StarCraft II in Western e-sports: Is the Korean model needed?

StarCraft II in Western e-sports: Is the Korean model needed?

E-sports is at a major turning point. With the release of StarCraft II being heralded as the biggest thing to happen to the industry in it’s roughly decade old history, many believe it will be the key to bringing e-sports into the spotlight of mainstream media in the West. However, due to the way mainstream Western media works, trying to make e-sports 'mainstream' by giving tournaments television time will not work nearly as well as it would with using the same strategies, but through the vehicle of online media. Also, the games developer, Blizzard, has shaped the multiplayer experience in such a way that most players are aware of the competitive scene.

The history

It is South Korea that StarCraft fans point to and exclaim "I wan't my country to be like that!" In order to understand why that simply isn't feasible, one must understand how StarCraft came to be a part of Korean culture. The rise of StarCraft in Korea was a grand mixture of economic uncertainty, exquisite timing and luck. With the Asian financial crash of the late 1990s taking its toll on Korea, all economic emphasis was on spending the minimal amount of money possible. For many teenagers this came in the form of gaming, and with long lingering bad blood with the Japanese after World War II, Japanese made consoles weren’t an option. As one observer put it, “[Japan and Korea’s feud] resulted in Japanese goods being either completely omitted from the Korean market place or carrying a price tag with more digits than a Korean phone number.” In 1995 the government introduced widespread broadband over Korea, at the cost of US$1.5 billion, giving tens of millions of Koreans the chance to buy cheap PCs with fast and inexpensive internet. It came as no surprise that online gaming took off a few years later with the release of StarCraft. While online gaming was great at home, the real trend was hoards of young gamers swarming to Korean internet café’s (known as PC bangs). It’s understandable now that Korea has more than 26,000 internet cafes, earning $428 million per year according to the Health Ministry. Because of this widespread internet and gaming culture, competitive gaming is seen as a normal thing to do for young Koreans, instead of having the nerdy stigma attached that it has in the West. Luckily, this stigma is starting to disappear. With millions of Koreans playing, and being the best in the world, StarCraft made its way onto Korean television. Lots of gamers played, and so obviously lots of gamers would tune in to see the best of the best play. Hugely profitable companies started to venture into e-sports after this, sponsoring teams in the mid 2000s, injecting professionalism into a group of players, making them into a slick, practicing machine.

Famous picture of a Korean crowd for a StarCraft match

Titles like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the Halo series and even Guitar Hero games are introducing a whole new wave of gamers into the online experience. Starcraft II is having the same effect on gamers worldwide, with players of every genre swarming to play, news reports from all over the globe are pointing to signs that StarCraft II is selling record numbers. It would seem logical that the West would then follow suit the way Korea did – moving the nationwide hobby of StarCraft onto the television, for all to see and enjoy. However, in the West (especially in the United States), it simply wont work as well as online media would.

The CGS - a failed attempt

One must only look at the Championship Gaming Series (CGS) to understand how gaming translated to the television in the United States (and in Season 2 of the CGS, to Europe and some of Asia as well). While the CGS seems to act as a lightning rod of hate from many in the e-sports community, it serves, perhaps more importantly, as a lesson to show the mistakes that were made. As Marcus ‘djWHEAT’ Graham said on his e-sports podcast Live on 3, “[for the future of e-sports] it is imperative that they don’t make the same fucking mistakes that these companies made.” The choice of games to broadcast was often criticized as the biggest mistake made – a valid point, and Counter-Strike: Source (CSS) often took the brunt of that hatred.  Many fans of the CS series were outraged at the decision to switch from Counter-Strike 1.6 (known commonly as 1.6) to CSS, the game which many saw as inferior in gameplay but much ‘prettier’, something that the television cameras would much rather. Herein lies the main problem of televising e-sports in the United States – the heart and soul of the game will be taken away in favor of pretty graphics, lame catchphrases (BACKBREAKER!!!) and introverted gamers shuffling on stage awkwardly to give post-game interviews with a twenty-something hipster who has no idea what they’re talking about. The community made rules have evolved since the birth of e-sports, and shouldn’t be messed with.

