I stopped watching and writing about SC2 back in mid-2016, only returning as a viewer in 2018. What brought me back, for the most part, was improvements to the WCS system (full region lock particularly, which ended the clown fiesta of early WCS). This past year (2019) was the most I've watched since 2015, and part of what kept me invested was feeling like the game wasn't going to revert to the old system. That's not to say WCS was perfect, but it had become a stable (if limited). Given that, I want to look at the ESL's new system and offer my perspective on the changes being made.
The End of WCS and Beginning of the ESL Pro Tour
It was a good choice to hand the reins over to Apollo and ESL. I don't doubt Blizzard will continue to struggle with balance (I was gobsmacked to see brood lord/infestor again after it nearly killed the game in 2012), but the nuts and bolts of organizing tournaments is no longer their concern. All Blizzard has to do is offer a modest amount of prize money, saving on costs overall since they don't have to run the tournaments anymore. The three-year commitment by ESL offers security for all involved, although it's one thing to take ownership of the pro scene and another to make it work. What are my concerns?
This is my primary concern, particularly as so many people at ESL opposed it in the past. The general sentiment in the past was that the game was most appealing when it was best-on-best, something heartily debunked both by WCS 2013-14 and GSL's consistently lower viewership numbers. There are still people who oppose region lock (Artosis floated the idea immediately once the ESL deal was announced), which means the threat of returning to that disastrous situation is always possible. The continued need for the restriction was readily when zero North Americans qualified for IEM on their own server. It's no coincidence that the healthiest SC2 scene is in Europe, where the ping from Korea is borderline unplayable.
The angle behind wanting the lock removed has shifted away from entertainment value (since that's been debunked) to creating more opportunities for new Korean players to arise (a variation on older arguments from 2016 that worried about the 'starving Korean' pro scene). The lack of new blood is a genuine problem in many regions, but we know from past experience that Koreans beating foreigners is locally irrelevant. What would actually help is creating more events in Korea, but for those to be effective they either need to exclude GSL players or have prize money stretch much further down the ranks (otherwise all the cash goes to the same players). My own view is that it's too late the scene to recover there (although ESL should try to change that). My theory is that Brood War Remastered has killed the SC2 scene in Korea, since the hardcore fans seem to prefer it.
The major growth opportunities for the game are outside Korea--that's where new viewers and investors are to be found. What I want is for ESL to open up more opportunities for players below the top-sixteen to earn prize money. Outside smaller events like Cheesadelphia, there aren't many places for ladder heroes and aspiring pros to realistically place in tournaments.
The Nuts and Bolts of the System
I want to go over the core elements of the upcoming system. Here are the premier events for the first ESL season (GSL excluded because it hasn't been announced yet):
- IEM Katowice 2020/400k
- DH Dallas 2020/125k
- DH Valencia 2020/125k
- DH Montreal 2020/125k
- Unannounced 2020/200k
- Unannounced 2020/125k
- IEM Katowice 2021/500k
- Total Prize Pool: 1,600k
1st 20k -> 25k +25%
2nd 10k -> 12.6k +26%
3rd-4th 6k -> 6.5k +8%
5th-8th 4k -> 4k (no change)
9th-16th 2.75k -> 2.5k -9%
17-24 1.25k -> 1.8k +44%
25-32 1.25k -> 1k -20%
33-40 nothing -> 0.8k
41-48 nothing -> 0.6k
49-56 nothing -> 0.4k
57-64 nothing -> 0.2k
Sensibly the lowest prize money available is still more than the online cups, and while there are a pair of deceases overall, there's much more incentive both to make it into a tournament and to perform well even when losing.
Masters Qualification (ESL Challenger) (EU):
1st 1.6k -> 1.05k -34%
2nd 1.2k -> 0.95k -21%
3rd-4th 0.8k -> 0.85k +6%
5th-8th 0.6k -> 0.75k +25%
9th-16th 0.4k -> 9th-12th 0.55k +37%, 13th-16th 0.45k +12%
Culling some of the modest prize money from the top to boost earnings for the rest makes sense. What's interesting is the regional variation in prize money awarded, which seems to be allocated to reflect the number of slots available (NA 9.5k, LA 8.1k, the rest 6.6k), which I'll get into below.
Overall there's a lot more reward for players to put effort into the system--a top-16 result in Challenger and a R64 loss in a tournament could mean a thousand dollars or more, whereas last year the player would earn nothing.
The ESL post said ranking and qualifying haven't changed, but that's not quite the case, as the number of points awarded has been radically reduced (something that adds weight to weekly cups--see below). Here's how the points have been changed (old/new, with the difference in the gap by percentage--essentially everything has increased so I skipped colour coding).
