Tuesday, June 15, 2010

StarCraft 2 and the future of eSports

I'm sitting here waiting for work. I'll be writing up the e3 post at Massively for Marvel Super Hero Squad Online in just a bit, but I was watching SC2 stuff and I thought I'd talk about this.

EDIT: I actually had to interrupt this post for work. Ha! I'm not even done with my normal weekly work yet. E3, you make life so busy. I wish every week was E3 ~

There are two major things that are important for eSports to succeed. I've been thinking a lot about this lately. Why isn't Street Fighter 4 a big eSport and StarCraft is? Surely Street Fighter is easier to follow than StarCraft, and honestly it is a more exciting game.

If I got comments I'd be worried about saying that, but it's pretty much true. That isn't a shot against StarCraft. SC has a lot of lulls in its gameplay. At the beginning of the match we are forced to watch people make workers, and it's not until a good two minutes into the game that the real strategy even begins. Even then, there are lulls when one player establishes control, then both players go to full-on macro because attacking is dangerous for the controlling player. In Street Fighter, these lulls occur but they are very short, often only a couple seconds long.

Still, StarCraft is by far the better eSport. This also isn't a shot against SF. It simply doesn't have the elements that make SC better to watch.

The first thing that makes a game a good eSport is commentary. Actually, this is true of any sport, not just eSports. Fighting games just aren't good for commentary. I'd love it if they were, but the big elements of gameplay happen in literally fractions of a second. You could have 3 or 4 big "plays" happen in the time it takes just to explain what the first play was.

Let's take an example. Player A baits a footsie with a low short. His opponent takes the bait and Player A hits his foot with a sweep. Explaining exactly what is going on and how this works to a layman is at least a 15-20 second process (probably much more than that if you want anyone to understand). Immediately afterward, Player A walks forward, does a dragon punch to Player B on wakeup, which Player B blocks. Player A focus cancels, dashes forward, and throws Player B, which Player B throw escapes. In the span of about 3-4 seconds, Player A and B have done so many mindgamey things that if I were to explain all of them, it would take me the entire rest of the match to explain just what went on. In that time, about 20 or 30 more interesting things have happened. This limits commentary a ton.

Only good players will understand a commentator who is talking about SF, because the commentator has to say things like "Okay, footsies going on here, little ground game, A whiffed short... OH ITS A BAIT, hits with the sweep, B is knocked down, A is gonna go for the ground mixup... DP focused, blocked, throw, B techs it, gonna reset the tempo there..." Even then, you'd have to talk really fast to get all of that out in time.

By comparison, StarCraft has a lot more time to do explaining things like invisible spider mines blowing up dragoons and omg Bisu needs more observers. Or whatever. Commentary makes a game accessible to a layman who has never played the game before, and definitely available to people who only sort of play the game, but never really played it on that kind of high level. Commentary is absolutely essential, and because of that, a sport or eSport need to be slow paced enough that a commentator can communicate what's going on to an average viewer.

The second thing that I think is very important for an eSport is expressive individualism. That probably makes no sense at all. Street Fighter at least succeeds on this point, or rather, SF2 and SF4 do and SF3 really doesn't (ha!).

Every time we watch an eSport, we should not see optimal play. This is why baseball sucks, why NASCAR sucks, and why football is awesome. In baseball, there is very, very little room for individualism, and it is almost entirely the pitcher who expresses it. In Street Fighter (4), games are very exciting because even in say a Ryu vs. Ryu mirror, or even a Zangief mirror, there are a ton of ways to play Ryu and Zangief in that matchup so we get to see not just the character elements but also the player's unique style of play.

Note: Zangief mirrors should theoretically be one-dimensional since Zangief is a more one-dimensional character, but because he has a number of little nuancey things he can do, the mirrors are generally fairly interesting, although not as interesting as say, Bison vs. Akuma matches which are crazy dynamic and have a lot of things going on.

Anyway, obviously StarCraft has this element too. There's a ton of difference between different games of Terran vs. Zerg play, and even between the way different players tackle those same matchups and same issues. That makes every match exciting and interesting, unless they are blowout matches (which are rarely interesting no matter what sport you're playing). Sometimes even those are interesting too.

One of the early criticisms of StarCraft 2 was that it might not have this element. I think we all know better by now. There's tons of ways to separate yourself from other players with just the way you micro units or move around the map, let alone how you plan and build things and whether you micro your battles heavily and all sorts of things. I think there's just as much room for expression as there is in Brood War, possibly more so because there is so much less focus on clicking your peons onto mineral patches and clicking rapidly on all of your gateways/barracks/whatevs. I'm sure haters will disagree with me there, haters gotta hate etc. Since I don't get any comments at all I'm probably not going to worry too much about commenters hating, but you never know I guess.

