ANAHEIM, Calif -- At the outset, the StarCraft 2016 World Championship at BlizzCon on Nov. 4-5 felt like an awkward funeral to the game that started me down the esports journalism path years ago.
Fans came to watch hometown hero Alex "Neeb" Sunderhaft at the Anaheim Convention Center in an attempt to bring the world title to America, but he was easily dispatched in the quarterfinals, turning the atmosphere into a wake. The huge, custom-built arena wasn't even half full. The attention was more focused on the Overwatch World Cup, the exhibition tournament of the game that Blizzard is putting all of its money behind to be the next big esport come 2017. The "Champion Hall of Honor" with the banners of all the former StarCraft world champions was missing one in Lee "Life" Seung-hyun, the redacted world champion of 2014 who was banned from competitive gaming earlier this year for his hand in match-fixing.
The outlook seemed grim. But that wasn't how the story ended.
The tale of StarCraft
StarCraft is one of the toughest games in the world to play whilst having one of the easiest premises to go along with it. From its vanilla version in the late 90's to the technological spectacle of Legacy of the Void today, the game has always begun the same. You play one of the three races -- the human Terran, advanced psionic life-form Protoss, or arthropod alien Zerg -- start with a certain number of workers, mine minerals to gather money, and then use said money and other resources to create a military to expand your empire and crush your opponent's.
Over the past almost two decades, this simple but complex chess-like game set in intergalactic space has become a staple of South Korean culture. "StarCraft: Brood War" created the competitive video gaming boom in the early 00's in South Korea, and esports as you know it today began in the cable television studios of Seoul. Seemingly-unremarkable men were catapulted to superstardom with the introduction of the Starleague tournament which crowned the best Brood War player in South Korea, and thus, the world.
My first introduction to StarCraft was seven or eight years after it first made an impact in South Korea. A friend sent me a video of one of the Starleague broadcast openings, where the top players were highlighted in a quick 45-second video with a popular rock or pop song, usually from the West, in the background. I'd never played StarCraft and had no inkling at what these teenagers were doing in their colorful uniforms, but I was hooked.
As a fan of the theatrics and production value of professional wrestling, framing these guys as superhero-like figures intrigued me, pulling me into the mix. Regardless of what competition or conflict was about to take place, I wanted to see what happened next, the booming voices of the Korean commentators drawing me into the show with their wild gestures and inflections.
Back in 2007 and 2008, there were no official English casters for the Starleague or the Proleague, the yearlong team-based competition that pitted all the professional teams against each other like the NBA or NFL. There was no streaming platform like Twitch to watch the games on. Instead, a majority of matches for Proleague and Starleague were only viewable on websites where the quality was around 144p and the capacity of viewers was only around 150. So if you wanted to watch your favorite teams play, you had to get into the room earlier than everyone else, needing to virtually wait in line to watch a grainy, almost unwatchable rebroadcast of the games in a language that I didn't even understand. This is the esports version of your grandfather telling you he had to walk twelve miles in the snow to get a newspaper as a child.
It wasn't easy. I slowly started learning the knowhow of the game from the mass quantity of matches I was consuming, and with my introduction to English fan sites like Team Liquid -- yes, it was a fan site before it became a professional gaming team backed by Peter Guber, the co-owner of the Golden State Warriors -- it was easier to follow along. Players like Lee "Jaedong" Jae-dong were revered by the non-Koreans that watched him from afar. Storylines were built and produced like UFC fights of today. Ongamenet and MBC, the two South Korean gaming cable channels, took these teenagers and 20-somethings with a talent in one thing and turned them into larger than life heroes.
Jaedong was the Legend Killer, the Tyrant. Lee "Flash" Young-ho, his greatest rival who he'd face in numerous Starleague and individual tournament finals, was considered more android than human, being dubbed the Ultimate Weapon. Big finals would be occupied with intro videos where the two finalists would stare each other down like they were about to fight in a boxing ring. The final series itself would take place in spacious auditoriums, gymnasiums, or even grander settings; for one Starleague, which was sponsored by Korean Air, the final match was placed inside an airplane hangar, where the two finalists had extravagant entrances with the crowd (live and at home) hanging on every part of the production.
If you won three Starleague tournaments, you received a special golden mouse trophy only awarded to the greatest players of all time. Players would have fan girls swarm them at every opportunity to get a picture or autograph. When it was ever a player's birthday, the camera would swing to his team's bench and it would be covered in presents brought by the fans. There was even a dedicated community of people who did English fan casts of the bigger matches. You always felt like you were witnessing something cool, something that was special. Everything, from the opening intro to the credits rolling, was an event.
