Analysis: Blizzard Replaces WCS with ESL and DreamHack

Recently, Blizzard announced that it would be replacing StarCraft II’s professional competitive circuit, the World Championship Series (WCS), with a collaborative engagement with ESL and Dreamhack.

There are a surprising number of interesting tidbits contained within the various announcement videos and news articles. Today I’d like to talk a bit about them.

TL;DR – More StarCraft Is Coming

Probably the most exciting change is the three-year commitment Blizzard and ESL are making to StarCraft esports. This both makes it easier to engage with the game yourself – knowing there’s at least three years of benefits to be had – and to encourage your friends to watch and play as well.

I think this arrangement will encourage more long-term investment into the StarCraft ecosystem. For example, it’s easier for a pro player to commit to going full-time when they know they have three years of runway ahead of them. Similarly, commentators and other community members are more incentivized to create content for the game because they know there’s a fully funded professional system underneath their feet.

The announcement also brands the new Pro Tour as featuring six tournaments, including IEM Katowice 2020. This is roughly equivalent to last year’s system, which featured IEM Katowice, WCS Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, and Blizzcon. Blizzard confirmed that StarCraft will still be at Blizzcon this year, but hasn’t yet announced what it will look like. This year’s prize pool – in celebration of StarCraft’s ten-year anniversary – is set at $1.9 million, an increase over previous years given that this does not include the Korean leagues. Future years feature a $1.2 million prize pool for foreigners, not all that much different from WCS historically. Apollo has also indicated the ESL is open to working with other tournament organizers, a good sign for events like last year’s ASUS ROG.

In sum, the new system is similar to the old system in terms of prizing and events (notwithstanding additional money for StarCraft’s anniversary), but it features a much stronger long-term commitment to StarCraft esports. That is awesome.

ESL Open Cups

A welcome addition to the professional scene is a series of weekly online tournaments that reward nominal tour points and prize money. The prizing here is pretty well-considered; enough points and money to incentivize people to play, but not so much that they feel mandated to participate.

In an ideal world, I would have preferred to see something akin to CS:GO’s player break: a month or so of no professional competition, designated in advance to encourage players to rest and recharge. StarCraft arguably already features such a period between Blizzcon and the start of the next year of competition, whereas the new system features no official breaks at all. This is a minor concern for players; the modest prizing of these online cups means that professionals may not perceive them as being a major part of the official competition. My main concern is more for ESL’s staff members – will they be administering these tournaments over, say, the Christmas or Easter holidays? That doesn’t seem fair.

Regional Changes and Region Lock

The new professional circuit also rebalances regional qualification spots. As Apollo commented to TL:

Qualifiers will take over from WCS Challenger, with the EU region now allocated seven spots instead of four. This decision, Apollo says, was made after evaluating previous results of players from all regions in WCS tournaments: “Usually in group Stage 3 it was mainly Europeans. So we felt the re-balanced distribution fits a reality of what the skill level is within these regions.” North America (4) and Latin America (2) will retain their spots, but Oceania (1), China (1), and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau & Japan (1) each have one spot re-allocated to EU. All spots are fully funded, including travel and accommodation.

This feels like a great example of the change in incentives taking place in the move from WCS to the ESL Pro Tour. Blizzard generously allocated qualifying spots to less-skilled regions partly in order to complement their own business interests. China in particular is a massive market for the company, so it made sense to allocate additional spots in order to retain a stronger Chinese fanbase.

The ESL is operating under different incentives, which in this case causes them to prioritize skill level over balanced regional representation. I am still surprised by the removal of a Chinese qualifying spot given that ESL also has a strong business interest in that country; but the changes to Oceania and Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau and Japan make a lot of sense.

This change in incentives also applies to region lock; while ESL will retain it for 2020, it’s open to removing it in later years. As Apollo wrote on Reddit:

Yeah, it was too short of a runway to make sure we executed in the best possible way. As I wrote, I think the conversations around region lock are something that should absolutely be had for the 2021/22 season. We will take those discussions together with DreamHack through 2020 as we watch the progress of the new EPT!

Discussions around the benefits and drawbacks of region lock have often dovetailed with discussions of Blizzard’s business interests. I think that still applies given that Blizzard is sponsoring all of the prizing, but it now needs to be balanced against ESL’s interests. It’s worth considering that this was probably always a factor given how much Blizzard and ESL have collaborated in the past; just instead of being factored into their negotiations, it’s now handled directly by ESL. It’s also worth noting that at the time region lock was announced, Apollo publicly supported it.

More On Incentives

The main reason I bring up the incentives topic is that I think contracting out professional StarCraft features trade-offs that stem from the differences in incentives between Blizzard and ESL. A great example of this relates to tournament exclusivity. Late last year, ESL planned to introduce exclusivity rules into its CS:GO league, limiting professionals’ participation in non-ESL events. In response, Valve threatened to withdraw their (and other tournament organizers’) broadcasting licenses for the game if they continued down this road.

