ANAHEIM, Calif. -- BlizzCon took place at the Anaheim Convention Center in sunny Southern California this past weekend, but inside the venue, you might have mistaken it for Seoul, South Korea. Out of the five esports tournaments at the annual Blizzard Entertainment conference (four of which were world championships), three were won by South Korean players or teams. It could have been four out of five tournaments, but Kim "Che0nsu" Cheon-su, the country's top-ranking Hearthstone player, was eliminated in the semifinals of his respective world championship by Virtus.Pro's Ukrainian Artem "DrHippi" Kravets.
Still, from a country not even close to a quarter of the United States' population, South Korea thrived, while the host country and the North American region as a whole wilted in comparison. While South Korea racked up gold and silver medals on the weekend, the only game in which NA found success was World of Warcraft Arena, the title with the least amount of attention and lowest prize pool of all the world championships taking place at BlizzCon.
Other than the early morning glory on the WoW stage, there were little to no high points for the home region throughout the two-day event, with the United States getting crushed by South Korea in the quarterfinals of the Overwatch World Cup and the country's top StarCraft II player, Alex "Neeb" Sunderhaft, getting tossed aside by another South Korean talent in Park "Dark" Ryung-woo.
From SK Telecom T1's unrelenting dynasty in League of Legends to Lee "Infiltration" Seon-woo's "Download complete" of the Street Fighter player base, the revered "Mecca of esports" known as South Korea has a contentious hand in almost every leading esport of today. Even in Dota 2, a title in which the South Korean server was closed due to lack of interest and player base, there is MVP Phoenix, a ragtag group of Korean players from all walks of life that has continually placed in the top eight of major tournaments and the game's world championship.
The infrastructure, tireless work ethic and culture of putting the team before self are characteristics of South Korean esports. We've seen other regions attempt to copy and replicate the South Korean competitive gaming lifestyle that has bred countless golds in a plethora of titles, and yet, here we are.
Overwatch, for example, anointed as the next big thing in esports, had its largest audience since the game's launch, with a World Cup event pitting the top countries on the globe against each other in an exciting exhibition.
South Korea won -- without dropping a map.
Overwatch World Cup
South Korean dominance warning: Red/extreme danger
There are two sides to South Korea's romp of the Overwatch World Cup. First, before we talk about how well the South Koreans played, it has be to be stated that this was an exhibition tournament. Many of the countries decided to send popular streamers or personalities over professional players. With the game still in its fledgling form as a competitive title, a YouTuber from a South American country got voted in over a budding pro gamer with a higher skill ceiling simply because of popularity. Overwatch isn't at the pro recognition stage yet, except in countries such as South Korea and China, where winning leads to popularity.
Even so, countries such as Sweden, Finland and the United States brought competent teams with a good core of professional players to combat the likes of South Korea and China. For South Korea, this tournament was a dissection of the field, with their starting six working in perfect harmony to blow past the rest of the competition. The heart of the team was built around South Korea's current top club Lunatic-Hai, with impact players from other formidable teams such as Afreeca Blue's offensive star Jeong "ArHaN" Weon-hyeop and his stellar Genji. To round out the team, team captain and eventual tournament MVP Gong "Miro" Jin-hyuk brought in AFB's head coach, Kim "TaiRong" Tae-yeong, a good player in his own right, to play as shot-caller and lead the team.
Other teams had the talent of South Korea but nowhere near the chemistry and depth of tactics. Russia and a few other countries rallied behind a single player or brute force strategy with a superstar offensive player, and that was the complete opposite for South Korea. Almost every player had a chance to shine throughout the two-week competition, and the team was never afraid to pull off something eccentric to try out early in rounds. When offense was the name of the game for a majority of the teams, South Korea's sturdy defense of objective points and showcase of fluid coordination in holding other teams back was what helped them not drop a single map.
Once club play resumes, don't expect South Korea to wipe out everyone like at BlizzCon. The South Korean World Cup team was special, and the consolidated European clubs, such as Team Envy, Rogue and Misfits, will be a match or more for the best South Korean teams. A year from now, however, with the announcement of the Overwatch League and the continued growth of the game in South Korea, there is a chance that the competitive scene could look a lot like League of Legends, if not for positive developments in other regions.
I wonder when SK Telecom T1 will throw its hat in the Overwatch ring.
StarCraft II World Championship
South Korean dominance warning: Red/extreme danger
Not too much to talk about here. StarCraft II, whether or not it's popular in the country, will always be South Korea's game. There was talk about America's Neeb possibly challenging for the world title following his historic win at the KeSPA Cup, but that narrative was dismissed in the quarterfinals, when Dark sent him flying out of the tournament with little fanfare. After that, it became the South Korean show for the umpteeth year in a row, and the best Korean Terran, Protoss and Zerg in the world made up the final three of the tournament.
In the final, Byun "Byun" Hyun-woo bested Dark in a thrilling, best-of-seven final to become the world champion of SCII. It was a fitting end to the competitive year, with the reigning GSL champion taking home his first world title after being one of the few pros from the beginning of the game's history back in 2010 still playing professionally. He leapt out of his booth and onto the stage in celebration following his win, raised the trophy in delight and gave a 'V' signal with his hands to the onlooking, packed crowd that came to watch the finale.
Heroes of the Storm World Championship
South Korean dominance warning: Orange/high danger
Yes, a South Korean team, Ballistix, won the Heroes of the Storm World Championship. However, it was expected to be far, far worse for the rest of the world. Coming into the tournament, Heroes of the Storm might have been considered the tournament with the highest chance of an all-South Korean final, and that included SCII. Heroes of the Storm has been controlled by the South Korean region for a while, and the two clubs they sent to BlizzCon, MVP Black and Ballistix, charged through the group stage with little trouble.
Europe's Fnatic came up as the heroes for the rest of the world in their fight against South Korea, with a massive upset of MVP Black in the semifinals, sending the former best team in the world out before another major final. The crowd's excitement picked up to peak levels to cheer for the non-South Korean club in the final against Ballistix, and it turned out to be closer than expected, going four games of the best-of-five. Yet Fnatic wasn't able to take out both South Korean teams, and Ballistix took home the world championship in exciting fashion.
Hearthstone World Championship
South Korean dominance warning: Blue/mild danger
In a game South Korea wasn't expected to run roughshod over, they almost produced another finalist with Che0nsu. The Hearthstone world can breathe easy, though, as Europe continued their run as the top region in the game. Two Europeans made the final, and the Americans, who were expected to do some damage in the bracket, failed to break into the top four. South Korea has a glowing Hearthstone and tournament scene, so it shouldn't be completely overlooked when it comes to the card game. Comparing it to the other titles South Korea has challengers in, though, Hearthstone is a safe haven.
World of WarCraft Arena World Championship
South Korean dominance warning: Green/sanctuary
South Korea did have a team go to BlizzCon, with Longzhu Gaming, but the team bombed in the group stage, with six straight losses. The finals were an all-North American affair, and the Chinese and Europeans did better than the South Koreans.
Maybe next year BlizzCon should make WoW Arena the headliner with a bigger prize pool.