The rise (and fall?) of StarCraft

The once undisputed king of competitive gaming is on the decline. Patrick Stafford investigates.

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The rise (and fall?) of StarCraft

The name “Day9” is easily recognisable to anyone familiar with the eSports scene – and even to some who aren’t. The seemingly random name is the online handle used by Sean Plott, widely recognised as one of the nicest and most helpful personalities in professional gaming.

Plott is a StarCraft man. Most of his good reputation comes from the amount of effort he’s put into teaching new players the ropes for this incredibly complex game – a game often jokingly referred to as South Korea’s national sport. Plott has built his entire happy-go-lucky personal brand around StarCraft, which has allowed him to leverage himself into a media network with new types of shows. His personal website sells shirts with his logo.

But Plott isn’t as much of a StarCraft man as he used to be. Over the past few years, StarCraft II – at one point the stuff of rumours in 2007 – hasn’t gained the traction of its predecessor.

“I used to do a show called Funday Monday, where people would submit replays of them playing StarCraft II with just significant and ridiculous constraints,” he says. Restrictions like only being able to build flying units, or only workers. It was just a bit of fun.

“I used to get huge viewership numbers for them – 20,000 every Monday. But over time, that’s dwindled down. Not just the number of viewers, but the number of entries.”
“I finally just said I’m going to stop doing it.”

His declining viewer numbers are reflective of a larger shift. After 17 years of dominating eSports, StarCraft is declining. Alongside Plott, other professional gaming leagues such as Team Liquid have seen a marked drop in the number of StarCraft spectators. In 2010-12, events could see as many as 150,000 spectators. Today, you can count spectators in the tens of thousands.

It’s hardly a death sentence, but StarCraft isn’t just losing viewers – it’s losing players. The past five years have seen professional players including Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon, Sasha Hostyn and “BabyKnight” jump ship. 

“No game stays popular forever,” says Jared “PiG” Krensel, a professional StarCraft player based in Australia – he’s a part of the Exile5 team. “One day, many years from now, I will probably have to swap to something else.”

“StarCraft is such a great game, so the thought does sadden me.”

Back to the Future

Let’s rewind.

While other real-time strategy games were popular in the late 1990s, StarCraft became differentiated through an elegant balance. Three races, with an intense amount of effort put into making sure none had any unfair advantages over the others. 

South Korea, with its advanced internet infrastructure for the time, became the perfect breeding ground. In 2000, the country even created an official group to monitor the game’s professional evets – the Korea e-Sports Association. Soon, television channels were showing matches complete with commentary and analysis.

Just as the original StarCraft enjoyed its rise due to a growing hunger for broadband, StarCraft II started the decade well with the sudden rise in streaming technology.

“Because of StarCraft’s huge popularity as a casual single-player game and popular LAN party game all around world…as well as its eSports background it was possibly the most anticipated game release of all-time,” says Krensel.

“All of this led to an immense wave of hype and excitement around StarCraft II’s release. Combine the timing of this with widespread HD capabilities for YouTube content and the advent of Justin.tv - later Twitch, you get a perfect storm for StarCraft II’s immense success and hype.”

Plott agrees streaming was certainly StarCraft’s “biggest contributor” to success. 
“It was the first huge game that had a lot of big interest,” he says. “Counter Strike was an extremely cool game but wasn’t absorbed into streaming culture.”

Streaming is largely responsible for the huge spectator numbers in various StarCraft events – hundreds of thousands of people watching tournaments was not out of the ordinary.

But that’s changed. Spectators are down. The players are leaving. And people like Plott are focusing their attention on other games. StarCraft’s days at the centre of the eSports scene are over.

Now, League of Legends and DOTA have taken its place. Each year, spectators and prize money grow for these two games based off a once-modestly beloved mod for Warcraft III. 
But why?

What is old is new again

Genres, like the hands of a clock, come back around. Whether it’s boy bands or skinny ties, everything that has happened will happen again. So it is in games. Styles that died in the 90s – like flight sims –are making a solid resurgence.

Of all the games to take over from StarCraft’s dominance, another real-time strategy title is not the most obvious – the genre mostly died in the late 1990s. So why are StarCraft’s two main successors as the centre of the eSports scene – DOTA and League of Legends – so successful?

