StarCraft 2’s WCS vs. Dota 2’s The International: unforced errors and babies in bathwater

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The irony of this troubled summer season in Blizzard’s StarCraft 2 World Championship Series is that, after a rocky first season, the WCS is putting out some of the best games and broadcasts professional StarCraft 2 has seen. It doesn’t end at WCS, either: DreamHack Valencia was superb, and European and even North American pros are starting to get better results across the board. Competitive StarCraft 2 is as dramatic and enjoyable as ever, but to judge from stagnant-to-declining viewership, that’s the best-kept secret in eSports.

And with Blizzard’s decision to host its three regional finals in a single weekend, at the same time Valve is hosting The International, it looks like that secret is going to stay safe with Blizzard.

It’s outrageously frustrating watching Blizzard sabotage their own game with misplaced priorities and bizarre thinking. The statement from Blizzard eSports manager Kim Phan regarding the overlap with The International 3 was another example of Blizzard’s frustrating approach to eSports:

“…We wanted to have ESL produce a world-class Finals event at Gamescom in Germany in late August… Unfortunately this has resulted in overlaps with other major eSports events. These conflicts were certainly not intentional. This simple fact is that as eSports has grown with more events, more games, and more viewers; it’s nearly impossible to avoid all conflicts. Many major weekend events already host multiple games, which are running simultaneous game streams in conflict with each other.”

This did not go over well, with Evil Geniuses’ Geoff “iNcontroL” Robinson saying on Reddit, “All 3 finals on 1 weekend is bad enough (audience will have fatigue at the end) but you are also polarizing your viewership. People will absolutely choose one or the other whereas if they had 2 different weekends to watch they’d go with both TIL3/WCS finals. …I cannot possibly pretend I am not absolutely disgusted by this.”

John “TotalBiscuit” Bain, owner of Axiom eSports, unloaded on Blizzard, saying, “Blizzard are God damn idiots. The sheer hubris, the sheer arrogance of this decision boggles my mind.”

When the priests of the StarCraft faithful are saying that nobody wants to watch all three regional finals in a single weekend, you have to start wondering what constituencies Blizzard are actually serving with their administration of the WCS and professional StarCraft. And when Blizzard themselves say that Gamescom drove the timing of their regional finals, you start to wonder if Blizzard really understand that major eSports championships are events in their own right.

This is the issue with WCS in a nutshell. On the one hand, it has created a glut of pro StarCraft events that seems to have dampened the enthusiasm of a lot of the audience. With three seasons happening this year, each stacked on top of the last, it’s easy to get burned-out on a season that seems to drift ever onwards with only a vague sense of resolution or importance. Even when the season is really exciting, like the current WCS Season 2, Blizzard goes and dumps its three divisional finals on your plate like a surly waiter: “Want some StarCraft, I gotcher StarCraft right here!”

I cannot imagine how eye-glazing that finals weekend is going to be. This aspect is actually even worse than scheduling against The International: even if you don’t care about TI3, you still face a choice between dedicating an entire weekend to round-the-clock StarCraft or missing the climactic events for the StarCraft divisions you’ve been enjoying.

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And yet a week later we have a date so important that Blizzard cannot dare miss it: Gamescom, with its potential for a “world-class Finals event”.

I can understand why Blizzard and ESL might want the crowds of Gamescom, but the notion that a trade show is in any way necessary to create a “world-class Finals event” is laughable. The International can stand on its own, so does just about everything Riot does with the LCS. The trick to creating a world-class eSports event is to combine great production with great competition in a format your community will enjoy. Everything else is window-dressing.

This, perhaps, is the real cost of having a company that ultimately doesn’t depend on eSports suddenly take over the entire competitive scene. While you could argue that Riot and Valve both depend on fan engagement to drive the success of their MOBAs (and even there, the impact of eSports initiatives on the bottom line is hard to parse), Blizzard can’t very well sell StarCraft fans more StarCraft. So we get bizarre reasoning that places the mainstream crowds of Gamescom above the health of competitive StarCraft and the enjoyment of its community. And we likely look forward to another round of stories about the comparative decline of StarCraft in the face of MOBA domination.

Which is a shame, because as exasperating as this decision is, the WCS has the potential to turn into something special. In some ways it already is. WCS America Season 2 is more competitive and enjoyable than Season 1, and WCS Europe is reliably superb. Some of Blizzard’s decisions are starting to pay off. But right now the WCS needs a little more space and time. Blizzard must stop drowning the audience in constant WCS play, give some space for non-WCS events to thrive, and show more respect for their own finals. Then maybe the WCS would be as great as StarCraft 2 and its players.