Hopelessly passionate husband, engineer, hacker, gamer, artist, and tea addict.

Musings on E-Sports

I was sent a link to the recent World Championship Series finals today by Jordan Wiens. I haven't been paying attention to StarCraft II since around 2012. I still think it's a really interesting game to watch (and I did watch the finals - they were pretty awesome). I even think Blizzard has done a decent job with WCS. This got me thinking about what it is that has me far more interested in other games.

In a lot of ways, StarCraft is the original e-sport. StarCraft: Brood War became huge in Korea at the beginning of the century. And, when StarCraft II was released in 2010, there was a ton of hype for it as well. Until League of Legends got big, it was easily the largest e-sport in the US.

From the perspective of a game designer, it's got everything it needs. The basic rules are fairly simple to grasp (it's the "chess" of e-sports, really). Everything is visually distinct and easily recognizable for viewers. Advanced strategy is fairly deep and complex. Units are powerful enough that good use of them can function as an exciting catch-up mechanic. It has a decent ladder system for non-professional players and WCS provides a competitive environment that ensures only those who are consistently good can compete at the top level. Why, then, does no one seem interested anymore?

I think, on a basic level, it comes down to professional StarCraft not being relatable enough. There is a huge and obvious gap between the physical skill of a top StarCraft player (with 150-200+ APM) and a casual player. In other popular games like Dota 2 (which is effectively the "soccer" of e-sports), the emphasis on execution as a team means that it's way less complicated at the individual level, but still offers incredibly deep gameplay with a very high skill ceiling. Super Smash Brothers for Wii U (Smash 4) is an even better example. The inputs required for high level play are fairly easy to master, so a lot of the complexity of the game is pushed into mind-games and "reads" (along with character match-ups and stage selection).

What this means for these other games is that a new player can very quickly appear, to the untrained eye, to be close to the professional player in level of skill. This is part of the reason why the "average MMR of a Redditor is over 9000" meme exists on /r/dota2, but you don't see silver league StarCraft II players arguing they're the next "bonjwa". Although the skill ceiling for these games is obviously high (or ZeRo wouldn't be crushing literally everyone in Smash 4), it appears low. This is encouraging for players because they never seem that far away from the pros. Meanwhile, it's painfully obvious to the average StarCraft player just how behind they are.

Another, lesser aspect is probably that the StarCraft II community hasn't handled their "fall from grace" well. Today, /r/smashbros is still talking about the recent balance patch and MewTwo as a new character. /r/dota2 is going ape over patch 6.84 and what it could mean for the future of competitive play. /r/starcraft is mostly just hoping the new expansion won't ruin everything. The negative, "dead game" attitude isn't really that inviting for someone like me. And it's silly since there's still exponentially more money in StarCraft II than a game like Smash 4.

In any case, even if I'm no longer enthralled by professional StarCraft, I still hope the game continues to be supported by Blizzard for years to come. I think it has a place in the e-sports ecosystem - even if, like chess, it's a small one by comparison. But, perhaps it would be in Blizzard's best interest to re-structure the game's design? Pushing the complexity further away from required APM and managing tedious aspects of macro and more towards positioning, unit composition, and micro could be interesting. I guess we'll just have to wait and see what Legacy of the Void brings!

UPDATE 2015-08-26: Holy shit. Blizzard is actually removing macro mechanics in Legacy of the Void. Maybe I'm on to something..?