The GSL is Important to StarCraft Esports

Recently, Blizzard announced a partnership with ESL and DreamHack to run StarCraft esports for the next three years. I wrote up an analysis of this a few weeks ago if you’re interested in my detailed thoughts.

A recent episode of the Pylon Show covered the news in-depth. Within this episode was an excellent conversation discussing how, if at all, to incorporate Koreans into the ESL Pro Tour. This included a short back and forth on whether or not to continue the GSL (timestamped link in case the embed loses it):

There’s a few points that I would like to add to the above discussion. In today’s article I’ll offer my perspective on the important role the GSL plays in StarCraft Esports. I won’t necessarily cover everything here, just the parts that I feel are missing from the discussions I see in the community.

The Format

In my view, the most notable aspect of the GSL is its format. Players compete in a single tournament across a span of three to four months. Each round of competition is preceded by at least a week of downtime, offering competitors the chance to study their opponents in advance, learn potential weaknesses, and prepare counter-builds.

There isn’t any major foreign StarCraft tournament that replicates this format. WCS Winter 2019 got the closest, but it was an online tournament with a unique “boss rush” finals. In general, the foreign scene is structured around weekender tournaments in which hundreds of entrants are whittled down to a single champion across the span of three or four days.

Weekender tournaments are great, and the qualifiers and ladder races leading up to them ensure there’s always something good to watch. But they don’t produce the same kind of storylines as a single, long-running tournament. Here I think of INnoVation “waking up” at the end of 2017, Maru’s proxy shenanigans in 2018, and the rise of Trap in 2019. It was really fun watching these storylines play out across entire seasons of play; the same kind of run compressed into a weekender tournament just wouldn’t have the same effect, at least for me personally.

An important component to this is the deep expertise the Korean casters have in the Korean professional scene. Artosis and Tasteless have been casting the GSL for roughly a decade; they know all of the players well, and this allows them to identify narratives that more casual viewers wouldn’t pick up on. Here I think of the Leenock storyline in GSL 2018’s Season 1; Artosis identified a peak in his performance relative to his historical results, and made sure to highlight it numerous times on stream. This made his qualification into the round of 16 really exciting to watch, because it felt like you were observing a player “break out” in real-time. Watching Hush (or was it Trust? my memory fails me) continuously fail to place highly in tournaments was similar; the way it was laid out into a coherent storyline about a really smart player failing to execute when it came to “the big leagues” made it compelling to watch, even if it was a bit sad.

The foreign scene is larger and more diverse than the Korean one, making it more difficult for foreign commentators to acquire the same level of knowledge about all of the players. The weekender format also means that they can’t necessarily “crunch” the knowledge at the last minute, because the gap between one series and another is a matter of hours. It’s purely anecdotal, but I hear less contextualization of players and their careers in foreign broadcasts relative to Korean broadcasts.

Again, this is not a criticism of how the foreign scene is structured or how its commentators do their jobs. I enjoy watching and following foreign StarCraft. My point here is just to say that the GSL offers something different, and I like that.

The Experience

There’s a few things unique to the GSL viewing experience. First and foremost is the timing, which plays into the underlying format. The GSL drip feeds high quality StarCraft on a weekly basis across a multi-month time span. I build watching it into my schedule in a way that you just can’t for a single, one-off weekender tournament. The GSL is structured such that you can make it part of your routine, and like many routines it becomes something you start to look forward to. Psychologically this is very different from the anticipation leading up to “one big event”, at least for me personally.

Complementing this is the fact that the GSL is the only major series of tournaments run in an Asian-friendly timezone. That probably doesn’t matter to most people, and some viewers might even see it as a downside. But personally, due to my schedule, the GSL is the only tournament I can reliably watch, making it the primary way I engage with professional StarCraft. It’s worth remembering that the Chinese and Korean ladders combined contain a larger player population than North America; there are lots of people who fall in the same boat as I do.

The last thing worth mentioning is that the GSL is actually a pretty great offline viewing experience. The studio is cool and you get to see the players close up. There’s a ton to do in Seoul as well so it’s easy to combine a GSL trip with a regular vacation. Traveling abroad is always expensive, of course, but Korea is relatively inexpensive when you consider hotel and food prices; I would estimate a New Yorker taking a 1-week vacation to Seoul wouldn’t spend much more than if they were to make a three-day excursion to Blizzcon. (Blizzcon tickets are expensive, and the price of hotels and food are driven up by the nearby Disneyland).

The Culture

This probably relates more to Proleague, but I think it also applies to the GSL. There’s a unique culture around the GSL that stems not just from its format, but the broader history of StarCraft esports in Korea.

Here I think of the culture of preparing counter-builds. Rogue losing to Neeb at Blizzcon 2017 and returning in the next series to demolish him comes to mind. Rather than try to play another series of standard games, Rogue identified the holes in Neeb’s play and hard-countered them with a prepared response.

Preparation sometimes goes beyond counter-builds as well. Here I think of TY; my friend Max helpfully pointed out that TY tends to enter matches with a specific plan on each map, and often tailors his builds to exploit individual map features. Maybe this is purely confirmation bias, but I’ve observed that SpeCial has started to approach his matches in the same way, and I think that’s a result of training in Korea (and, also, being friends with TY). This produces different kinds of series in which you get a broader look at a player’s approach to the game.

I’ll concede that this is a lot more hand-wavey than my previous points; foreigners prepare for their opponents, too. Meanwhile, there are plenty of examples of Korean players whose approach to preparation is to simply “be better” regardless of who they’re playing – Maru and INnoVation come to mind here. (In GSL 2019 Season 3, Maru used the exact same build five times in a row against Trap!) Nonetheless, I feel that it’s worth highlighting. Koreans prepare for tournaments in a way that feels distinct from their foreign counterparts; it doesn’t necessarily make them better to watch, but it’s different, and I like that.

Final Thoughts

To me, the GSL is an integral component of StarCraft esports. Even if the Korean players were incorporated into the ESL Pro Tour in a good and reasonable way, I think you’d still end up losing something special if you were to get rid of it. The structure, the format, the experience – it’s a lot of little things that all add up to an excellent overall show.

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 give me a follow on Twitch as well. All the best and see you next time.

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