“The world has changed in terms of what defines a game,” says StarCraft: Legacy of the Void and Heroes of the Storm producer Chris Sigarty. “A lot more people have access to games now and consider themselves gamers as opposed to when people were buying RTS games in the late 1990s.”

“It’s chic to be a geek now,” he says.

That explains the popularity, perhaps. League of Legends and DOTA are both certainly winning on that front. In January 2014, LoL said it has 67 million active monthly players, and last year’s DOTA 2 International tournament had a prize pool of $US10 million.
But why is the battle for popularity among strategy games, which are notoriously difficult to learn? 

The first is obvious – spectatorship. The game’s format makes it easy to understand why professional players became caught in its gravity. Watching a StarCraft match – with an overhead view of the battlefield – is fun. You can see all the action at once. Unlike a first person shooter, for example, when only one person’s view is available at a time.
The second reason is just as clear –socialisation.

“StarCraft is the Tennis of eSports - it›s never going to have the accessibility of an easier to understand and more social football,” says Krensel.

“Also in an age where games are so good at linking up players with friends and even old Blizzard titles like Warcraft III from 2000 had built in clans and clan ladders, a meaningful levelling system and in-client tournaments - all which promoted the community.”

“StarCraft 2 failed to deliver any of these features on release of the game, and subsequent updates were often lacking.”

This is something even Blizzard acknowledges. The release of Blizzard’s own MOBA and competitor to both DOTA and League of Legends, Heroes of the Storm, has come with a commitment for post-launch support.

“One of the things that’s very real that the players who participate in StarCraft II, they are in it for the long haul,” says Sigarity.

“They’ve openly said they want things to buy that we can give back into the game. The community is asking for features like skins so they can continue to not just get better but demonstrate more, show more.”

“That’s something we’ve thought about it, what about after the launch of Legacy of the Void, to continue to allow the game to evolve.”

The lack of a casual StarCraft base may have hurt its competitive success in the long-run, argues Plott. Consider the most popular professional sports – football, tennis, soccer, among them. All of these games have amateur leagues in every suburb. Grab a ball or a racket and get started.

StarCraft, on the other hand, combines a certain set of finely-tuned skills and doesn’t have much of a draw to newer players. On a basic level, people know how to kick a ball in a goal. Maximising a digital economy – and an army at the same time - is much, much harder. StarCraft is often compared to chess – but it’s a chess game in which both players are making their moves at the same time.

“I think the thing StarCraft 2 struggles with is how difficult it is to just sit down and play in a casual way,” says Plott.

“A lot of the strategy has to do with timing, ordering these types of buildings and upgrades that has the exact stuff you need to defend yourself.”

“If a new player suddenly loses, it feels like there’s no possible way that player could overcome that. He says, “fuck this”, in terms of that learning loop.”

K.I.S.S.

There’s a simpler reason why League of Legends and DOTA are taking over.

They’re just far simpler to play.

While both games feature a huge variety of heroes, weapons and skills, (each involving a specific knowledge base), the function of the game is basically the same. Move your one character around the board and kill stuff using your four weapons or spells. 

StarCraft, on the other hand, involves an entirely different set of management skills. As Plott describes, so much of the balance of the game involves building specific buildings or upgrades at very precise timings. Otherwise, you’re screwed.

“MOBAs capture a small of part of [strategy] without dealing with economies and building bases,” says Krensel. “It’s one of the reasons you see a lot of tower defence games on mobile – because you don’t have to get too complicated.”

As with most things when it comes to player reaction, it all comes down to feedback loops. Plott says in League of Legends, or other MOBAs, players are given immediate feedback as to what happens when they die.

“It’s the same in Counter Strike,” he says. “You walk around a corner, get shot. Then you know to be careful.”

“There is a tightness to learning loops in other games that isn’t quit there in StarCraft.”
The massive variety of strategic tactics in StarCraft mean that loop is incredibly complicated and difficult to interpret. New players are encouraged to share their game replays with experts and routinely watch practice matches with better players.

It’s a time commitment.

