essays and pithy thoughts

Korean Starcraft is more than just television

in glhf

I saw this article come across my feed today via esportspress:

Starcraft II in Western e-sports: Is the Korean model needed?

Clicking through, I was expecting maybe a deconstruction of the team-based competitive model sometimes employed there (which doesn’t make much sense to me), or a discussion of the overarching economic models that provided the scaffolding for the game’s success. Instead, it seemed to me that the thesis generally boiled down to the following: Starcraft is on TV in Korea, the CGS was on western TV, the CGS was bad because djWheat said so, therefore putting Starcraft on TV in the west will be a bad thing.

Ok, that’s a gross oversimplfication, sorry. Needless to say, I’m not convinced. A proper analysis of the Korean Starcraft scene model would have identified a few key attributes…

  1. Geographical concentration. The Korean league models aren’t international satellite tournament circuits. They’re simply targeted towards South Korea; any international attention is just icing on the cake. (You’ll notice this is the same for EPL Football and the NBA, most notably. They both enjoy broad international attention but their biggest marketing opportunities lie in the cities they call home.) This opened the door to strong marketing opportunities, with brands in many different industries outside the gaming sector, and targeted to a well defined Korean audience, as opposed to a demographically generic global audience whose only common identifier is that they’re probably into gaming stuff. In other words, when talking about marketing through a sports team, narrowing your geographical scope broadens the number of sectors and companies that your team may be useful to as a marketing partner.
  2. Cultural integration. The author above touches on this and then completely ignores it for the remainder of the article. The game and computer gaming in general was a big factor in the meatspace culture of Korea, not something simply relegated to the internet. This, combined with the relatively high population density of Seoul, created the perfect environment for Starcraft to develop into a spectator sport; it was merely a natural extension of one of the culture’s widely shared hobbies.
  3. Focus on one game. Korean esports *is* Starcraft. This is no small detail. The sanctioning body is mono-focused on promoting one sport, not all sports.
  4. Big matches were made into spectator events. The previous three factors helped this along. Clearly, professional Starcraft in Korea literally puts butts in seats. This is the missing link for most gaming leagues in the west; they can’t figure out how to get to the point where they’re selling spectator tickets to events, so they charge gamers instead and let whomever might want to watch in for free. The economic model of Korean Starcraft is strong because money is flowing in the proper direction for a solo sport…from spectators and sponsors, to the tournament body, to the players.

Using the CGS as justification to say that professional gaming just doesn’t work for western television audiences is a cop-out. That might be a defensible statement if one and only one game was used, and they didn’t bastardize said game so that a non-existent generic ‘person who games’ would understand it. The CGS failed as a television show because there was no demand for the disjointed competition cobbled together and propped up beneath it. It’s clear, however, that demand is growing for the genuine article, judging from the exploding audiences around Starcraft content in particular.

Much was made of TV scheduling constraints in the article, but this is such a minor detail. Networks that air sports content have to deal with the prospect of a shorter game than anticipated or overtime pushing into other programming; it’s simply a reality of covering a sport. TV stations are equipped to deal with this. They used to air boxing on radio and television…what do you happened when a fight went one round? Go off air? This is simply not a concern to anyone if sufficient demand exists to see a proper competitive match played in a proper format. The issue is getting that sufficient demand to exist in the first place.

Replicating the Korean’s success with Starcraft in the west means starting in a single city and going from there, literally building a vibrant scene from the ground up. This is the opposite of the approach taken to this point, where you might establish an overinflated national or international sanctioning body and expect the foundations of a healthy scene to magically fill in underneath you, while you stay up in the rarefied air of the gaming stratosphere.

We need the Korean model, and we need it now. We need to implement in in our largest cities and grow small, independent professional ecosystems that could eventually support national and multinational competitive bodies. We need to take competitive gaming offline and get people to come watch. That can only happen from focusing our efforts where our feet hit the Earth, as opposed to where our fingers hit the keyboard.