to non-WCS events, it also means the following:

  • NASL (NA), DreamHack (EU) and Proleague (KeSPA) [KR] will likely be part of the scoop of points attributed to WCS rankings and seeds, it also means they are considered second-class events due to their less impactful effect on a WCS season.
  • This point-system also means that any other tournament organizations looking to get involved in StarCraft II will have a steeper climb to reach relevancy.
  • Minor tournaments will likely see even less activity and participation as WCS online components of participation will attract many aspiring players (since it is more likely to attract a major team’s attention: see; Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Events that are not associated with WCS nor receiving points to attribute to WCS seedings will have to fit their events within the championship series (and also create a reason why people should watch it).

As stated, the drawbacks are minor given the downward slope in terms of number of new tournaments and competitions being created. The online portion of WCS will also attract cheaters and potential hackers, but that is something that is both inevitable and small in exchange for convenience and widening the ability to attract as many new competitors as possible.

The truth of it all is that Blizzard’s World Championship Series is a step in the right direction, few disagree, many don’t agree with some of the smaller issues such as the pseudo-region lock.  Such as ways to bypass the system in which Koreans will be in North American system knowing they are not up to snuff to prevail in the GSL/OSL and Proleague. The point system can also be trouble if improperly balanced where we may see another Pool Play issue (players who have not been succeeding, continue to maintain seedings and points due to their achievement many months ago). In short, the faults and issues with the World Championship Series are both minor and hastening the process that was occurring already, the upside to it all is that the prize-money is elevated, the opportunity to compete is less costly and stories are created. With Blizzard’s WCS, the foundation of competition is elevated and the next step for StarCraft II has begun!

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm – An Overview & Review

Swiftly lead by an impressive beta, the release of StarCraft II’s expansion: Heart of the Swarm brought out many balance changes and UI improvements to the series. High expectations were set on the direction of StarCraft II not only as an E-Sport, but as an entertaining game overall. These expectations exploded during the public disapproval of Blizzard’s lack of public appeal. There was public backlash for their inability in improving the title on a multiplayer and singleplayer level (after so many years of clamoring), also in view of Battle.net 2.0’s long list of criticisms since its implementation. People wanted more and hammered the company for months (even years for some features) begging for utilities that made the game less secluded for the user and more open towards cooperative play such as: additional building blocks to improve the player and enhanced modes both in gameplay and in variety of tools (shared replays, resume from replay, unranked matches, etc).

As Heart of the Swarm opened its servers, there was impatience to see how Blizzard could outdo their exciting beginnings of Wings of Liberty, and renew the passion of old followers and fans of the genre (RTS) and scene. In short, they have hit their mark and the expansion delivers what was urged but not without some drawbacks in many areas of the game.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is split into singleplayer and multiplayer, both completely different in value and appeal. In the singleplayer aspect, the players are jumped into the perspective of Sarah Kerrigan, previously the Queen of Blades in Wings of Liberty and is returning once more after an ambush separates her from her two-way unrequited love with Jim Raynor. An arch of vengeance, power struggle and a yearning to be reunited with someone who said he’d never give up on her (doesn’t get more deep than that) are what’s to be expected in this sequel. While the gameplay and missions are definitely just as varied as the missions in Wings of Liberty, the story and dialogue leave much to be desired and can only be compared to that of Star Wars: Episode II. One thing to note is that you will never play any of the other races in the campaign (neither Protoss or Terran).

Snapshot 4

Though many of these “mutations” or customizations cannot be found outside of the singleplayer, truly enhance how to go about completing your missions and keeping in a “Zerg”-style way.

What the singleplayer lacks in creative story development, it makes up in missions and customization. You will soon find that the game plays more like WarCraft III with control of a “hero” or main character (with strong abilities) than purely a real-time strategy game and the missions definitely compliment this area. Also, the personal touch of your units are fitting with the Zerg-esque feel where you can modify your units with advantageous perks, exclusive evolutions and tutorial missions to let you try both evolutions out (to better your selection). To add, your hero can be leveled, allowing Kerrigan to obtain unique powerful abilities. The singleplayer side of the game however lacks miscellaneous activities ranging from minigames that we saw in Wings of Liberty (The Lost Viking) to no new challenges that let you improve your ability with each race. As always, Blizzard Entertainment delivers in ambiance, amazing cinematic cutscenes and of course their epic music (you can even pause in the cutscenes to take these kinds of snapshots!)

Snapshot 1

Pretty impressive stuff. There are many cinematic scenes like this, even more action-packed than ever before.

On the multiplayer side, since Wings of Liberty, “improving” would be the summation here. Ranging from AI difficulty levels, builds and diverse game mechanics towards various ranked/unranked matchups really lets the player make the game as serious or jokingly as they want. The welcoming of new units definitely refreshes the game and creates new scenarios and approaches towards winning for the player (though the question of if its balance is still arguable). Free-for-all mode is still lacking in terms of maps and uniqueness though the arcade feature still has some amazing games both promoted by Blizzard and the community themself. The varied custom games navigation and UI, however improved, still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in finding something beyond the top ten most popular custom games (and searching those who want to play it).

The tools brought into Heart of the Swarm are what really make those still hesitant to return, reconsider going back to the game. The options menu has expanded to having more graphical options, customization of hotkeys (hotkeys for the singleplayer do not overlap with the multiplayer) and how involved you want the client to help you in your multiplayer matches (from enabling/disabling your mouse from clicking on enemy units to auto-gathering your workers at the start of the game). In addition, your profile card is also both concise and expanded in various menus and the rewards in playing multiplayer matches is displayed through your profile picture, experience and levels as well as interesting skins for your units and animations (dancing and such). The UI for spectator mode can also be customized for tournament organizers, removing the unnecessary graphics for the spectator and delivering more essential information to better view progaming matches. Everything is slick and smooth in navigating through Battle.net and a major improvement from the previous version where a lot of empty areas were brimming with potential use.

Snapshot 2

The UI is sleek, attractive and concisely informative. Everything is available either in a drop-down menu or through sectioned menus.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm delivers a lot to those already in love with the series. Tutorials, challenges and custom games also hold onto players who love the game more than for its competitive ladder and leagues. Its aim to create new ways to connect and cooperate with others through groups, clans, resume from replays and more really lessen the secluded and sometimes frustrating tone of the game and expand its options. However, there is still much more to be done with the game story-wise as well as within the UI, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is off to a great start and appeals to the expectations of many people who started with StarCraft II back in 2010 and perhaps regain those who have given up on the series and E-Sport. There are many minor features not elaborated in this review that you’ll come to appreciate (like end-of-match reports and statistics, map info/screenshots/patch notes/review, concise friendslist, etc.), but in short, Heart of the Swarm is definitely worth its cost. In comparison to Wings of Liberty, it does not feel short for an expansion. As a series on its own, it feels complete, but could still use additions in regards to team-games/FFA  (balance & better maps), dialogue/story as well as qualities like team matches, or qualities found in WarCraft III like daily/weekly tournaments and chat features. Nonetheless, if you love Real-Time Strategy games and pine for a compelling singleplayer, advanced multiplayer to really devote your time and energy in improving yourself: StarCraft II can feel very rewarding for the competitive fan.