Another WCS tournament, another Serral vs. Reynor finale. Three of 2019’s premiere tournaments – WCS Winter Europe, WCS Summer, and now WCS Fall – featured these two players in their grand finals. It’s one of the biggest rivalries in the game and, in my humble opinion, always a pleasure to watch. As my friend Maynarde noted on Twitter:
Nonetheless, Serral and Reynor’s repeat performances shine a light on a key limitation within the region lock system. I recently dug deep into the data surrounding region lock, and I discovered that most of the system’s benefits flowed to the very best players:
The more profound effect was an increase in earnings at the top of the foreign community. Overall, median and 90th percentile prize winnings hardly changed – more than 300 foreigners took home prize money in 2018, most of them miniscule dollar figures from small online cups. But if you limit the calculations only to those foreigners who made more than $1000 in prize money in a single year – i.e. try to eliminate those who are only “semi-professional” – the numbers look very different.
With that $1000 constraint in mind, the median prize-winnings per foreigner in 2013 were close to $4000. In 2018, that hardly changed at all, rising to close to $4500. But at the 90th percentile, there was a significant shift, rising from $18,000 in 2013 to close to $34,000 in 2018. This despite the fact that the total number of prize-winning foreigners only declined marginally, from 388 in 2013 to 311 in 2018. (Aligulac, which has better data on recent, small online cups, actually shows nearly 600 foreign prize winners in 2018, the highest number in the game’s history.)
Middle-of-the-pack players saw limited increases in prize winnings from 2013 to 2018. A big contributor to this is the difficulty they have competing with the top-top players, something that has been quite visible in 2019:
This statistic really stood out to me: the offline win-rate of the best eight foreigners in 2019 against their fellow foreigners – 79% – is virtually identical to the offline win-rate of the best eight Koreans against foreigners in 2018 – 80%. Five of the top eight foreigners in 2018 are still in the top eight in 2019. There is just remarkable consistency at the top echelons of the foreign community.
Region lock was originally implemented in order to, quote, “[provide] more opportunities to expose, develop, and celebrate the top talent from regions outside of Korea.” It certainly achieved that goal, at least insofar as developing talents like Serral, Neeb, or Reynor.
But how deeply did those benefits extend? For instance, in 2016, uThermal claimed that “[now], everyone has a chance at top four, top eight”. I myself had the same feeling by the end of that year, with every major tournament featuring a different winner. But the pattern would prove to be unsustainable in the long-term – Neeb dominated the circuit in 2017 while Serral swept all four major Circuit tournaments in 2018.
In 2019, it’s demonstrably untrue that “everyone” has a chance at top eight, let alone a major tournament win. Statistically a foreigner is no more likely to beat a top-top foreigner today than they were to beat a top Korean in 2018, and only ~30% more likely than they were to beat a top Korean in 2013. It’s certainly true that foreigners across the board are significantly better at the game – but for most players, this doesn’t coincide with increased prize winnings or better tournament placements.
None of this invalidates region lock, but it does point to diminishing returns within the system. The ability for players to break out and make deep tournament runs is not so different from what it was pre-region lock – there’s just a different group of players sitting at the top. Regardless of other mitigating factors – like the ability to practice against the best because they play on the same ladder as their competitors, additional guaranteed paid travel and public exposure, and so on – this core metric isn’t moving in a positive direction, and is in fact slightly regressing. (For reference, the top eight foreigners’ maintained a 76% offline win-rate against their fellow foreigners in both 2017 and 2018).
What could be done to change this? One possibility, though disruptive, would be to majorly shake-up the meta through a significant design patch. Part of the reason the best players in the world continue to be the best is their mastery of the currently optimal gameplay approach and philosophy. If the developers were to change this up, that could create opportunities for new blood to enter the top ranks. This wouldn’t return us to 2016, but it would probably shuffle the top of the pile a bit.
Another idea would be to extend region lock even further. WCS Winter region locked North America from Europe, a tacit acknowledgment of the latter’s dominance over foreign StarCraft. Blizzard could take this even further, carving out additional rules and regulations to protect weaker regions.
I don’t necessarily endorse either of these proposals. Indeed, I don’t even think the current situation is a problem. I’m actually OK with a group of players dominating the game, so long as there are plenty of alternative opportunities (like ladder races, community events, and stream integrations like the Warchest) for the lower tiers to shine. Not everyone has to win a tournament to be relevant or to make a living off of StarCraft.
But what the data is showing is that a key hope of region lock – a truly “greenfield” competitive environment in which anyone could win – hasn’t materialized. The gap between the top-top foreigners and the rest of the foreign community is actually growing, at least for now. If Blizzard wants to do something about this, they’ll need to take decisive action.