You must construct additional pylons: South Korea's shrinking StarCraft II talent pool

BlizzCon and StarCraft II. Blizzard Entertainment

On Dec. 17, Blizzard announced dramatic changes to its World Championship Series circuit for StarCraft II. The summary was that the old WCS tournament hosted by ESL had been cut. Instead, the Intel Extreme Masters, DreamHack and Red Bull events would become the foreigner circuit, increasing the number of foreign-only tournaments from three in 2015 to at least 11 confirmed in 2016.

This effectively banned South Korean players from competing abroad in international events except for either WCS global events, which have stringent restrictions, or non-WCS events. Additionally, two seasons were simply cut out of the Global StarCraft II League and StarCraft II StarLeague, both major sources of competition for South Korean StarCraft players. All of this accumulates to less StarCraft for the players living in the Mecca of esports.

This divided the StarCraft community around the world. The consensus was that while it was very beneficial to the international scene, it was a slight to Korean StarCraft competition.

Following the WCS 2016 changes, a wave of star players retired from the scene. They were: Lee "Flash" Young Ho, Jung "Rain" Yoon Jong, Mun "MMA" Seong Won, and Jung "FanTaSy" Myung Hoon.

Flash was indisputably the single greatest StarCraft: Brood War player of all-time; he had the longest period of domination of any BW player. This is especially impressive when you consider that he did it in the most competitive era of BW, which included the likes of Lee "Jaedong" Jae Dong. In SCII, he showed some promise and was briefly one of the strongest players early on in the first expansion, Heart of the Swarm. At that point he took second in the MLG Winter Championship to Lee "Life" Seung Hyun. Afterward, he appeared consistently in the round-of-16 for GSL Code S, and he had two great runs with his victory at IEM Toronto in 2014 and a round-of-4 appearance at the Kespa Cup Season 2 in 2015. While it was known throughout 2015 that Flash was going to end his career, he officially announced his retirement on December 1, 2015 after playing his last event at GPL.

Rain was one of the all-time great players of SCII. Incredibly consistent, he has been one of the top five Protoss players in the world from the middle of 2012 to his retirement. At times he was considered the outright best Protoss player, cited as one of the great innovators and thinkers of the race. He never had a clear era of domination, but has won some of the hardest tournaments, including a GSL, Hot6ix Cup and an OnGameNet StarLeague, and even a few DreamHacks. Unlike the other retirees, Rain was still in really good form prior to retirement, and still could have played at the highest level of Korean StarCraft.

MMA was one of the all-time greats SCII. He has played since the release Wings of Liberty in 2010, and has won two GSLs, Major League Gaming Columbus in 2011, an Iron Squid, two WCS EU events, and multiple other tournaments. He has taken first at least once in a Premier event every year of his career. He was also the first to win a tournament in every expansion of SCII. This is all the more impressive when you consider that his peak level of play was in 2011 to early 2012. At the end of 2012, he switched regions to WCS EU, and while his play dropped off, he was still strong enough to win. He continued to prove through the rest of his career that he could still be a threat against the very best with his second-place finish at BlizzCon 2014 and his round-of-four finish at GSL Season 1 in 2015, both placings nearly four years after his prime. MMA announced his retirement in the middle of December 2015 right before his last tournament victory at HomeStory Cup XII.

FanTaSy was one of the all-time great Terran players of BW. He was considered part of the Kong line, a line of players who would consistently finish second in the OSL and MBCGame StarCraft League. His only victory in BW came when he defeated fellow Kong liner Song "Stork" Byung Goo. Even so, he was still one of the greatest Terran players during that era, and was arguably the second-best player in BW's final year. His SCII career was much more mediocre, however, he had just finished his best year of competition in 2015 and accrued enough WCS points to qualify for BlizzCon in 2015.

While the WCS 2016 changes were in the back of the minds of these players, it probably had little to no effect on the decision to retire. Flash chose to leave sometime in mid-2015, and had already decided long before WCS 2016 that this would be his last year in SCII. Rain had initially planned to retire at the end of 2014, but his team, mYinsanity, made an offer that persuaded him to try playing one more year. FanTaSy cited a lack of motivation, and had decided to do military service. MMA was planning to do military service at the end of 2014, but he delayed it until 2015.

