Disperse the South Koreans! How Blizzard’s new tournament design saved its StarCraft 2 competitions
Last year's StarCraft 2 Battle.net World Championship was a flop. It had some good moments, and it introduced many viewers to Scarlett, one of North America's fan favorites, but the overall championship proved disappointing.
Blizzard made a reasonable choice that ended up backfiring in a big way. Each region held several national tournaments, and then the best in each country played each other to determine the best in each continent. The North Americans only played North Americans, and the same went for the Europeans and Asians.
The idea was that we'd get to know each national and continental scene better by seeing them play often. This only works if all the regions were created equally, but they are not, and North America suffered in comparison to other regions with well-known and well-liked players.
The upside was that we got to meet new hometown heroes like Scarlett, and ViBE. The downside was that they then went on to the World Championships in Shanghai just to get beat by more experienced Korean players.
The production values for the finals in Shanghai were likewise disappointing, and they spawned some terrible-but-funny moments, particularly when the casters mics kept turning on during commercial breaks and viewers could hear them shouting “Spider? Spider. Spider? Spider!” at someone on the production crew, who is most likely named 'Spider.' But beyond the funny, there were also stream crashes at pivotal moments, and ads that would start playing in the middle of a match or while a commentator was speaking.
The final tournament brought all regions together to determine the best in the world, and it went as predicted: the South Koreans crushed everyone and placed 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The result was a final tournament that was boring to watch, and that's the kiss of death for a spectator sport. With only four South Korean players allowed in the tournament, some of the best players were excluded.
Small changes, big changes
Blizzard changed key aspects of the tournament in 2013. The biggest change to tournaments was the ability to play outside your region during earlier competitions.
This change should have resulted in South Koreans spreading throughout the globe to dominate every region, but so far the best of the best stayed in South Korea, but some great players moved to North America and Europe to compete in those territories.
StarCraft 2 is a powerful spectator game, but it's easiest to enjoy when you understand the players and the stories behind the matches. The dispersal of Korean players into the other leagues gave us those great names and great stories. I love the game, but I couldn't give a crap about a match between Suppy and Machine. But Suppy against Ryung? Suddenly things are much more interesting.
While these names may not mean much if you don't follow competition, a match between two up-and-coming North Americans is boring, but a match between an up-and-coming North American and a well-respected South Korean player is a huge draw. The underdog narrative is compelling, and Blizzard's league changes made the North American region much more entertaining.
Rise of the Europeans
While the North American tournament is full of underdogs like Suppy and Scarlett trying to take on much more established players, the European tournament showed that the EU is a talented area full of world class players that could be great if given the right opportunity to hone their skills against the best in the world.
The final matches of the tournament proved just that as South Korean mainstays ForGG and StarCraft 2 legend Mvp squared off against Europeans like the delightful Dimaga and the divisive, but dominant Stephano.
These weren't David vs Goliath matches but fantastic competitions that included some shocking moments and one of the greatest games of StarCraft 2 in recent memory, the long Game 2 of Mvp vs Dimaga, shown above.
This is what Blizzard was aiming for all along: The creation of active local scenes with hometown heroes. The missing ingredient was an Apollo Creed for these Rocky Balboa's to face off against. When all of the unknowns play against each other, nobody watches. But when the unknowns are playing against the greats then people tune in, and the unknowns are given a chance to gain fans.
While the European regional tournament was wrapping up, Riot Games was in Shanghai hosting a lavish event for the League of Legends All-Star Game, and more than one StarCraft 2 personality took to Twitter to reflect on SC2's place in eSports as well as last year's disappointing SC2 championship in the same city.
It was a sobering moment of reflection on how far ahead League of Legends has pulled away from StarCraft 2 in terms of popularity. However, it was also a reminder that Riot is paving the way, while benefiting all competitive gaming. After all, it was Riot that pioneered much of the league structure that Blizzard has adopted for StarCraft 2 competition.
Still, the improvement has been great, featuring killer tournaments mixed with new and established players that are finally giving StarCraft 2 the high-drama and consistent storyline that it needs to thrive.