2016 has proven to be as defining a year as any in the history of professional StarCraft 2 competition. Not since the earliest days of the game and the deployment of expansion-packs has the scene altered so drastically. With almost all the major professional tournaments and events wrapped up for the year, it’s time to employ some 20-20 hindsight and attempt to take full measure of the changing nature of professional StarCraft 2 competition.
Providing a brief recap of the major events, highlight reel games, player and team developments and, of course, a sprinkling of scandal, this multi-part series will be broken down into installments roughly corresponding to the World Championship Series seasons, major events and developments in the scene. It will cover:
► Part III – Korea Rising (WCS Circuit Spring/Season 2, WCS Korea Season 1, ProLeague Round 2)
► Part IV – Setting the Stage (WCS Circuit Summer/Season 3, WCS Korea Season 2, ProLeague Round 3)
► Part V – End of an Era (KeSPA Cup, ProLeague Playoffs, BlizzCon/WCS Global Playoffs)
► Part VI – Beyond WCS (BaseTrade.tv, Wardi, Gauntlet, and the SC2 Community)
► Part VII – Epilogue
Legacy of the Void, the final installment in the StarCraft 2 series was released on November 10th, 2015 and ushered in a new era for StarCraft 2. Major changes to macro mechanics, new units and an online multiplayer overhaul were only the beginning of the changes Blizzard would be aggressively implementing over the coming months. Perhaps the most pertinent changes came to the Blizzard-sponsored World Championship Series, the professional gaming league of StarCraft 2.
Essentially, these changes came down to a specific Korean region lock. Players living and competing in Korea could only play in WCS Korean events (within the WCS system), and all other events and players would compete in a separate WCS Circuit system. Player rankings were still measured in WCS-Points accumulated based on player performance in official events, but the rankings would be kept separate from each other. This was a fundamental change from the past, where a dominate minority of Korea players would play in events outside of Korea. For a more in-depth summary of the new WCS system, take a look at this Introduction to Watching SC2 eSports.
To say this new system was divisive amongst the StarCraft 2 community would be a major understatement. Korean players had been dominating the scene both in Korea and abroad since StarCraft: Brood War, and any system seen to promote subjectively weaker “foreign” players over Koreans was decried as unfair at best, racist at worst. At the end of the day, Korean players could opt to compete in either WCS Korea, or WCS Circuit, but would have to live outside of Korea and have all applicable visas and paperwork to compete abroad. The majority of Korean players stayed in Korea, with the notable exceptions of Polt, Hydra, and viOLet. They would later be joined by fellow expat TRUE.
Besides those exceptions, non-Korean StarCraft 2 pros would be free of Korean interference in the professional scene until the WCS Global Finals at BlizzCon, which would pit the top eight players from WCS Korea against WCS Circuit, and then against each other in a Playoff tournament to determine the best StarCraft 2 players in the world.
With a new expansion ushering a new year, even the “pre-season” before the official start of the WCS system was full of interesting events and developments.
Nation Wars III
The return of the Nation Wars tournament saw sixteen countries represented in a national-team-league. Most striking was the Finals (Full English VoD), with France going up against South Korea. Full Spoiler warning, check out this interview with the the absolute, hands-down hero of the tournament here.
Another great production from the Studio/Home of Take.tv, this Homestory Cup would prove to be perhaps the most emotionally stirring rendition of the event. A strong showing of non-Korean talent and the potential for this to be the last professional outings for legends MC and MMA made the usually casual competition poignant. A spoiler-free list of VoDs can be found here, but if you want the highlights of the tournament, let me direct you to the Final Series and perhaps the defining performance of MC’s career. The entire ending to this event should be enshrined in SC2 history as a tribute to the spirit of the game and the community that supports it.
The first WCS Circuit event of Legacy of the Void saw some surprising results and upsets, attributed to the new gameplay of Legacy of the Void and the gap between those pros who had switched over during the Beta, and those more recently converted from Heart of the Swarm. An interesting example of the developing strategies and game balance at the outset of Legacy of the Void. All the tournaments VoDs can be found here.
Anyone who has watched a game’s professional scene adjust to a new expansion or major gameplay overhaul knows that a bevy of retirements and a rise of new or previously latent talents mark the shift from one iteration to the next. Legacy of the Void’s release was no different, with the exception that factors far beyond the scope of StarCraft 2 and Blizzard were about to start a trend that would continue throughout the year: Scandal and economic conditions would play just as important a role in the steady contraction of the professional scene, in Korea in particular, as any other influencing factors.
Teams Prime and Axiom would disband before Legacy of the Void was released, more details can be found here. SBENU would also technically close it’s doors as it’s CEO came under investigation for fraud , but would eventually be reincarnated as the Afreeca Freecs.
Players who would retire during the transition period would include Heart  , Revival  , MMA  , Rain  , FanTaSy  , Shine  , TargA  , and Hack . Despite the achievements of these players, their retirements were all overshadowed by the announcement that Flash, known in the scene as GOD since before he switched over to StarCraft 2 from Brood War, would officially retire from Starcraft 2 professional play.
The transition period between the last Heart of the Swarm Global Finals and the beginning of the new Legacy of the Void WCS system foreshadowed issues that would have profound effects on the professional StarCraft 2 scene moving forward. Match-fixing scandals, teetering economic conditions around both the Korean and non-Korean scenes, and the continued ascension of other eSports titles over StarCraft 2 brought the looming scene contractions into focus. It was becoming increasingly obvious that things had to get worse before they got better, especially in Korea.
Still there were plenty silver linings: the new WCS system, although divisive, would breathe new life into the competitive scene outside of Korea. Like it or not, the days of Korean players dominating events across the globe would apparently come to an end, making it far more competitive among the highest echelon tournaments held outside of Korea. The changes introduce by Legacy of the Void were fast, exciting, and its release and showcasing by Blizzard brought revitalized interest to the game and to the professional scene. The Old Guard of former Brood War pros were leaving, but that made room for new talents to rise in a somewhat stagnant professional scene.
Only time would tell what all these changes would mean for the future of StarCraft 2.
Up Next: Part II – New Beginnings (WCS Circuit Winter/Season 1, ProLeague Round 1)
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