How the West was won (and South Korea was lost)
When StarCraft II was released in 2010, the Western world for the first time was given a sneak peek into the world of what South Korea had been living in for a decade at that point. The success of SCII as a competitive title with Blizzard's backing is what began the competitive gaming boom in the Western hemisphere. Tournaments like Major League Gaming, Intel Extreme Masters, DreamHack and others jumped onto the SCII train, and the game, while less difficult than the original, was a massive win for the tournament organizers that bought in.
For the first few years of the game's life, SCII was the king of esports in the West. Weekend tournaments at events like MLG and IEM would become two-day story arcs. Players would talk trash against one another, and you'd watch as heroes and villains faced off for the crowd's enjoyment The American crowds would rally behind their hometown heroes against the all-winning South Koreans, and you could feel the atmosphere change instantly whenever a South Korean would drop a game to a non-Korean. If a non-Korean could actually win the tournament against all odds, they were put on a pedestal, heralded as the beloved David that was somehow capable of slaying the Goliath in South Korea, a country that is intertwined with the game itself.
Issue being, however, that this boom was but an echo of the original one. StarCraft, as in the original, and the phenomenon that it was will always be tied to the culture of South Korea. SCII, on the other hand, didn't have nearly the same success as the original in that country. The new version was praised by the Western regions, but given a lukewarm welcome in South Korea. The fans wanted to see the original version. They wanted to see their stars, the Tyrant vs. the Ultimate Weapon, in the game that they had been following for a decade. Not this new "superior" version with shinier graphics and less depth whose star South Korean players were ones that couldn't cut it in the previous, tougher game.
It's not hard to see why SCII didn't take off in South Korea. It's the same if you took the NBA of today and told all the fans that they were going to be creating a sport called "basketball 2" that they are creating a separate league for next year. The hoop's rim will now have fire around it, the center court logo will now be a trampoline, and every three-pointer will now count for seven points. When a gigantic fan base -- and a national culture -- rallies behind something, changing it is only going to anger and drive people away. If something has worked for a decade, why change everything now?
StarCraft II eventually started declining in popularity in the West and never gain traction in South Korea. By the end of 2016, the StarCraft scene had become a strange inverse of when I started following it. Now it was the West and its viewership that was keeping it alive while the South Koreans preferred to watch or play the team-based games League of Legends or Overwatch. SCII is a lame duck in Korea, and a large number of former Brood War players have gone back to streaming the original game online to the dedicated fan base that has never left the original, making more money there than they ever could in the newer version.
The spectacle lives on
A week prior to the BlizzCon World Championship, it had been announced that most of the professional teams in South Korea had dropped or will be dropping their StarCraft II clubs by the end of the event. Those uniforms that had intrigued me almost a decade ago were now going to be no more in the world of SCII. Proleague, the main team league of StarCraft, was also discontinued.
There would be no Overwatch League without StarCraft II, but that didn't seem to matter anymore. As previously mentioned, the fanfare was low following Neeb's speedy departure from the event, and aside from John "Totalbiscuit" Bain's special King of the Hill event on Friday night with former stars taking the stage, the tournament felt like a footnote to the other events going across the convention halls. But then came finals day, and it all changed. The silence turned into cheers, and interest picked up as the tournament made its way down to the final four and eventually the finals. By the time the final kicked off between the world's strongest Terran Byun "ByuN" Hyun-woo and the world's strongest Zerg Park "Dark" Ryung-woo, there was no way inside the packed arena. Everyone had shown up to see who would be crowned the world champion of StarCraft II.
And when Byun finally beat Dark in an unforgettable 4-2 series win, the crowd jumped from its chairs, cheering for a player that had played the game since the very beginning of the professional SCII scene. Byun had made a name for himself early in the lifespan of the game before vanishing during the middle expansion before ultimately returning with the final iteration of the SCII franchise to become the world champion in marvelous fashion. The fan favorite, Byun described it as the best day of his life, physically hugging the trophy in bliss as the crowd flashed their cellphones at the golden moment.
In the end, this was not the revitalization of SCII as a leading esport. Although it was the sixth most-streamed esport on Twitch in Aug. 2016, its viewership numbers still pale in comparison to the top competitive titles, and the scene's demise in South Korea is only going to dilute the player pool even more come the 2017 campaign.
But it did show what StarCraft is all about, from the day it began to its current standing: a glorious spectacle. The feeling of witnessing something special. One-on-one showdowns where the only person you can blame for defeat if yourself. It's something that team-based games, for how popular they are, can't match when compared to StarCraft.
People came to see the two best players in the world mine with their workers and create the world in front of them. StarCraft, especially SCII, will never be what it once was, but it doesn't need to. Every year, the fans will return, and regardless of how the professional scene is doing or how low the attendance is on the first day, come the final, people will show up, wanting to see a show. And the beautifully complex but simple game will give them one.