Notes on: Starcraft II – The Curse of Korean Dominance

Tomorrow, Starcraft 2 viewers and players alike will set their eyes on Poland. The Spodek arena in Katowice will once again host one of the biggest Starcraft II tournaments: the The IEM World Championship. A quick look at the list of competitors will convince any esports insider of the quality to be expected. How so? Well, all of them are Koreans. No Germans, no English, no Americans, no French, etc. managed to qualify for one of the sixteen spots.

This prompted Thorin to write a tweet and provoked a sarcastic reply by the best “foreign”1 player, Snute:

The truth? Koreans are clearly better than foreigners. A simple look at Aligulac, an ELO-like rating system, reveals as much. There are only eight non-Korean players in the top fifty and they are most likely overrated, too.

The result of the Korean domination? aligulac

The lack of “foreign” or “hometown champions” (there have been many hopes, but none managed to convert hope into reality2) has fastened Starcraft II’s decline in recent months (or years). There have been other factors and everybody has their pet theory as to why (mostly without assessing the counterfactual), but it’s fairly obvious that it’s not helping Starcraft at the moment.3 The number one esports of the past is barely holding on to its fifth spot, after LoL, CS:GO, DotA 2 and even Hearthstone4.

The situation is somewhat similar to table tennis. China is far ahead and nearly unbeatable, but instead of facing a maximum of two Chinese players like at the Olympics, a foreign Starcraft II player has to face 15, 30 or more depending on the tournament format. It is already unlikely that a foreign table tennis player wins against one Chinese player, but imagine facing one in every single round!

Why is the discrepancy so high?

Again, it’s simple: the training conditions or what people in esports call “infrastructure”. Koreans are able to train on a ladder5 that is far more competitive and cut-throat than the European or American ladder. They also live in team houses with other players, where they can fine-tune strategies or design new ones with the help of personal trainers. Other staff members try their best to take care of anything else, so the players are be able to focus on one thing only: winning.

Is this something Blizzard can change? Is it something Blizzard should change?

Yes and maybe. To improve the situations for foreigners, incentives must be created or enhanced that a) broaden the player base to attract a steady influx of talent and b) retain talent and/or positively influence their decision to go pro. Both aspects seem to be the dominating factor, which (finally? too late?) drove Blizzard to adapt a hard region-lock for their regional leagues. At the same time investment by teams should be subsidized to create similar training conditions that exist in Korea.

Would this be enough? Maybe, maybe not. There are several other possibilities why foreigners are simply not up to snuff.

1) Foreigners are lazier and undisciplined. A counterargument would be that Europeans (and some Americans) have shown their potential, discipline and rigor to play Koreans on equal grounds on numerous occasions. Alas, it’s usually limited to a map or two. Better training conditions would certainly bring some more stability and maybe create a positive feedback loop.

2) Esports in Europe and North America still mainly attracts individuals, who are less talented than the Koreans. Europeans/Americans who would be best suited still choose other career paths, as these provide intrinsically motivated and highly disciplined individuals with more variety, freedom, money or satisfaction. The opportunity costs might still be too high.

3) No incentive to become world class. Winning local, regional and/or online tournaments provides foreign pro-gamers with enough money and sustainability, while at the same time doesn’t require too much effort. It’s somewhat similar to argument (1). Parallel to playing Starcraft II one can study and this allows one to have better options after a “pro-gaming” career. Blizzard’s hard region-lock would then be no incentive to make Europeans more competitive on an international level, but instead have the opposite effect. A good example for this is the German Warcraft III EPS. Svenska E-sportcupen might be an example against it.

4) Korean infrastructure is just too good. Nearly no foreigner wants to live under these strict conditions and it is hard to blame them. It is, however, undeniable, that they aren’t more successful with their “alternative” training schedules (so far at least). At the same time foreign team houses have always somewhat disappointed and nowadays nobody is willing to invest into new ones. European and American League of Legends teams seem much more serious about it and I’ll keep a close eye on their development and success or failure.

With the release of “Legacy of the Void” this year, there is a good chance we will see an influx of new players and teams being more willing to make an investment into Starcraft II. Foreign players will be more motivated and the ladder will be more competitive. Nonetheless, it is unlikely to change much in the long-run, if Blizzard can’t sustain the numbers and the underlying problems aren’t addressed properly.

Be that as it may, Starcraft II has never produced more high-quality games than now. The frequency has not gone down and is still superior to all other esport games (for various reasons). As a fan the current situation is great, but as a foreign player things do not look well.

1. A “foreign” player (or foreigner) is defined as any nationality BUT Korean. Sometimes exceptions are made to Chinese, but it’s rather rare.
2. To “pull a foreigner”: ~ means to get ahead at first, but then lose in astonishing fashion. Basically, imagine if Germany had lost 4:5 to Sweden in its qualification game. It happens frequently in Starcraft II.
3. A Starcraft II talkshow has recently discussed the topic: click here.
4. “Dead game”: a meme sparked by the lack of viewers compared to other esports titles. It creates a downward spiral (The “Dead Game” Effect)that reinforces itself and has been hard to ignore.
5. The ladder is an automatic matchmaking system, where players face other players of equal strengths while other factors (map or race) are nrandomised.

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