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.

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!