Would ESL do something similar in StarCraft? It’s hard to say, and personally I think it’s unlikely. But it’s an example of a real structural change in incentives relative to the old WCS systems. Blizzard’s interest in licensing StarCraft to tournament organizers is a combination of finances (because TOs pay a licensing fee) and wanting to protect their intellectual property. Sometimes this has arguably been against the franchise’s interests, such as rumors that Blizzard was charging a nearly ninety thousand dollar license fee to run the ASL. But Blizzard doesn’t directly compete with tournament organizers in the same way the ESL does; the two companies have genuinely different interests with respect to including more TOs in the professional scene.

This isn’t to say that ESL is somehow a bad actor; rather, it’s just important to recognize the change in incentives that this restructuring implies. The ESL is going to do what it thinks is best for the ESL, in the same way Blizzard is going to do what it thinks is best for Blizzard. The difference is that Blizzard is also the owner of the underlying intellectual property and responsible for the game’s creative vision; there’s some degree of alignment between what’s good for the company and what’s good for StarCraft that doesn’t quite exist for the ESL.

Note that this also goes the other way – for example, under the new arrangement, does the development team prioritize viewership differently when designing and balancing the game?

Historically in Legacy, Blizzard has prioritized creating an action-packed viewing experience for fans. That made a lot of sense when they were the primary tournament organizers. Now that they’re merely the “support network” for the new professional system, they have more freedom to prioritize changes to the gameplay that might negatively affect viewership. One example of this would be reverting the change to move from six to twelve starting workers – this sped up the game and made it a more pleasant viewing experience, but it also compressed the timeline of decision making and arguably made it more difficult for lower-level players to appreciate their strategic choices.

The point here isn’t that six or twelve workers is better for the game; the point is that the incentives that led to twelve workers are different from the incentives that exist today.

More interesting is how Blizzard’s approach to game balance will change. With less involvement in the game’s professional scene, the company has a freer hand to focus on changes benefiting lower-league players, perhaps at the expense of professionals. ESL has a separate problem to solve – if Blizzard leaves the game in a poorly balanced state prior to a major tournament, should it run its own custom balance patch? You could argue that it’s their responsibility to do so as the steward of the professional scene; personally, I think it would be a mistake. Also worth asking: historically, the map pool at tournaments aligned with the map pool on the ladder in order to enable players to “feel” like they’re playing like the pros. Does this still hold true under the new arrangement?

Blizzard isn’t going away – they’re not going to suddenly start screwing up the top-end competitive scene in order to make it easier to mass void rays in silver league. It’s even possible that behind the scenes they’ve contractually bound ESL to follow certain rules, like leveraging the ladder map pool for tournaments. Really, this is more of a practical consideration than anything else. With less involvement comes fewer touch points to the professional scene, fewer opportunities for the concerns of professional gamers to become front of mind. This will slowly change how the company approaches the game; how much remains to be determined.

Taking a Step Back

As much as things will stay similar to previous years, it’s worth underlining that this is yet another sign of Blizzard stepping back from StarCraft. From the official announcement:

As DreamHack and ESL take over the operational management of StarCraft II esports, we will serve as an overall support network for the new system.

And from Apollo himself:

With Blizzard no longer in full control of the brand, Apollo confirmed that ESL and DreamHack would have greater creative freedom, citing IEM Katowice as an example of how talent at Pro Tour events might be given greater license to “mess around and have fun”.

There are different ways to interpret this. Optimistically, you could argue that Blizzard has realized it’s better at building great games than it is at running and organizing tournaments. This aligns with Blizzard’s new mantra to “focus” and invest more heavily in game development at the expense of managing esports. The ESL Pro Tour, in this interpretation, frees the developers to focus on gameplay first, and let someone else worry about the details of professional competition.

A more negative interpretation would be to take this as a sign that Blizzard has little interest in directly maintaining or investing in StarCraft. The firing of Marc Solbertz, the laying off of several community managers, and the departures of numerous high-profile staff – including the game’s director, Tim Morten – are all data points to support this. In this interpretation, contracting the game’s professional scene out to the ESL is a way of taking the game off of Blizzard’s plate while also avoiding the public relations nightmare that was the cancellation of Heroes of the Storm esports.

Personally, I lean more in the middle. I think the issues in 2019, particularly around lack of resourcing and internal bureaucracy, convinced the developers to delegate the esports side to a subject matter expert. However, I don’t see this as an increase in investment in StarCraft. I think that the mantra of “how can we develop and support this game in a financially sustainable way?” has given way to a quieter approach: “how can we keep this going while minimizing our developer investment?” They’re similar in a lot of ways, but the subtle differences matter. I expect the company to continue prioritizing stability and making fewer and fewer changes to the game.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I’m happy with the latest announcements. A three-year commitment is a big deal; I’m more excited than I’ve been in years to play and create content for the game. At the same time, I also think it’s important to be aware of the changing incentives at play, and to realize that the role of StarCraft esports is quietly shifting: from a marketing vehicle to a commercial sport.

It’s worth noting that the situation in Korea is still unclear, but Blizzard has said they are committed to making it work:

We are actively working to finalize our Korea plans for 2020 and beyond. We are committed to StarCraft II esports in Korea and will have more details for the community shortly.

All in all, I’m looking forward to three more years of an exceptionally wonderful competitive real-time strategy game.

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

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