The 2015 WCS StarCraft 2 season begins, but is it too much of a good thing?

Chris "HuK" Loranger grins during an interview at IEM San Jose.

Following eSports sometimes feels like going to Hell’s Ironic Punishment Division, where you’re force-fed your favorite things until you go mad. “You like eSports, Homer? Have all the eSports in the world!” This weekend, with three major StarCraft tournaments concluding on the same day, is one of those times.

But eSports scheduling clashes are nothing new. What’s surprising this time around is that these tournaments all have championship implications for 2015. Less than a month after StarCraft crowned its world champion, the 2015 campaign has already begun.

I’m not sure I like it.

Earlier on Wednesday, I was watching the first stage of IEM San Jose and heard someone remark that, right now, Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon is the world’s top-ranked player. If you don’t follow StarCraft, this is a bit like hearing Zombie Eisenhower is projected to win the 2016 presidential election.

But it’s also striking how WCS has become a continuous loop. The promise of the WCS system was that it would standardize competitive StarCraft and put all the disparate tournaments into a comprehensive framework. Now, instead of trying to assess the relative value of an Intel Extreme Masters victory versus an MLG title, and trying to compare either to a Korean GSL tournament, we have WCS points. The “Premier” WCS tournaments are worth the most, but third-party tournaments contribute points as well. In theory, the top-ranked players are the ones who perform the best across these weighted tournaments.

The trouble is, sometimes it feels like the world of StarCraft has gotten smaller under WCS. Setting aside the “dead game” rhetoric, the thing about StarCraft in 2012 was that it was big, confusing… and diverse. There was a corps of star players who travelled to most of the major tournaments, wherever they were, but each region seemed to have its own cast of characters. A DreamHack lineup looked a little different from an IEM lineup, and both were worlds apart from an MLG or an IPL.

And the tournaments series all had their own quirks. MLG would use maps that were well past their expiration, while GSL had a very different, carefully curated map pool of its own. There was always overlap, but the major tournaments all had a unique character (for better and for worse).

eSports gentrification

I used to lament the chaos of eSports. And I’m generally pretty happy with how eSports have improved over the last couple years. Standards are higher than I’ve ever seen, and StarCraft in particular has a stable and expertly-produced tournament circuit. But I worry that with WCS turning into a year-round affair, we’ve lost a lot of StarCraft’s regional character. A lot of of the same Korean players appear at tournament after tournament, racking up WCS points so that they can have a shot at the WCS title in November. Meanwhile, everyone but the elite Europeans and North Americans gets shut-out.

In a way, this is exactly what WCS was meant to do. Putting WCS points on the line at every tournament raised the incentive for great players to show up, which also make the tournament more prestigious. Heaven knows there were a few “who cares” tournaments back in 2012, where a couple decent players simply smashed the game’s junior varsity. Now, no matter what’s going on, you’re probably going to see quite a few big-name stars playing against each other.

I’ve never been someone to obsess over the idea of a “foreigner hope”, the European or American who could break the Korean hammerlock on StarCraft 2. But I do miss the days when there was a European scene that had its own identity, and was relevant in its own back yard. One of the things I loved about StarCraft, when I first got into it, was that it felt like the Olympics every weekend. Now it feels like when the NFL plays at Wembley.

MMA, a young Korean man, slumps at a computer looking disenchanted.

Credit:Frederike Schmitt / DreamHack (cropped from original)

Freelancer Andrew Groen, who used to cover eSports extensively (sometimes for this very site) until he became an MMO historian, always used to say, “Who cares?” when I brought this stuff up. He was into StarCraft to see the best of the best go at it. MarineKing vs. DRG, Life vs. Mvp? Bring it on. Grubby vs. SLivko? Not so much. Why have hamburger when you could have steak?

But we already have the premier leagues now, and the WCS points system for just about every major tournament. If you want to watch the best Koreans play against each other, you can do that just about every other weekend during the season. But here in December? I’m ready for something different. Especially since letting players farm smaller tournaments for WCS points leads to things like a lackluster Jaedong going to the Global Finals instead of sOs or Rain.

The truth is, I’d like for there to be a real WCS off-season. I’d like to see more experimental map pools used for competitive play, and more region-focused play. I’d like the time between Blizzcon and the start of GSL Season 1 to feel a bit like the sloppy, colorful StarCraft of 2012.

On the other hand, if we keep getting slugfests like this classic between Life and ForGG, 2014 can stick around as long as it wants. Maybe I shouldn’t be looking a gift-horse in the mouth.

Anyway, while this weekend might offer some more of the same in some respects, there’s still some great stuff that’s worth tuning in for.

What to Watch

IEM San Jose: Today, 9 PM UK / 4 PM Eastern

This is a bit of an odd duck, since half tournament occurs on Thursday in the ESL’s American studios, while the other half happens on Sunday in San Jose’s SAP Center. Honestly, this is the exact kind of tournament I’ve just been complaining about. Season 3 maps, Polt, Jaedong, Bomber, and HyuN in the group stages. Great players, but at this point, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before.

Still, it’s worth tuning in for Thursday’s group stage at. With players like Rain and Snute in the mix, plus North American talent like HuK and qxc, Thursday could give us a few surprises and a chance to enjoy some players we don’t see often enough.

The League of Legends side might be more interesting, though. With the possibility of Cloud 9 vs. Alliance, and a showmatch between George “HotshotGG” Georgallidis and Brandon “Saintvicious” DiMarco, each leading a team of early LoL stars, the IEM LoL tournament really will let us enjoy something completely different.

Hot6 Last Big Tournament: Sunday at 9 AM UK / 4 AM Eastern.

I’m setting my alarm clock for this one, and it’s probably my pick of the weekend. This tournament features MarineKing in a semifinal against Joo “Zest” Sung Wook. It’s Last Year’s Man versus StarCraft’s Man of the Year.

That MarineKing is back, after Life basically ate his heart live on Korean TV and MarineKing rode off into the sunset of League, is surprising. That he is back in a GSL semfinal, even if it is not a Code S premier tournament, is remarkable. For someone like me, who got into StarCraft watching MarineKing in MLG, this is a can’t-miss tournament. Who knows how many more chances we’ll have to watch MarineKing have his heart broken right before our eyes?

Fragbite Masters Season 3: Saturday, 12 PM UK / 7 AM Eastern

Fragbite Masters is not a WCS tournament and, it just so happens, the only tournament this weekend that has featured a lot of European talent. The only Korean still in the hunt is MMA, while Dmitry “Happy” Kostin, Patrick “Bunny” Brix, and German newcomer Fabian “GunGFuBanDa” Mayer all hope to deny him the title.

The semis are happening on Saturday, while the Grand Final is on Sunday at 2 PM UK / 9 AM Eastern.

This is a golden opportunity for Bunny and Happy to score a major victory, or for GunGFuBanDa to make a name for himself.