What Blizzard’s World Championship Series Means & Entails

With the announcement of the StarCraft II World Championship Series (2013) made public, many questions and excitement have arose around the scene. Teams, fans and organizers are both delighted with what’s been planned, but also anxious to see how it’ll further the reach of the idea of E-Sports. We called for the idea back in November, 2012 under the article name: Splitting the Scene for Regional Champions with hope that something similar to WCS would be pushed forward to help all scenes and their players prosper and rank amongst one another:

“But at the same time, there is definitely a lack of outlets for foreign players to shine and rank themselves amongst one another with a monetary prize-finish at the end. The suggestion of regional-prized tournaments ranging from different levels helps alleviate the frustrations for many players and connect them back with challengers they can build off from one another.

[…] A good mix of region-based leagues and international tournaments creates a balanced and constant cycling of both aspiring professional players and levels of champions from local to national to international. With a more gradual spread of tournaments, there should be a result of less emphasis on having a Korean (currently the best players) on your team and more demand for foreigners to improve instead of becoming the marketing extremity. This will also add more stable grounds for smaller teams to compete rather than rely on mercenaries to compensate (Team Legion, Check-Six, Alt-Tab) for roster inadequacies.”

This World Championship Series from Blizzard is definitely in the right step, but also has various drawbacks. Their reasons to create this season World Championship Series is a dilemma readers and fans are probably already familiar with:

“First, while the abundance of tournaments spawned tons of lively competition, it also made it difficult for players and teams to avoid scheduling conflicts. More importantly, for spectators, there was nothing tying the events together to create a unified storyline, and it was hard to identify who the best players were from week to week.”

[we wrote the same things in The Lack of Storytelling in E-Sports’ Events (Dec. 2012)  and The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems (Nov. 2012)]

WCS Schedule

Indeed, as explained in the 2013 WCS overview, this system not only creates a proper boundary schedule for any person’s career (between April and November), it also allows for tournament organizations to properly line up their event for equal distribution of fan-interest as well as high-player attendance (both from the reputable players to the aspiring ones).

In 2010 and 2011, Blizzard was in the background, delegating power and rights to various groups to establish a base of major tournaments and organizations. 2012 and 2013, they shifted away from a background position to being the forefront and captain of the E-Sports boat. Their semi-RIOT LCS (League of Legends) and FGC EVO (fighting games) system enables a consistent format for spectators to comprehend. It streamlines importance for all events of all regions equally and events within WCS (ESL, MLG, GSL, OGN/OSL and Proleague) grant seedings to WCS Season Finals. Here are some of the positives that WCS entails:

  • Creates an even schedule of multiple seasons, allowing for proper budgetary planning and scheduling for players and teams (I expect contracts to be drawn up less annually and more every two seasons, especially with newer recruits).
  • It creates regional champions and helps teams earn reputation and reward for their players (see: Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Limits power struggles between organizations and the need to “one-up” one another through amount of prize-pool (to thus attract popular pro gamers) and other tactics
  • Easy system to rank players regionally and worldwide to know who really is the best not through number of achievements, but through consistent performance and ranked points.
  • Allows the possibility of new champions rising and recycles those who longer are ahead of the curve.

The drawbacks to this system are evident, but were also inevitable as the scene expanded beyond its capability and reached.  What people called “oversaturation” was merely a race to be relevant and a staple to the E-Sport. MLG, ESL and OGN/GSL are clearly the winners here and while Blizzard’s point-system can also be attributed to non-WCS events, it also means the following:

  • NASL (NA), DreamHack (EU) and Proleague (KeSPA) [KR] will likely be part of the scoop of points attributed to WCS rankings and seeds, it also means they are considered second-class events due to their less impactful effect on a WCS season.
  • This point-system also means that any other tournament organizations looking to get involved in StarCraft II will have a steeper climb to reach relevancy.
  • Minor tournaments will likely see even less activity and participation as WCS online components of participation will attract many aspiring players (since it is more likely to attract a major team’s attention: see; Minor Tournaments – A Pro Gamer’s Resume [Jan. 2013])
  • Events that are not associated with WCS nor receiving points to attribute to WCS seedings will have to fit their events within the championship series (and also create a reason why people should watch it).

As stated, the drawbacks are minor given the downward slope in terms of number of new tournaments and competitions being created. The online portion of WCS will also attract cheaters and potential hackers, but that is something that is both inevitable and small in exchange for convenience and widening the ability to attract as many new competitors as possible.

