I’m going to take the liberty of quoting my own tweet to start this one:
This week could not have gone better for Valve and this scene. Screw any intra-genre squabbles and jealousies; the knock-on effects of this year’s International will be felt in League of Legends too. If you were watching the final last night, and you didn’t feel an urge to skip sleep and pull open the game immediately after it was finished, you might not enjoy gaming as much as you think. You also might not have a pulse.
Critiques will surely roll out over the next week – this half-correct missive, probably written before the final set was underway and published immediately after the fifth game ended, just being the first – that will call for Valve’s production of these annual tournaments to swing more towards the casual observer, to cut down on abbreviations and jargon, and take a more tutorialesque feel. These critiques are, and will continue to be, wrong.
There’s a place for that sort of stuff, but it’s on middling quality YouTube channels, not the equivalent of a Champions’ League final.
The tenor of this year’s tournament, as well as last year’s, reflects the ethos of a scene that is now coming to full maturity under the stewardship of Valve (as well as Riot). It carried an attitude that did not apologize for the overwhelming complexity of the game, confidently letting that complexity ride shotgun instead. The panel led by Mr. Harding gleefully dove down every hero-matchup or item-loadout rabbit hole they came across, and the commentary left most abbreviations and shorthand intact.
The message it created was this: yes, the initiation to this game is complex and can be brutal; but the party is awesome on the other side. I’ve come to realize that this approach is far more effective at converting the unintiated than efforts to hand-hold and pander to outsiders, and it’s achieved by keeping the hardcore fans satiated. It seems counter-intuitive, but it’s the same as a band, after gaining a bit of a following, changing their style in an effort to ‘reach a broader audience’ – risking the alienation of their existing base to grasp at a faceless mainstream, one that increasingly doesn’t care as much as it doesn’t exist as time goes on. That approach risks everything for little reward; giving your fans the show they want is the best way to gain more.
That’s not to say that it’s all sunshine and lollipops for everyone; it was a rough go of it this weekend if you’re not Valve.
In retrospect, the eventual takeover by publishers of individual scenes with ad-hoc free-market team formation is obvious. For a long time there existed a wide gap between the publishers of games and the professional aspirations of some who played them. Third-party leagues popped in (and out) of existence to fill that gap, seeing it as a signficantly lucrative business opportunity to fill the demand for tournaments. Now that the scene as a whole has grown to the point where it would be silly for publishers to continue to ignore them, these leagues are being crowded out, and reclassified as a redundancy.
This is not to say that third party leagues are dead. There’s still room, I think, for third-party leagues to shift towards more traditional sports models in team games; those are endeavors of signifcant complexity and long-term payouts of the nature that publishers would be uninterested in pursuing themselves; or to move to a Dreamhack-like model that is as much a participatory festival as it is a competitive destination. Continuing to pursue a model that only relies on monopolizing the top tier of come-as-you-are competition is no longer viable; when it comes to titles with potential as an esport, publishers will look to fill that role themselves as part of the whole business around a game.
That paradigm shift is for better or worse, and in the case of Starcraft, it seems to be for worse, at least for the time being. Blizzard took two big blows this weekend.
The first was self-inflicted; their decision to run major legs of their World Championship Series for Starcraft at the same time as the International was disastrous. The International sported at minimum five times the stream population as WCS did at any time, and that’s before counting anybody watching Dota 2 in-client (something still not supported in Starcraft). I didn’t understand this move when it was announced, and it’s at minimum five times as incomprehensible now. Starcraft is certainly not ‘dead’, nor is its days as a marquee esport over either, but Blizzard’s bungling of the WCS to this point has reversed all the momentum the game was carrying after 2011 and into 2012.
The second is that Blizzard is so late to the party in this genre that I can’t imagine their take on the game being a significant addition once it’s finished and released. ‘Coming soonish’ is not soon enough. Every month gone by is just another mountain of money that Blizzard is going to have to throw at All-Stars to capture enough mindshare to even be in the same conversation as League of Legends and Dota 2.
Looking ahead into the next year, I’d expect Dota 2 and League of Legends to grow even larger as the population of players in this genre expands after this event, and what promises to be a huge spectacle from LoL at the Staples Center later this year. Whether they can maintain this momentum and turn it into long-term success has too many variables to predict, but for now this scene commands a massive share of attention towards the esports world, and they should at least take a moment to enjoy it, because for them it’s been a really, really long time coming.