The problem isn't that the star players are retiring, though it certainly hurts the scene with their loss. Usually when a player retires, the place he had in the scene eventually gets taken up by up-and-coming talent. WCS 2016 even went out of its way to make sure to help foster new players, but only for the foreigners, by making regional cups and regional qualifiers for each region (barring South Korea); qualified players get travel and support directly from Blizzard to participate in WCS sanctioned events. This was a great move for non-South Korean players, as it gives them much more exposure if they have the ability to qualify for a WCS tournament.

Of course, this begs the question: What about the low- to mid-tier South Korean players?

From what has been said, there is little to specifically help this group of players. There has been a general increase in prize pool for the bottom players; $1,692 for GSL Code A, all the way up to $3,384 for round-of-16 GSL Code S. Last year it was $361 for Code A to $1354 for ro16 Code S. However, considering that there are only two GSLs per year now, realistically a low- to mid-tier South Korean player will make about between $3,000 to $6,000 per year.

John "TotalBiscuit" Bain, former team owner of Axiom, pointed out that there are tons of South Korean players who still get no salary despite being much better players than their foreign counterparts. There is proof of this throughout the five years of SCII as many Code B and Code A players have won tournaments, or placed better over the best foreign players. Even with the increase in prize pool, the majority of the WCS 2016 changes actually hurts the low- to mid-tier level South Koreans. This is especially worrying as the South Korean scene was already starving for talent.

From 2013 until now there has been somewhere between 70 to 80 South Korean pro gamer retirements. In comparison to that, you can name on two hands the new players who have entered the SCII pro scene scene. And even among those, few ever break into the mid-tier level of players, and even fewer can break into the top-tier level of competition.

The only new name who has entered that top level of competition is Kang "Solar" Min Soo. Some may point to Cho "Dream" Joong Hyuk and Han "ByuL" Ji Won, but both are veterans of SCII; Dream has played since 2010, ByuL since 2012, and both had significant results prior to 2015. This is especially worrying since there had been a constant flux of new players cracking into the elite tier of play for a majority of SCII's history.

From the trend we've seen so far, it doesn't look like the South Korean scene will be getting any new talent soon, even with the last expansion of SCII, Legacy of the Void, hitting the esports scene. The professional player base in South Korea was already small. In addition to that, foreigner teams can no longer get any kind of ROI from having a South Korean player from their squad, as most international tournaments will have banned South Korean players.

So what can be done? There are two main issues here: one is solvable; the other, not so much.

The first is to find support for existing low- to mid-tier players. We need to look only at the thoughts TotalBiscuit posited a month ago. He says that the silver bullet to improve skill in both North America or Europe is to make an incentivized ladder tournament. The idea was based on his own running of Shoutcraft in NA coupled with the feedback he got from every pro player. While the South Korean ladder is always at that level of competition, having extraneous online tournaments and competitions with good prize money could help support the low- to mid-level South Korean players who have little to no salary.

An example of this was the ESV TV Weekly, which ran from 2011-2012, and was the primary income of many non-Code S South Korean players. As it stands, South Korea only has the GSL/SSL and pro league tournaments for South Koreans to play in. The first two do not have enough of a prize pool to make it viable for lower- to mid-tier South Koreans to continue playing, while the latter gives no prize pool.

The second issue is attracting a new player base, and unfortunately, that ship sailed long ago. League of Legends is still the big game in South Korea, and is by far the most popular game. OnGameNet and PC Bangs are the main vehicles for game popularity in the region, inspiring young, talented individuals to pursue a professional career. As long as other games have more coverage on OGN and PC Bangs, there is no viable way that would substantially increase the player talent in South Korea. This is why support for the talent that is still there has become all the more important.

So now we have a scene in which only the best players can live comfortably. The rest have minimal to no salaries, few online events, no way to get on a foreign team to get support, and fewer tournaments to compete in both locally and abroad. This will inevitably lead to even more retirements than before in an already stagnant and diminishing talent pool. The future of the South Korean SCII scene looks bleak; the talent pool seems to have dried up and every retirement leaves a hole that can no longer be filled. This is an incredible shame for a region that has produced the best players, the best games and the largest legacies of StarCraft.