Heavy is the head that wears the crown – with it comes responsibility, trend setting precedent, and leadership duties, but also prestige, honor, and a place in history. In today’s esports world, there are a number of games played at major competitions such as Halo, Tekken, Mortal Kombat, Call of Duty and a few others, but none generate the level of excitement from arguably the two most dominant games out there now, Starcraft 2 and League of Legends.
There has been a running gag with my friends that goes “A new Starcraft game is coming out?! The South Korean economy is stopping today!” (Not to mention some parts of Canada and the US as well). Slightly scandalous though this may be, beneath the jokes there exists the need to pay homage to the popularity and the indescribable effect the game has had on South Korean and on a wider scale Asian and Western culture. Starcraft has transformed esports as we know it, going from obscure internet café and LAN basement game to mainstream show-stopping action packed tournaments complete with sponsorships from major players with live audiences both on location and watching on-line.
However, Starcraft has always been the game associated with esports, but this year it has a new challenger, one which has arguably usurped its place on the esports throne: League of Legends. As they so often do in the gaming industry, games rise and fall in popularity, and Starcraft 2 is no exception. Although Starcraft has the benefit of a strong 10 year + legacy of players behind it, the game seems to be stagnating and even falling and League of Legends is quickly filling that void.
A great deal of Starcraft’s fans are blaming Blizzard for the game’s woes. Among a very legitimate list of arguments made by pro player Destiny are issues revolving around accessibility, ignoring the casual player, and the expected but never achieved growth rate which in turn stunted tournament prizes and sponsorships. Looking at it from a price standpoint, it’s hard to beat free. League is free to play while Wings of Liberty costs you 60$, plus an additional 40-60$ for each expansion.
This is more about the cost, however – the game is simply not as fun for casual players. Blizzard has focused much of its energy on balancing gameplay for the higher tier players, and has forgotten about the 99% who don’t play at that level. Additionally, custom games, including user made settings and ‘scenario’ type games which was a match type that was extremely popular in the Brood War days, has been transformed into an unorganized, highly unpopular mode where players cannot even find what they want to play leading to increased player frustration.
When Heart of the Swarm is inevitably released, players will have fun with the game for awhile with the new units and campaigns, but then it will be back to being more of the same – in comparison, League of Legends updates their champions and decals every few weeks, all for free. League is constantly improving, changing, adding; Starcraft’s major changes come only when expansions are released, after the player has forked over money. Although players in League of Legends have the option to pay for certain things such as heroes or runes, a player can literally play thousands of hours without forking over a cent; the same cannot be said of Starcraft.
When comparing Riot and Blizzard, the difference stands out like an elephant in a room full of ants – League is Riot’s first and only game, and hence Riot is utterly and totally dedicated to making it the best and most exciting game it can be. Little things like having a live composer compose the opening music and constant art and decal additions shows extreme dedication to their legions of fans, which the fans happily return at the massive tournaments, including the recent World Tournament which was held in Los Angeles. Although Blizzard has solid support behind Starcraft 2, it has to divide its attention to multiple fronts: Diablo 3, Warcraft and its expansions, and finally Starcraft. Blizzard has unfortunately had a lot on its plate: Diablo 3 had problems at its release; World of Warcraft is facing increasing competition on the MMO front; and because of all this Starcraft did not get the attention it needs, leading us to the present situation.
As an example, a quick glance at gametrics.com, a website that monitors what South Koreans are playing, says that 25% of people are playing League of Legends, while Brood War is being played by 3.4%, and that Wings of Liberty does not even crack the top 10. This is a sad trend in the nation that is considered the birthplace of Starcraft and the reason for the rise in Esports.
On a tournament front, nothing can compare to Riot’s last League of Legends tournament, which had 8 million unique viewers and a 2 million dollar prize pool. Starcraft, in comparison, is facing stagnation in this department. According to Destiny, “IPL’s prize pool has remained the same from seasons 3-5. The NASL’s prize pool has remained the same since its inception. MLG’s prize pools have been rising, but they are the only ones to push relatively innovative monetization schemes into the market (such as the $20 PPV model, + high production gold membership content)”. This would normally be okay, especially if sponsors are counting on the upcoming expansion to boost revenues and excitement; League of Legends, however, has come out so far ahead in this category that it simply does not look like it will be the case.
Finally, these two games are ones that require a tremendous amount of time to play to achieve a high level of mastery. Starcraft 2 requires precise build times, and orders, and any amount of mistakes can end up easily costing the player to be out of position, or worse, lose the game completely. League of Legends is fairly easy to jump into and play, but also requires many hours of game time to master the rune system, as well as the wide variety of builds and abilities of each hero. In essence, most players only have time for 1 game such as this – and these days, that game is increasingly League of Legends. Further, with pro Starcraft 2 players such as MVP, Cocoa, and Puzzle leaving Starcraft 2 to go to League, this only seems to be exacerbating the trend of stagnation for Starcraft.
In the end, there is only room for one big dog of the yard – and with 32 million players spending more than a billion hours a month playing League, its slowing reaching the point of no return for Starcraft. For the moment, Riot is doing everything right, while Blizzard is seemingly struggling to keep up. Heart of the Swarm is their next big challenge, and pulling it off right will give them the boost they desperately need to stay in the game. It’s not clear whether they will pull it off, however, unless they concentrate 100% on Starcraft the same way Riot does with League and take back the crown that was formerly theirs.
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