Here at the sharp end of the 2013 eSports calendar, we can start to see what the next year of StarCraft will look like. In the past few weeks we had the WCS Global Finals, the DreamHack Winter StarCraft 2 Finals, Red Bull Battle Grounds, IEM Singapore, and the finale of the World Cyber Games. It’s been a packed schedule, but also a diverse and entertaining one.
It’s also hopefully a sampling of what awaits us next year as Blizzard make some much-needed and long-awaited changes to their World Championship Series. If they bear fruit, we should have a 2014 competitive season that is easier to follow, more enjoyable to watch, and features a more diverse set of tournaments and players.
The World Championship Series has gone from tragicomedy to near-greatness since Blizzard first started trying to organize competitive StarCraft in 2012. The hiccups that undercut the 2012 championship in Shanghai are largely gone, and the poor organization and production that defined the early 2013 season have been solved. WCS 2013 succeeded in one of its primary objectives: unifying global competitive StarCraft with consistent production and broadcast standards.
Of course, Blizzard’s approach also created a lot of new issues. The open regions allowed Korean players to dominate the softer European and American leagues, which was especially hard on North America’s lagging StarCraft competitive scene. The crowded WCS schedule, with the three regions running concurrent tournaments, plus Challenger League broadcasts, oversaturated the StarCraft viewership and led to diminished excitement and diminished opportunities for non-WCS events.
With these issues in mind, Blizzard have made dramatic revisions to how WCS will work in 2014. They’ve introduced a sort of soft region-lock, reserving spots in both the American and European divisions for players from particular areas outside Korea. The hope is that these reserved positions in the Premier League will help regional competitors stay relevant, so that the highest level of WCS is not so transparently an all-Korean affair.
They also plan on cutting the WCS broadcast schedule down to two broadcasts per division per week, meaning we shouldn’t have any more of those awful marathons where the European and American division were playing back-to-back three or four days in a row. They will also not be broadcasting Challenger League games, which took up a tremendous amount of broadcast time and sometimes gave the impression that the WCS was a neverending eSports purgatory from which no one could ever escape.
I’m sorry. I had a rough summer. The scars are still fading.
The reduced broadcast load, with six weeks between seasons and no more seasonal global finals, should also open the eSports calendar up so that we get more events like DreamHack, IEM, and Battle Grounds. With luck, we should also see more regional events like SHOUTcraft, where rising stars in less globally competitive territories can get some tournament experience and exposure. With WCS points being more liberally awarded at “WCS Global events” (think DreamHack or IEM events), it should also ensure that non-WCS tournaments can draw better attendance from points-hungry WCS competitors.
A cloud for every silver lining
On the other hand, as Greg “IdrA” Fields pointed out in an opinion piece over at OnGamers, Blizzard’s changes may not be quite as far-reaching as they appear. The soft region lock is mightily undercut by the the fact that Koreans already competing in Europe and America can continue playing there unimpeded.
As Fields put it: “Now instead of watching mid-level Koreans compete with each other, occasionally producing good games even if the players themselves weren’t very personable, we’ll get a handful of Koreans who were lucky enough to get grandfathered in from last year bashing on the non-Koreans who now get to progress a little bit further before getting knocked out.”
On the other hand, WCS has to serve many interests. While regional pros are desperate for prize money and exposure so they can invest in their careers, there are a lot of StarCraft 2 fans who simply do not take tournaments seriously unless they allow the very best players to compete. I’ll admit that, for my part, my interest in a tournament is directly related to how many star players are in the lineup. It is the Bombers, TaeJas, and Soulkeys of the StarCraft world who keep me coming back, staying awake late into the night to watch their games.
It wasn’t the North American StarCraft championship that made Scarlett a superstar: it was her steadily improving performances against elite foes over the course of 2013. Blizzard are attempting to find a compromise solution between two competing interests in the StarCraft community and, like any good compromise, it has left many people discontent. But the fact remains that StarCraft fans want both the best players and local heroes to be competing for major championships, and the 2014 system maybe the be the best way of arriving at that.