1st 3,000 -> 700 (76% reduction)
2nd 1,400 -> 500 46%/71% +25%
3rd-4th -> 350 64%/70% +6%
5th-8th -> 600/250 66%/71% +5%
9th-16th -> 300/130 50%/52% +2%
17th-24th -> 100/70 33%/58% +25%
25th-32nd -> 100/40 33%/31% -2% (24% from the new tier above)
33rd-44th -> 0/24 0%/60% +60%
45th-48th -> 0/16 0%/66% +40% (66% from the next tier)
49th-56th -> 0/12 0%/30% +30% (75% from the next tier)
57th-64th -> 0/8 0%/20% +20% (66% from the next tier)
The IEM points are slightly higher, but the same principal applies. The takeaway is that the gaps are closer between tiers, meaning that one good or bad result isn't enough to secure or eliminate the chance of qualifying. This is a positive change and should create a more dynamic race to the finals. There doesn't seem to be points awarded in ESL's version of Challenger.
To illustrate what these changes would mean, I took the results from last year and applied them (minus ASUS ROG because we don't know about its involvement; also minus Challenger because it doesn't seem relevant; changes to the standings are in green or red):
Serral (5-8, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st) 2,820
Reynor (29-36, 1st, 3-4, 1st, 2nd) 2,298
Neeb (5-8, 1st, 3-4, 5-8, 3-4) 2,100
Special (13-18, 9-16, 2nd, 5-8, 3-4) 1,422
HeroMarine (37-44, 3rd, 9-16, 3-4, 5-8) 1,104 +1
TIME (n/a, 4th, 5-8, 5-8, 5-8) 1,100 -1
Elazer (25-28, 6th, 5-8, 5-8, 5-8) 1,042
ShowTime (29-36, 7th, 5-8, 3-4, 9-16) 1,028
Scarlett (21-24, 2nd, n/a, 9-16, 17-32) 820
Masa (n/a, 3rd, 9-16, n/a, 9-16) 610
Lambo (21-24, 5th, 9-16, 17-32, 17-32) 610
Clem (29-36, n/a, 9-16, 9-16, 9-16) 438 +5
Probe (n/a, 8th, 9-16, n/a, 17-32) 420 +3
uThermal (17-20, 17-32, 17-32, 9-16) 414 +3
Cham (n/a, 5th, n/a, 17-32, 17-32) 390 -3
Astrea (n/a, 6th, n/a, n/a, 9-16) 380 +1
Has (n/a, 17-32, 17-32, n/a, 9-16) 240 -4
Beyond the top-four it's apparent how much winning Cups could impact positioning (just four points separate HeroMarine and TIME; in total seven positions would swap with one or two Cup wins by the lower player). The changes also mean that one good tournament run could launch a player into the mix.
The spiritual return of Go4SC Cups, they are a compelling addition because of the points (10) awarded to the winner [5 to second place]. The only restriction seems to be the server (three cups are run each Sunday: one for Asia, NA, and Europe)--the points apply to whatever region the winner is from. The lack of a server lock could present serious problems in participation outside of Europe and absolutely means the Asia cups are of no use whatsoever for players from Oceania, China, etc. The first cups have already happened and its worthwhile to look at them:
- Asia: 22 players (mostly Korean, but only four GSL players: Solar, Trap, Dream, and DRG)
- NA: 88 players (15 Europeans and 1 Korean, Polt); I included TLO as local since he lives in Montreal now; Neeb didn't participate (perhaps because of IEM the next day)
- Europe: 135 players (0 Koreans, perhaps because of IEM); Serral and Reynor also skipped it
As a side note, Apollo has said he's open to including smaller tournaments in the system (I assume he means things like Cheesadelphia and Home Story Cup), although if there's a lack of region lock (as there certainly would be for HSC), this could create further problems--time will tell.
A significant change under ESL will be the size of the finals (their BlizzCon) as well as how its structured. Instead of the top-eight from each region (Korea/foreign), ESL is distributing qualifiers this way:
- 4 ESL, 3 GSL, and 2 IEM Champions (2-9 players)
- Top-6 Koreans
- Top-5 Foreigners
- 16-player playoff composed of the remaining top-8 from each region (competing for 4 slots)
- GSL Winners: Maru, Dark, Rogue
- WCS Winners: Serral, Reynor, Neeb
- Top-6 Koreans: Trap, Classic, soO, herO, Stats, TY
- Top-5 Foreigners: Special, TIME, HeroMarine, Elazer, ShowTime
- We're missing 3 players, 1 of which has to be a foreigner, so PtitDrogo makes the cut; let's assume the other two are Koreans and that adds Dear and GuMiho. Then we have the 16-player tournament featuring the following top-8 from each region:
- Korea: Ragnorak, Hurricane, PartinG, Solar, Zest, Innovation, sOs, Patience
- Foreign: Scarlett, Masa, Lambo, Cham, Has, Astrea, Probe, Clem
Impact of Regional Changes on the Player Base
This past year we had 4 qualifiers from Europe and NA with 2 from the other regions. NA and LA haven't changed, but Europe will now have 7 qualifiers while the other three regions have been reduced to 1. I feel like the change for Europe was warranted, but that LA was lucky to retain both slots (I don't think it's necessarily stronger than the two of the three other regions--I suspect it was left with 2 slots to avoid Special representing it 100% of the time).
