StarCraft 2: Taking the pulse through two finals

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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    Last week, the finals for two major StarCraft 2 tournaments concluded.

    In Korea, Gumiho defeated soO to win GSL Season Two, becoming the champion in the toughest region in the world. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Neeb uncorked the champagne after besting a multi-national pool of contenders at WCS Jönköping, cementing his place as the best international player.

    The victories were immensely meaningful for the individuals involved. For Gumiho, it marked the long-deserved triumph of a battle-worn veteran, who had competed in the GSL since 2010. In Neeb’s case, the championship added fuel to his meteoric ascent as international StarCraft’s brightest new star, putting his resume in a place to challenge past greats such as NaNiwa, HuK, and perhaps even Stephano.

    Yet, the parallel finals may have been even more significant for what they say about the health of their respective scenes. Gumiho’s victory continued a concerning trend of stagnation in the Korean pro-player pool, with all the major championships being won by old-timers who have spent their entire adult lives playing professional StarCraft (both Brood War and SC2). This has been especially noticeable in 2017.

    TY (age 22), the winner of March’s IEM World Championship, is a nine year veteran of StarCraft. Stats (25), the champion of GSL Season One was not far behind with eight years of experience. Gumiho (24), playing since the third GSL tournament in 2010, has been playing StarCraft II for over six years.

    There IS a silver lining to be found. TY, Stats, and Gumiho had never won major titles before, and so, there appears to be room for upheaval and change, at least within the limited pool of Korean pros. Even so, the lack of new blood remains as critical, unsolved issue – just as it has been ever since League of Legends took StarCraft’s place as the primary conduit for new talent in Korea.

    In contrast, Neeb is leading the charge for a new generation of players in “foreign” StarCraft. The three-time champion is still only nineteen years of age, as was his finals opponent Serral. Elazer, a semifinalist at WCS Jönköping, is also in the nineteen-year club. All three players had played competitively for several years prior, but only really came into their primes in 2016 with Legacy of the Void.

    WCS Jönköping even had Reynor – a fourteen-year-old prospect from Italy – apply to complete, only to have to turn him down due to age restrictions.

    This is not to say that the overall outlook for international StarCraft II is bright, or that talent will continue replenish it’self in the future. It would be more prudent to look at players like Reynor as exceptions, rather than an indicator. But at least in the present, the fact that partial generation change has actually been achieved is a bright spot for international StarCraft II, and definitely something worth celebrating.

    One has to wonder how the region-lock Blizzard implemented in 2015 affected the health of the Korean and non-Korean scenes. Arguably, during the pre-region lock era, access to international tournaments (and international money) did little to attract new Korean talent to the game. Rather, international tournaments merely served to extend the careers of veteran Koreans who had taken a step back back in domestic competition.

    The 2015 region lock – although it forced many retirements in Korea – may very well have laid the foundations for a new generation of “foreigners” to shine. And yet, there’s a counter-argument to be made that these new talents would have blossomed without any incubation. Neeb, in particular, demonstrated he did not need any kind of protection by conquering the Koreans on their home turf during the 2016 KeSPA Cup.

    In any case, StarCraft II’s long-term talent pool issues can’t be solved by a region-lock or any other competition related policy. Ultimately, the popularity of StarCraft II lies at the heart of all esports related problems. Unless interest in StarCraft II can be increased, tweaking competitive rules can only amount to redistributing a limited pie.