I guess if I had to pick a third thing, it would be a very very high barrier of entry for competition. One of the hallmarks of video games is that in general, anyone can become the next Daigo, or the next Flash. I think that sort of motivates us as gamers to excel. However, I think at some point we do realize just how much talent is involved. StarCraft is a lot better on this front than any competitive fighting game is, really - well, Guilty Gear and BlazBlue have really ridiculous hard combos and obvious wow execution stuff that if you're a layman you can go "wow these gamers are crazy good."

But I think that the barrier of execution for Guilty Gear even is much lower than it is for StarCraft. In GG you can learn some bread and butter combos, good mixups and pressure and master that, and you are mostly good. After you've learned the basic high damage stuff, learning the stuff that requires like mega high dexterity doesn't yield very much reward. Most Japanese casual fighting game players get to this level or higher, and most semi-serious American players do too. If you compare it to StarCraft though, most decent SC:BW players get to the 100-200 APM level, but unfortunately APM has linear growth for the most part; at many points of a match, having 300 or 400 or even higher APM will simply allow you to do vastly more things in a match compared to someone with 200. The same can't be said for SF; once your dexterity has reached a certain level, the game hard caps you. You can't extend an opportunity for damage beyond a certain point, and you can only react to an event at the perfect time or slower. I'll admit that there are certain things like 1f links that even pro SF players use tricks like double tapping to give them more chances to score them, because they require basically impossible mechanical precision. Still, that mechanical precision isn't obvious for a super novice at the game, but having ridiculous hand speed and crazy macro is really obvious in StarCraft. No one will watch a SC replay and go "Oh I could beat Jaedong, he doesn't do anything special." A lot of people say just that about videos of Daigo, Valle, or Justin Wong, because they can't see why throwing 50 fireballs or a dozen low fierces in a row is skillful play.

A lot of people are concerned about the future of eSports right now, with the KeSPA/Blizzard fiasco and the StarCraft 2 launch. I think these people are totally retarded, for the most part. Equally retarded are the people that think that KeSPA will continue broadcasting in violation of Blizzard's copyright.

ESports will continue to make money (at least in Korea) as long as there is a market for it. If people want to watch live matches of StarCraft or SC2, THERE WILL BE LEAGUES FOR IT. As an example, Valve decided to try and screw the CounterStrike competitive scene in Korea by forcing companies to play CS:Source. Korea responded by developing a knock-off of CS 1.6, Sudden Attack, and continued to market SA to Korean fans. Koreans didn't like CS:S, but they did like 1.6, and thus Sudden Attack was a big hit and makes a lot of advertising money to this day. If Korea wants to see more Brood War league play, then there will be leagues for it. Blizzard isn't stupid. They'll milk the Brood War cash cow for all that it is worth, pro teams will continue to play, and people will pay to advertise. Everyone will win, except for KeSPA who continues to fail to realize that if they just towed the line with Blizzard they'd continue to milk their cash cow.

On the other hand, if StarCraft 2 turns out to be the next big thing and everyone in Korea wants to see the pro scene move to SC2, guess what? Pro Brood War will die out, but SC2 teams will form (probably mostly the same sponsors) and pro gamers will get sponsored to play. We'll see SC2 leagues and money will be made for broadcasting companies, for Blizzard, and for the pro teams. KeSPA will probably get left in the dust, but at least from what I understand, only SK Telecom really has a ton to lose in the ordeal. Maybe their team will break up over this, but I think most companies like Samsung, CJ, KT, etc. will continue to sponsor teams and if SK Telecom decides to bitch out and not support Blizzard, the players will get picked up by teams that will.

It's a pretty simple algorithm. If people are willing to pay money to watch a game, it will get televised, sponsors will pay for advertising spots, sponsors will pay players to play on their pro teams, and players will get paid to play the game. The gaming public is the ones who will determine the fate of the pro scene. Blizzard has some say in how it's run, as does whoever they license (in this case, Gretech/CJ). If KeSPA doesn't want to play ball with Blizzard, they'll lose their piece of the pie. Games will continue to be played. Nothing of value will be lost for us; we'll still get to see pro players and pro leagues. The organizational fiasco going on right now is only a big deal for the big corporations.

And lastly, man is it nice to write without an editor. I can write in improper English, make typos, and dont afraid of anything. It is a little liberating. I love my bosses to death, don't get me wrong. They are awesome. However, it's just nice to write without having the editorial eyes. I really should do this more often.