E-sports in Korea became huge because the people who broadcasted, produced and casted it genuinely loved it, and it was broadcast in the simplest of ways, keeping the humility and innocence of the game and gamers intact. Two players sitting alone in booths, waging war through a mouse and keyboard. The gamers were already an in built audience, but the problem is attracting and building upon a target audience, while trying not to dumb down the complex gameplay too much. The CGS showed the CS:S matches in third person, attempting to copy how mainstream team sport games were shown. This shows how ‘TV people’ take the heart of the game out – imagine watching a Counter-Strike match or a QuakeLive duel in the third person, and harder yet, imagine trying to commentate and follow the action. The game format was also changed, instead of the matches being a more standard MR15 (15 rounds per side, first to 16), the CGS changed to MR9, along with the starting money being bumped up from $800 to the maximum, $16,000. This is more or less like starting a StarCraft II game with limitless minerals and gas, or a QuakeLive duel with all weapons and full health and armor. This eliminated the all important pistol round, but was necessary to do so that the matches would finish faster, as the TV time is non-negotiable. Speaking on the topic of time limitations on television, Graham said “A [StarCraft] game could last 5 minutes and it could last 20 minutes, that’s not okay when you’re doing a live television broadcast.” While it seems anything can be put on television in the USA (the Lingerie Football League is even on TV, and it sadly isn’t as good as it sounds), the network it is on ultimately decides how it is run and how many resources are pumped into it. As Graham put it; “[the CGS’] goal was not to make the most amazing e-sports league, their goal was to make television.” 


The CGS - what the West doesn't need again

Online streaming - is it the alternative?

If television is so grim, what can we look forward to? Online broadcasting is the way of the future – at least for StarCraft II – in the West.  With sites like YouTube, livestream, ustream, and, streaming has never been more simple and popular, just look at the PokerStrategy TeamLiquid Starleague, ESL TV, the HDH Invitational, World Cyber Games, the Intel Extreme Masters tournaments, Levelup doing QuakeLive broadcasts, Day[9] dailys and djWHEAT and his many, many e-sports related ventures. Would you really sit down at your television to watch the e-sports you love after having observed the freedom granted by online streaming? During the World Cup, IRC channels were being flooded with people asking for stream links to the matches. If people won’t watch the World Cup on TV, what will they watch? Ugly Betty and Jersey Shore, most likely. Even while the CGS was running (sorry for bringing the CGS back into it), they had well-marketed matches being streamed online during season 2, attracting 10-15 thousand people tuning in. While 15,000 people may not seem like a mind blowing figure now (as a comparison, the first game of Lim Yo Hwan in the GSL reportedly had over 750,000 people watching), but at the time it was quite significant.

Online streaming doesn’t have the problems that TV has – the broadcasting schedule can be made at any time, not at the mercy of time constraints. Gamers, competent admins (often the hardest part) and people with a vested interest in the success of the tournaments will be able to run them, maximizing efficiency and player and spectator satisfaction. Counter-Strike, QuakeLive and StarCraft II matches can be shown and commentated in the way they were intended online, with one small problem – it is hard for the audience to get bigger. The current way online media is presented makes it quite hard for an outsider to enter the international e-sports scene, with bunches of tournaments being held everywhere and links to watch confusing to find. TV would solve this problem, showing the games to a much, much wider community than those who already watch, and on a much more precise schedule. Even if there are more people watching the show on television, without them having a basic understanding of what is actually going on the longevity of their interest in competitive gaming will wane. Fighting games are perhaps the simplest form, two characters beating the crap out of each other, what could be simpler? This is why the ratings for the Dead or Alive 4 segments in the CGS were the best – because of their simplicity. 