“It may take multiple games to exercise that learning loop,” says Plott. “I think that almost everyone who plays StarCraft seriously watches competitive StarCraft, and if that number is going down over time, it’s very hard.”

That isn’t to say MOBAs aren’t strategic, he says.

“They’re deeply, wildly, strategic,” he says. “Those core gameplay loops are so tight.”
Which is probably why Blizzard is getting on board with Heroes of the Storm.

It’s the economy, stupid

There’s another key theory why StarCraft is losing to MOBA titles – the rise of free to play gaming.

After the Global Financial Crisis occurred in 2008, the video game industry was shaken up. Companies like THQ suffered the brunt of the downfall, and certainly the Australian scene was decimated. Unemployment rose around the world.

That coincided with the rise of the Apple App Store, and access to small, bite-sized games that people would expect to get for free.

That free-to-play mentality seeped into desktop games. Hence, League of Legends and DOTA are completely free products. If there’s one way to gain a sizeable player base? Give it away for nothing.

It’s a cynical view. But if nothing else, it’s caused Blizzard to respond with Heroes of the Storm.

“These games entire money-making model is based on microtransactions, which only a small % of players purchase - so the entire business success rests on many players playing - hence the companies have revolutionised community involvement, game updates and patches and general attention towards maintaining and refreshing the game as a fun and new experience,” says Krensel.

“StarCraft on the other hand follows the older model based on a one-off initial purchase - and past that point their involvement with the game and its community is something that serves them no purpose monetarily.”

“This creates a large barrier to entry - you couldn’t initially just ask your friend to try out StarCraft unless they were willing to spend the 60 or so dollars needed to purchase the game.”

As Sigarty himself explains, Blizzard isn’t trying to revolutionise MOBAs. (Indeed, playing it safe ensures a greater chance of competing against DOTA and League of Legends). 
“But we are trying to come up with something that…comes from a lot of interaction with the community,” he says. “We want Heroes to have an unexpected tone to it.”

Unexpected or not, Blizzard’s entry into the race confirms the context of eSports is changing for StarCraft. If the game really *is* the closest digital equivalent to chess, then the industry has found its football in MOBA. As one of the biggest gaming companies on the planet, Blizzard would be negligent to avoid the opportunity.

“When seen in contrast to these huge MOBA businesses with hundreds of millions of players throwing money at them - Blizzards level of maintenance on SC2 will pale in comparison,” says Krensel.

And there are some early signs Blizzard’s approach is rubbing off on the competition. Both LoL and DOTA have recently made changes to the way towers behave in the game to make match lengths shorter. Heroes of the Storm has already made a mark among the MOBA base for its shorter match times.

Strategy games, then, are become less about strategy and more about action. Faster. Punchier. 

We’re already seeing this type of change move over to StarCraft. In the next expansion, Legacy of the Void, players will start with twice as many “worker” units. Less time to get your economy going means more time for action.

A diverse future for everyone

It would be easy to sensationalise this type of shift. To say that StarCraft, which has been the eSports darling for 17 years, is dying. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s about to get another boost with the next expansion.

“StarCraft is very stable and if LoTV shares similar levels of popularity to HoTS then it will continue as a strong eSport for at least a few more years,” says Krensel.

“Even if it’s a bit less popular, or even far less popular there will always be SC2 competitions and a good-sized player-base.”

And for players and commentators like Plott, more games means more eyes on eSports as a whole. Hell, DOTA caused a minor controversy this year when ESPN broadcast its championships – and pissed off a commentator who thought the screen should be reserved for “real” sports.

“I run my own StarCraft coaching business, Stream as a partner on Twitch regularly and have recently forayed into commentary and expert analysis at major events. 

“if one day many years from now StarCraft is too unpopular for me to earn my living, I’ll hopefully have found a new Strategy game to love, and swap over to that.”

Plott isn’t too worried, either. 

“I’ve always known that diversification is important,” he says. “I’ve always played other games, its felt natural, I feel like there would be a stress for someone all in on StarCraft.”
One thing is for certain - StarCraft may be on the downhill run. But ultimately, everyone in eSports will benefit from its legacy, long into the future. 

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