The truth of it all is that Blizzard’s World Championship Series is a step in the right direction, few disagree, many don’t agree with some of the smaller issues such as the pseudo-region lock.  Such as ways to bypass the system in which Koreans will be in North American system knowing they are not up to snuff to prevail in the GSL/OSL and Proleague. The point system can also be trouble if improperly balanced where we may see another Pool Play issue (players who have not been succeeding, continue to maintain seedings and points due to their achievement many months ago). In short, the faults and issues with the World Championship Series are both minor and hastening the process that was occurring already, the upside to it all is that the prize-money is elevated, the opportunity to compete is less costly and stories are created. With Blizzard’s WCS, the foundation of competition is elevated and the next step for StarCraft II has begun!

The Overabundance of Tournaments & Branching Problems

In previous articles, when we spoke more about exposure ranges for players in tournaments, we touched upon what financially supports tournaments: viewership. This reliance keeps tournament afloat, but also has them consistently competing with one another to remain relevant to the common spectator. The problem with these competitions is that they lead to split numbers, but also shrouds unestablished, growing organizations. In contrast to these tournament companies, when game development companies (e.g Blizzard Entertainment) host and organize international tournaments, their three initiatives serve their own end and are more utilitarian:

1. Attracting new viewers and expanding their market pool,

2. Providing a supportive and community-attached front that attracts and impresses onlookers peering from the outside of the E-Sports globe

3. Creating a stable footing for current and future events.

Essentially, when development companies do events, it’s to add a friendly face to a digital landscape. Similar to conventions, these events bridge the anonymity of realistic relationships and competition to a real-life stage. What sets Blizzard’s tournaments apart from other organizations and their events is the dependency. Let’s look at how Blizzard depends on StarCraft II:

  • Blizzard earns a return through general sales of StarCraft II
  • Blizzard earns return through a share of prize-pools/licensing of major tournaments
  • Further sales are generated through the longevity of the game and its real-life presence via tournaments, events, etc.

Now what are some ways tournament organizations, relying on Blizzard’s games, survive? Sponsors, attendance, viewers, investors, pay-per-view, HD passes and advertising (all relaying back to viewership dependency). Their sales are not made by the game, but reliant on the game’s status and overall community’s attitude towards it. I think what you’ll find is that due to the scene missing a wide array of incoming money from different directions and areas, most tournament organizations are obliged to adhere to the spectators (titled: community attitude).

In organizing tournaments, there are three major characters you need to prioritize: the spectators, players and yourself: the company hosting and organizing the event. While one would love to adhere to the spectators who only want to see their favourite players rip it up, your own sustainability is based off the survivability of the scene as well as the coming and going of new competitors. Unfortunately, spectators are quite picky: they want to see their favourite players, though properly seeded. They don’t necessarily want “invitationals”, but seeing their favourites reach the championship brackets is always noted in their books: it’s like getting to the good stuff after two days of underground fist-brawling. However, some people like pure open-bracket tournaments, but as we saw at MLG’s Providence of 2011: it can be long, winding and you have to sift through a ton of one-sided matches before the good competitions comes in. Balancing out a good format for your tournament that pleases spectators, but gives fair odds to another major character, the players, can affect your overall financial gain.

Players are another aspect to consider: they want fairness and good playing conditions so they can win. Sometimes, wanting to win means boring or short games which doesn’t exactly thrill the viewers. How do you please fans, have them return to your tournaments each and every year as well as entice them to perhaps pay for some products or services when your tournament’s grand finale is a six-minute match? FXO’s Josh Dentrinos has been asking these sorts of questions for a long time now:

“So whats next for E-Sports? Well, you are going to start getting charged for the content. Anyone who thinks the content being made should be considered free because “twitch lets them play ads that’s enough” should probably start researching what kind of money actually can come out of that and that’s no attack on twitch, they do a great job and are doing a great job at ting to provide a service to the community that allows things to last longer and grow.”

What we’ve been seeing more is the leading tournaments and events trying to take up all the months on the calendar. The reason for this is due to competition with neighboring major events and the guarantee to make a return of investment (even if at a net loss). The long-term aim for these major leagues is to be an established integral part of the culture as well as ensuring their lead as a major organization within the year. Let’s look at progress for MLG: originally, MLG had three events in 2010 as they tested the StarCraft 2 water. Then they made bold moves and doubled that number to 6 major city events (and 3 invitationals). This year, they’re going for bigger:

  • Winter: EU/KR/NA Qualifiers, Arena, Championship
  • Spring: Open Online Qualifiers, Arena 1, Invite Qualifiers, Arena 2, Championship
  • Summer: Open and Invite Qualifiers, Arena, Championship
  • Fall: Open and Invite Qualifiers, MVP Invitiational, Championship

That’s smart and very aggressive. They have a good hold on the North-American side of the world and they’re really using what lead they got in the middle of 2011 (MLG Anaheim) to really take advantage of the scene and spectators. Let’s take a look at it again: in 2011, MLG was about eighteen days + three invitationals (broadcasted over about thirty days each). Approximately three months of content and about 2 months’ nights of player’s playing these matches before broadcasting. In 2012, we’re looking at double that and more in terms of content and time for both spectators to digest the amount of tournaments as well as how many qualifiers, arenas and championships players have to play (as well as the MVP Invitational).