So the options are to either televise simple games which the layperson can understand with relative ease, or to increase the base amount of people that understand the game and its intricacies so that it will work on television easier or more people will watch matches online. StarCraft II is the perfect example of the latter option. With record sales being reported pretty much everywhere, the amount of people playing StarCraft II is amazing. Blizzard has done a fantastic job in promoting the multiplayer side of the game and players are playing non-stop. With the release of StarCraft II, both Major League Gaming (MLG) and the eSports League (ESL) announced that they will be including StarCraft II in their future tournaments. The MLG is a primarily console based circuit over North America that has been running successfully for the last few years. The ESL has been the leader in promoting e-sports in Europe through its ESL Pro Series’ (currently in its 17th season in its home country of Germany) in a number of regions and its famous Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) events, now in their fifth season. On July 27 (yes, the release date of StarCraft II) they announced that season five of the Intel Extreme Masters would be shown on the EuroSport channel, the same channel that broadcasted the CGS in Europe.

The ESL has said that the IEM program on EuroSport won’t be strictly gaming,” Each episode will focus on one event, one game and one star player of the Intel Extreme Masters” the official news post read. The first episode covered the Intel Extreme Masters Global Challenge Chengdu, and had its focus on fnatic's Counter-Strike 1.6 team, and primarily its captain Patrik 'cArn' Sättermon. With a sort of lifestyle angle added, the show will appeal to non-gamers and gamers alike, and with the guidance of a man who has done more than can be imagined for European e-sports, Michal ‘Carmac’ Blicharz, it will certainly be successful. Europe has always been ahead of North America in the acceptance of gamers however. I’m sure we all remember the Swedish DJ Basshunter and his ‘songs’ about an IRC bot named Anna and the Warcraft III map DotA (and I bet you all just searched for the songs on YouTube). Swedish Counter-Strike legends Emil ‘HeatoN’ Christensen and Dennis ‘Walle’ Wallenberg are quite famous in their home country, with HeatoN admitting that most young males know who they are and will occasionally stop them on the street for a sometimes awkward autograph or picture. The ESL is taking a very smart approach to e-sports on television, and perhaps if there is more widespread popularity and success, there may be a transition away from a lifestyle type show to showing e-sports as it was meant to be shown. 


StarCraft II in the West doesn't need television coverage - with developer support from Blizzard creating a large player base that is interested in the game, the fan base will come from within, rather than trying to draw in fans. E-sports and StarCraft II are still young, perhaps in ten or 15 years the media, technological and gaming landscape will allow for a Korean approach where the games integrity wasn’t challenged, but until then online is the way to go.

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  • FreshFriFly FreshFriFly
    Posted Jan 06, 2011 at 16:44

    If only europe could be as cool as koreans. I long for that day :)

  • FnaticSAM FnaticSAM
    Posted Jan 06, 2011 at 16:47

    Omg, nice article!!!! Really great stuff.

  • Mirhi Mirhi
    Posted Jan 06, 2011 at 17:37

    Glad to see this finally published. I think a lot of it has already begun to happen with massive Ustream and Justin.TV broadcasts. We'll see about different league models and how they work shortly.

    Great article, Marc.

  • tomko1808 tomko1808
    Posted Jan 07, 2011 at 14:55

    Great article Marc! :)

  • caesiuM caesiuM
    Posted Jan 07, 2011 at 18:59

    interesting read :)

  • Devilry Devilry
    Posted Jan 07, 2011 at 19:04

    Very nice read!

  • FishStix FishStix
    Posted Jan 11, 2011 at 06:29

    very well composed article - I agree on many fronts, however I do believe that eSports can and will be shown on US network television within 10 years.

  • frequency frequency
    Posted Jan 11, 2011 at 15:21

    10 years, sure, but not in the next 1-2 like many people are seriously pushing for and expecting.

    TV of course has its positives, but only time will let us wait for those positives to be reached without sacrificing the well being of the game itself.