Given how the regional distribution has changed, let's take a quick look at how this will impact each (those unchanged have been left out for obvious reasons):
Last year the only qualifying drama was for 3rd-4th (between HeroMarine, ShowTime, and Elazer); now there's room for those three and two other players, which has to add a lot of motivation for all those frozen out by the old system.
The scene seems deep enough to have kept another seat, but without it we're almost certainly going to see TIME representing it in every tournament. It doesn't help that several pros (Coffee, Silky, BreakingGG, JIN, Punk, and Park) are permanently banned for match-fixing due to various incidents in 2017-19.
Taiwan et al
The change is more appropriate here as the pool of potential candidates is small and it won't always default to one player (Has, Nice, ButAlways, and possibly Rex could qualify).
The change makes sense here, as it has been a long time since Petreaus of Moonglade were genuine heavyweights in the foreign scene. This is the region that seems closest to dying out, although events like Auscraft are a good way to try and resuscitate it.
The WCS lineup of casters did not change very much and its unclear how much (if at all) ESL will impact that. Which caster you enjoy is highly personal, but a little fresh blood wouldn't hurt. Here's the caster usage from the top-nine events last year (excluding Geoff for obvious reasons):
- Rotterdam 7 (absent for WCS Winter and GSL vs the World)
- ToD 6 (as above and also BlizzCon)
- DeMuslim 5 (as above but also WCS Montreal)
- Maynarde 5 (IEM, WCS Spring/Summer, GSL vs the World, and BlizzCon)
- PiG 4 (IEM, WCS Spring, WCS Montreal, and BlizzCon)
- Nathanias 3 (WCS Winter, WCS Montreal, and BlizzCon)
- ZombieGrub 2 (WCS Winter and WCS Montreal)
- Feardragon 2 (WCS Winter and WCS Summer)
- Tastosis 2 (GSL vs the World and BlizzCon)
- Grant 1 (ASUS ROG)
What new blood might appear? Possibly none, but beyond the aforementioned community casters are Winter (whose casting is improving), Temp0 (who I'd love to see given an opportunity), Steadfast, Coltarren, etc. My guess is, given that Apollo is friends with most of the usual WCS crew, we won't see much change--because of that, my hope that we move away from Tastosis always casting finals is unlikely (the two exclusively play Broodwar and I think the finals should be represented by those 100% committed to SC2--in terms of hours Rotterdam and PiG blow everyone else away).
Blizzard giving up control is the right move. The company has been slow to adapt to the needs of SC2 and done precious little to push the game (while deserving credit for maintaining it during some very dark days). ESL has an opportunity to push the pro scene forward and create new fans and players, but they need to be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The way forward is to strengthen or rebuild the various regions by fostering a supportive ecosystem. There simply aren't enough organically run tournaments to encourage amateurs to put their full effort into the game, so in the short-term ESL is going to have to provide a helping hand--otherwise what's likely is that in three years the game will be on solid footing in Europe, but struggling everywhere else (including Korea, with or without a region lock).
Finally, I thought I'd take a look at how the lack of region lock impacted Koreans--how it helped (or not) those who made the jump to Europe or America (ignoring prize money and looking strictly at results) [A kind person on Reddit caught a pair of errors: one in regards to Violet that is now fixed below--he tried and failed to qualify for GSL once after returning to Korea in 2017; the other was that region lock was set in 2015 with required residency--when I left in 2016 there seemed to be a new passport-related requirement being discussed, but I wasn't around to know if anything came about that]:
- Didn't qualify for BlizzCon and retired before region lock (9): CranK, Golden, Sage, The StC, Mvp, ForGG, NesTea, Genius, Shuttle
- Didn't qualify for BlizzCon, struggled with GSL and then retired (12): Revival, Oz, Alicia, Hack, Apocalypse, Arthur, Heart, HwangSin, Tails, Pigbaby, Seed, Daisy
- Didn't qualify for BlizzCon, but had a good run in GSL before retiring (1): Ryung
- Bombed out at BlizzCon and retired (1): StarDust
- Bombed out at BlizzCon, struggled with GSL and retired (4): MC, HyuN, HerO, Violet
- As above, but not retired (3): Alive, TRUE, Polt
- Second round at BlizzCon, but retired before returning to GSL (2): Duckdeok, Hydra
- As above, but struggled with GSL and retired (1): San
- Retired exceptions (4): both Jaedong and MMA had miracle runs at BlizzCon, but either couldn't make it into GSL (Jaedong) or eventually struggled (MMA); Yoda's performance didn't change before or after, but he couldn't reach BlizzCon and was banned for match-fixing before region lock; ByuL bombed out at BlizzCon, but had one good run in GSL afterwards
- Active exceptions (3): Taeja had a better run at BlizzCon after he'd spent time away and is still able to make GSL; Patience was unspectacular before and after, but made BlizzCon on the strength of his SSL performance; Bomber's GSL and BlizzCon results were worse after being away from Korea
This article is written by Peter Levi (@eyeonthesens)