Now add DreamHack to the mix as well as GSL, IEM and the NASL. If we threw in IGN Pro League’s showmatches (IPL Fight Club), team leagues (Premier, Contender and Amateur) and the qualifiers of the major tournament (IPL 3-4-5, MLG, IEM, GSL, NASL open), you’re looking at a near full annual schedule of events. Some pay-per-view, some entirely free, all revolving around nearly the same usual players and the same base of viewers who try to absorb everything.

Amount of tournaments within the year 2012, excluding IPL Showmatches & 3-tier Team-League system (42 teams) – information courtesy of Liquipedia

[Click to enlarge listing]

The problem is the scene becomes a boiling tournament-filled hotpot. Even if we were to routinely interchange players (different regions, different champions), the significance of each tournament with another one a few months away limits the feeling of achievement and a ‘talked legacy’ (‘Talked legacy’ being the missing discussion amongst the community of who is the best player). This is because of an equally-sized and valued tournament coming soon after one finished. Following tournaments either reinforce a point-of-view or simply flips the table and rescrambles the question of “who is the best player around?”. Neither are good proponents of good discussions; the roots to what ultimately becomes “hype” or excitement when the two compared players fight it out.

In addition, tournaments mean more opponents and less specialty in plays. The emphasis on good macromanagement in-game, mentality and overall strategy becomes more demanded than training or preparing specifically for an opponent and their strategy (a la GSL or NASL). Endurance starts playing a larger value than one’s ability to really assess their opponent as well as out-think them. These tournaments potentially slow down strategy and competitive innovation for refining in mechanics and overall ability to play the game.

With so many tournaments and opportunity, top teams don’t necessarily need to prioritize leagues when the prize-pool becomes nearly the same. Not to forget that the amount of preparation demanded in tournaments is greatly reduced and easier to cover than the analytical approach of studying your opponent for league matches. The equation goes as: more risk, but more reward in less time for tournaments than leagues, which greatly reduces a league’s importance (with the GSL being an exception).

Previously we mentioned the shrouding of major tournaments and its effect on smaller competitions and leagues; unfortunately, there are so many competitions demanding so many international fans their full attention, you start diminishing developing tournaments and leagues trying to attract new viewers (and the attention of prosperous teams). Any smaller tournament trying to obtain the top-ranked teams will have to swim through the nightmares of scheduling and fitting their tournament within an overfished market. When it comes to Koreans, that’s a double layer and language barrier to hurdle over (God bless ESV’s Korean Weekly).

All in all, what Dota 2 lacks is what StarCraft II has too much of: exposure. With so many tournaments you face these summarizing problems in many facets of the three main characters named above (Tournament organizers, players, eye-strained spectators).

  • Root problem: Due to the limited forms of return of investment through service sales (HD, PPV, etc.), tournaments organizations aggressively up the number of tournaments. Competition amongst other major tournaments also urges organizers to push out more content to establish themselves as the top event within a year. This effect causes a year-long monopoly amongst the top national and international tournaments (NA, EU, Asia).
  • Branching problem 1: Due to this monopoly of tournaments, spectators become bogged down with the amount of prestige in tournaments and can no longer value champions within a professional tournament circuit or via an array of major tournaments.
  • Branching problem 2: With an influx of major tournaments, a player’s time is divided to preparing for all kinds of opponents as well as specific opponents in leagues. Preparation diminishes, strategy becomes stale and repetitive to what works most of the time.
  • Branching problem 3: Budding tournaments and host organizations are clouded over by the big dogs trying to scrape by. This squashes unknown players’ opportunities to be exposed, removes competition and distances ‘indie’ tournament organizations from major events.
  • Branching problem 4: The amount of free content available dimishes the money major organizations can scrape by with. If you include the target audiences general income and willingness to spend and you find a very starved and begging market.

I would say these highlighted issues are probably the core of what prevents growth in many areas of this subculture. If someone were to ask me a solution, I’d just say: we need more viewers, more money/investors and more cycling of players, major, medium and ‘indie’ events. If intrigued and they asked me “how?” I just wouldn’t know. The obvious answer would be that people need to spend more, but for the sake “to grow E-Sports”? That may be a bit too utilitarian, not practical and throwing more money at a problem from real people does not necessarily mean solutions bloom. In the end, what tournaments are causing is due to their own strain and difficulty to sustain. We’re only drowning in content because others thirst for means to expand in new and different ways. All in all, there is a traffic jam of tournaments due to unsatisfied individual needs.