I’m sure a lot of you felt it too. Despite the enormously high skill level present in the tournament, the finals just didn’t live up to the hype. And it wasn’t because the games weren’t good enough, it’s because we just didn’t care about who was in the finals.
The final between Alive and Squirtle epitomises the ‘faceless Korean invasion’ phenomenon. Let me explain what I mean by ‘faceless Korean invasion’. In Korea there are a boatload of incredibly skilled progamers who have no reputation in the scene. This is because unless you are in Code S and placing highly on a regular basis (or a GSTL beast), you are an unknown in the scene. When these Koreans participate in foreign tournaments, and in particular IPL4 which facilitated the travel of a number of Koreans who would have otherwise not been there, they are able to illustrate that they are skill and generally knock out a ton of foreigners on the way to the group stage/championship bracket/whatever. This is hugely anticlimactic for the foreign audience (and probably the Korean one as well) as the lack of history surrounding these players just makes them... boring.
Moreover the fact that these ‘faceless Koreans’ have irregular attendance at foreign events and there is the expectation for them to do well simply because they are Korean actually amplifies the foreign audiences dissatisfaction with the tournament. This is because seeing their tournament favourites being knocked out by the ‘faceless Koreans’ instantly makes the tournament less interesting for them. Look at Sounds performance at HSC4 or squirtles run in IPL4; people could honestly care less than those players were in attendance let alone did well in the tournament. Once the favourites are gone, the tournament is boring.
“Oh, but Plexa! I’m a fan of Starcraft and so I really enjoy seeing high level games regardless of who the players are!!” Great! Good for you. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of people who read this feel the same way (I’m with you guys, for the record). But the reality of the situation is that the casual fan of Starcraft isn’t like this. In fact, casual fans are the people who visit TL only when there is (major) a tournament on!! And unfortunately for us, without the support of the casual viewerbase the growth of SC is severely restricted.
So what do casuals want to see? Obviously their favourites winning everything (which as we know isn’t a reality that is going to happen anytime soon, and I’ll go into that in a moment). But they aren’t just limited to that, fortunately. Because the ‘faceless Koreans’ are essentially seen as the enemy any foreigner who does well against them will instantly become the topic of discussion of the community. For instance, the biggest story which came out of IPL wasn’t Alive winning, it wasn’t Nestea’s ballsy run – it was Scarlet making a deep run in the tournament – a previously unknown player; and a female player to boot. In fact we see this time and time again, like the performance of Gatored in IEM NYC where he beat DRG.
The fact is, the “West vs East” story (with the West winning) is a story the casual viewer longs to see. Most of them will tune into MLG this weekend with a hope/expectation that Huk is going to come out and do really well, if not, MarineKing (and DRG as a distant third). And watch this GSL become the most viewed GSL in god knows when because of Naniwa and Liquid, particularly if either party is in the finals. But as it stands, tournaments are becoming more and more Korean dominated and the chances of West vs East clash are rapidly diminishing. And with it, the interest of the casual viewerbase.
Indeed, in my opinion, one of the reasons that League of Legends is maintaining popularity (notice I said maintaining and not gaining) is because you can tune in and see your West vs East clash; and the West isn’t a complete pushover. In fact, LoL combines everything that the casual viewer wants to see. Big multigaming teams which have established a fan following through other games are well represented in LoL (i.e. fnatic, Dignitas, sk) which automatically means people have fan favourites to support. And those teams actually perform on a reliable basis and don’t lose to ‘faceless’ teams. Thus people have their interest in LoL maintained. I dare say the situation will be similar with DOTA.
So why is the foreign community putting up such a poor fight against Koreans at the moment? My theory is this: in the beginning of SC2’s lifespan a number of progamers established a well defined identity – moreso outside of Korea than in. Now as the game evolved many of the first generation Koreans couldn’t keep up with the ever increasing level of play, and we had a second generation of players come through (no thanks to the poor format of early GSLs). The Korean scene continues to weed out weak players through the new and brutal Code S format; this keeps the best at the top regardless of their fanbase.
Now let’s cross over to what happened outside of Korea. Once a number of personalities were established tournaments sought to milk them for all they were worth – in order to attract the highest number of viewers possible. This is particularly true in events which cost a lot to get to, as only people with financial backing are able to get to these events as others are unlikely to attend because they won’t likely see a return on their investment. As such the non-Korean scene has had a very stagnant set of players at the top which don’t necessarily represent those with the best abilities. To date, TSL3 has been the only true open tournament which showcased the best the non-Korean community had to offer (and indeed, Thorzain was born).
It is very difficult for new players to break into the scene as the ‘faceless Korean’ invasion into foreign tournaments creates an enormous barrier to entry for them. Even if they enter, it is highly likely they won’t make it far because they will run into a Korean and lose. As such, the ‘second generation’ of foreign progamers never came about and all the fame, glory and money is tied up with the first generation. Indeed, some of these first generation pros are no longer remotely good at this game. Use your imagination as to whom I’m talking about. So as the 'faceless Koreans' are proving to be a barrier to entry for the second generation of foreign progamers, and thus stunting the growth of SC2, you could actually say that Koreans are killing esports.
Now I’m not someone who believes that foreigners by default are worse than Koreans – despite what they latest tournament results may tell you. I actually believe that the talent is out there in the ladders, but isn’t showing its face in tournaments because of the reasons I’ve stated. As long as the money is tied up in hopeless first generation progamers foreigners will always appear to be inferior to Koreans. This puts tournaments in a weird spot as they need to find a sweet spot between inviting enough Koreans to make their tournament legitimate, but still having enough chances for foreigners to make a splash (many of which are second rate).
Why there is such a lack of openness in the foreign scene (in comparison to Korea) baffles me. When Thorzain broke out onto the scene he trashed some seriously skilled Koreans along the way. Illusion is silently making his mark on the scene through solid play. Scarlet certainly has made a hugeee splash.
Given the huge amount of success these breakout players have had, and the fact that it doesn’t look like the current pool of ‘competitive’ foreigners will be beating Koreans any time in the near future, why aren’t tournaments investing in more open qualifiers? The talent is out there, as Scarlet illustrates, all that is required is for some tournament to get the balls to start offering a (large) number of free trips to their tournament through a set of open qualifiers with participation limited to non-Koreans. Koreans are only killing ESPORTS because we are letting them, because we having focused too much on making Starcraft 2 an ESPORT before we had the suitable skill level to do so.
Is this a huge risk? Sure. But it’s this kind of move that needs to be undertaken if the foreign scene is to revitalise itself and become more attractive to your average joe.
That, or TLO winning MLG.
EDIT: Will the Blizzard World Champs change anything? Maybe. But as with all Blizzard events I'll wait until it is over before I pass judgement, wouldn't want it to turn out like WCG now would we?
EDIT: IEM does a reasonable job of doing this btw, that is why players like gatored, illusion, phoenix etc have all been able to break into the scene in a respectable way. The issue with IEM is the limited number of seeds available and the unfortunate timing of many of their events. These are completely understandable limitations, by the way.
DISCLAIMER: These are my own thoughts and so not reflect the position of TeamLiquid.net!
NOTE: There are a handful of Koreans with personalities who prove to be big draws - in particular Marineking, MC, Nestea, MVP, Boxer, Nada, Puma and Hero. But on the whole the rest of the Korean scene is severely lacking in the PR department which means people don't get excited about them. Despite the fact that they are legitimately good players.
NOTE2: There are a handful of foreigners who rightfully deserve the money, fame and spotlight. In particular EG.Huk, Quantic.Naniwa and Mill.Stephano deserve all the praise and more that they receive for their runs in various tournaments.