StarCraft II’s region lock trap

Kwanghee Woo Columnist

By , Kwanghee Woo is a Roar Expert

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    The impressive Starcraft II Stage at Blizzcon (Photo: Blizzard Entertainment)

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    StarCraft II esports is currently trapped in a brutal catch-22.

    The reputation of non-Korean pros has been severely damaged from years of unrestricted global competition, during which Korean pro gamers dealt them defeat after crushing defeat. Yet, the belated implementation of a region lock, while giving the ‘foreign’ (the common term anything non-Korean in StarCraft) scene a much needed reprieve, has cut off the main path for ‘foreigners’ to repair their reputation – winning against top-tier Korean players.

    How did StarCraft arrive in such a situation? And is there anything to learn from it?

    In 2010, StarCraft II esports began with South Korea having a massive head start. StarCraft: Brood War had been played in Korea as an esport since 1999, and a professional infrastructure for discovering and developing gaming talent was already in place.

    When StarCraft II was released, dozens of pros and aspiring pros from Brood War jumped ship. Almost immediately, Korean pros dominated the nascent SC2 scene. Korean players won 13 of 22 major international tournaments in 2011, and proceeded to win 29 of 36 in 2012.

    In 2013, as the Korean hegemony started to concern both fans and pros, Blizzard implemented ‘World Championship Series’ as the primary circuit for StarCraft, operating separate tournaments in Korea, North America, and Europe (third party tournaments had begun to tail off, making Blizzard’s decisions regarding WCS all the more influential).

    At this point, Blizzard made their first crucial decision regarding region-locking, which was not to implement a lock at all. The American and European tournaments were opened up to players from any region, their only disadvantage being the latency from playing in an online qualifier on a distant server.

    This proved to be a poor deterrent — if it was meant to be a deterrent at all. Many Korean pros judged that it was better to endure some lag against foreigners and try to survive until the offline rounds, rather than compete in Korea against the best players in the world. They were right. Korean players ended up winning all six WCS America/Europe tournaments held between 2013 and 2014.

    Some of these results were celebrated, such as the victories of legendary pros Mvp and MMA. There were also disaster scenarios as in the case of Pigbaby, a player with zero relevant results in Korea who was crowned WCS America champion in his very first season abroad.

    All of this may have been better received if the Korean pros had actually helped the foreigners improve. Unfortunately, the rules of the system allowed the Koreans to live and practice in Korea, only flying out every few months to play their tournament matches and collect their prizes. For the foreigners, getting intermittently crushed did little to develop their skill.

    Blizzard reversed course on region-locking in 2015. The revamped WCS system included a harsh region-lock, effectively dividing the world into Korea and not-Korea depending on one’s legal residency status.

    While the region lock allowed foreign pros to finally breathe, the aforementioned catch-22 soon became apparent. Even now, with opportunities to face Koreans limited to a handful of designated events each year, the foreign scene continues to fight an uphill battle to regain its lost credibility.

    The most enduring part of StarCraft II’s legacy in esports may end up being this adventure in Korean region locking. For tournament organisers in a new game (third party or publisher), StarCraft II forces them to ask themselves an important question: how much do they really care about the pureness of competition, versus how much do they just want teams and players from important markets competing in the finals? They must decide early, and be ready to pay the price if they change their minds.

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