With the arrival of StarCraft 2, one of the major staples of professional gaming is in for a shake up. It won’t just be the way the game is played though. The way tournaments are handled and broadcast is going to change.
The leaders in the current StarCraft scene are undoubtedly the South Koreans. The country has two television channels dedicated to e-Sports. The channels air tournaments year round that are seeded with players from 12 professional teams (11 corporate sponsors plus the Air Force). Tournaments are often seeded using player’s KeSPA rankings. The Korean e-Sports Players Association provides this rolling points system based on the player’s previous six month’s game performance. Original StarCraft does not have any built in tournament our point tracking systems, so KeSPA is necessary to determine the best players.
StarCraft 2 features an all new multiplayer system on Battle.net. When a player starts, their skill level is evaluated and they’re placed in one of five leagues: copper, bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. These skill level leagues are further separated into regional divisions. The players compete on a point ladder in their division by way of random matchmaking. Although this hasn’t been implemented yet, at the end of the season, the top eight players in each division will be seeded for tournament play. While league placement is automatic, there are also plans for an invitation only professional league.
With Blizzard implementing the ladder system, they’ve taken a major part of KeSPA’s power. KeSPA has been very aggressive in maintaining their control of StarCraft in the past. The two channels that show StarCraft in Korea are Ongamenet and MBCGame. They host their respective tournaments year round: Ongamenet Starleague (OSL) and MBCGame Starleague (MSL) along with a combined Proleague. When online streaming company GOMTV started their own tournament, KeSPA refused to sanction it in hopes of reducing team participation. The GOMTV classic only has seven participating teams. Of the teams that aren’t participating: one is owned by Ongamenet, one by MBCGame, one by the Proleague owner, and the fourth is coached by the KeSPA head. KeSPA’s death grip on StarCraft in South Korea won’t last much longer thanks to the integrated ladder system in StarCraft 2. Famous progamer Garimto agrees, “I donâ€™t think that an association will exist at all for Starcraft II. Battle.net already fulfills all the functions of the association.” I do think there will be plenty of room for sponsored tournaments like the OSL, MSL, and Proleague though.
Game broadcasting is going to change. The high level of StarCraft play in South Korea and its abundance of broadcast games has resulted in a community of English game commentators. These fans commentate over the original Korean broadcasts and then upload the videos to sites like YouTube. A particular favorite of mine is diggitySC; while raw captures of Korean broadcasts can be found on Jon747‘s channel. GOMTV actually hired an English commentator for their broadcasts along with a bilingual partner. English StarCraft community members (‘foreigners’) have also taken advantage of streaming services like Livestream and Justin.tv to broadcast live English commentary. Every hour of the day you can find members of TeamLiquid livestreaming their StarCraft 2 Beta matches.
Blizzard requires a Battle.net connection to play StarCraft 2 and they also control the ladder, which leaves the next step of controlling broadcast. While people are used to watching live streaming video, in this case it’s not really an efficient use of bandwidth. Blizzard could implement broadcast technology that allowed thousands of viewers to watch games live just by connecting to Battle.net. The games would be rendered locally in the viewer’s game client instead of streaming the prerendered video. The client can already handle this on the small scale using match observers. Players can also replay previous matches and see the actions of both sides. I envision the viewer being able to switch between the live view of each player, their own free control, or a guided view provided by a commentator. Blizzard could potentially partner with existing broadcasters to provide a branded experience similar to the way major tournaments currently run.
Event streaming is still a ways out. In a recent QA session, Blizzard developers revealed their plans to implement event streaming in a future expansion, but it won’t be available with the initial StarCraft 2 release. They also stated that they’d be releasing referee tools with the first expansion Heart of the Swarm. I think it’s safe to assume that both of these features will arrive at the same time by the end of year and that we won’t see an official Blizzard professional league tournament until then.
I’m sure some people (and not just KeSPA) aren’t excited about Blizzard taking full control of StarCraft 2, but it’s really what the game needs to proceed as an e-Sport. Once Blizzard has shipped the main game and expansions, they’re going to have to create new revenue streams. By partnering with sponsors, Blizzard can make more money while enriching the online experience of StarCraft enthusiasts and all Battle.net users. I’ve heard people ask if StarCraft 2 will replace StarCraft in professional competition. There is no doubt. The core gameplay is the same and Blizzard is doing everything it can to make the game as balanced as possible. I expect within two years you’ll only witness StarCraft 1 being used for the occasional nostalgia tournament. There may be many organizations that want to hold onto it but it will lose major audience share to the newer game.
I’m excited to see what tools Blizzard will build to take StarCraft spectating to the next level and I’m sure regular video broadcasting will continue for those that don’t want to load the game. If you’re interested in knowing more about StarCraft as a sport, National Geographic produced a documentary on the World Cyber Games in 2005 which is largely about StarCraft. And if you’re a fan of ridiculousness, read about the tournament formats and seeding process for the OSL and MSL.