theScore esports Gets It Wrong On StarCraft’s Region Lock

Recently, I came across this video discussing the history of professional StarCraft:

I was surprised to hear my own voice near the end of the video. Not because the high-pitched tones of Kermit the Frog shocked me out of my morning haze – I listen to that everyday, folks – but because of the way the video presented my perspective. Here is the relevant section, in which the narrator discusses the various design changes Blizzard introduced in Legacy to help revitalize StarCraft II:

Over the next few years, Blizzard tried to make the game faster, to bring it more in line with the StarCraft that everyone fell in love with. But their next decision put the final nail in StarCraft’s coffin.

In 2016, Blizzard region locked StarCraft II tournaments. That meant that Korean players could only play with other Korean players in Korea for tournament purposes. It was supposed to introduce some regional diversity into StarCraft’s pretty Korean-dominated competitive scene. What Blizzard didn’t anticipate is that it created a sort of vacuum in South Korea. All of the new up and coming South Korean players could now only play against the veterans who had been dominating the game for years.

(video transitions to a quote from me on the unfairness within the WCS system)

This section gets a few things wrong. First, the broader narrative that StarCraft is dead is not supported by the data. In mid-2019, Legacy peaked at over 500,000 ranked accounts, roughly double the player base at launch and higher than any point of Heart of the Swarm. Activity-wise, games played per day at the end of 2019 was close to Legacy’s launch numbers and comparable to late Heart of the Swarm. Near the end of 2017, Blizzard’s internal numbers indicated between 1.8 to 2 million active players per month across all game modes; if it were sold on Steam, StarCraft II would rank among the top ten titles in terms of concurrent players.

Second, the notion that region lock put the “final nail in StarCraft’s coffin” is incorrect. As I wrote in my in-depth article on the subject:

Region lock was neither a savior nor a curse. It was a material change to the structure of professional StarCraft that pushed more money into the pockets of top foreign players; it increased win rates against Koreans, especially for the top-top foreigners; and it provided enough money to sustain a small but still-powerful group of Korean professionals.

Even among the game’s player base, region lock receives too much credit (and too much blame) for the changes to StarCraft’s professional scene over the past four years. Free to play was the primary driver in increasing the size of the player base; structural changes like ladder races, community events, and warchests helped make the competitive scene more sustainable and vibrant; the team house in South Korea was a major contributor to increases in foreigners’ skill level; etc. Region lock was one factor among many others.

It is true that the WCS system introduced in 2016 had flaws relative to the Korean scene. It was intuitively unfair to subject Koreans to different rules than foreigners, and the structure and cadence of professional tournaments was brutal towards low- and mid-tier players. But the idea that this was the primary contributor to the Korean scene’s decline is not supported by the data, and the video’s decision to quote me out of context to imply as much is what prompted me to write this article. The largest decline in Korean prize winning players occurred two years prior to the introduction of region lock:


As I wrote in my article:

It is important to stress that StarCraft II is not uniquely unpopular in Korea. It is about as popular there as it is in many other countries…. The problem unique to Korea was providing opportunities for hundreds of pro-gamers to make a living off of StarCraft II. Brood War in Korea produced a formidable infrastructure of professional teams, players, and coaches. That resulted in some of the finest real-time strategy players in history, but it also cost a lot of money and required significant financial support from corporate sponsors. This was sustainable – or at least investment-grade – in Brood War because the game was wildly popular. But as many professionals began to shift over to StarCraft II, they found that there was too little market demand for what they were offering.

Perhaps the most glaring exclusion from this video is the lack of any discussion of the various matchfixing scandals that plagued Korean StarCraft across both Brood War and StarCraft II. These are regularly cited by insiders as a major factor in the scene’s decline.

Finally, the video neglects to discuss non-Korean professional StarCraft at any level of depth. Had the authors looked at this data, they would have found it compelling: 2019 saw more prize winning foreigners than any other year on record.

Final Thoughts

StarCraft II is one of the most successful competitive real-time strategy games ever made. It is not the largest esport in the world, but this does not mean it is dead, or that “its glory days are over”. It is merely smaller than its peers, and it will continue to thrive so long as Blizzard maintains support for the game and continues to sponsor its professional competitive system.

I am by no means a blind fanboy; I have a laundry list of qualms with how Blizzard manages StarCraft. But videos like this only obscure the discussion by failing to get the facts right. There is great value in outsiders to our community offering a third party take on what StarCraft gets right and wrong – but only if said analysis is grounded in reality.

Thanks for reading! I write about StarCraft and Age of Empires. I’d love it if you followed me on Twitter and Facebook and subscribed to my game-design focused YouTube channel. One of these days I’ll stream regularly, so be sure to follow my Twitch channel as well. All the best and see you next time.

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