A Brief History of Starcraft
A.) Starcraft: Brood War
1.) Brick by Brick (1998–2005)
2.) The Golden Age of Korean Starcraft (2005–2010)
3.) The Foreign Scene: Sowing the Seeds (2007–2010)
4.) Left in the Lurch (2010–)
B.) Starcraft II
5.) H to the Usky (Jan 2010 – Jul 2010)
6.) Not Enough Chairs (Jul 2010 – 2012)
7.) Blizzard Fiddles While Rome Burns (2013)
8.) Stripped Away (2014–)
Starcraft's history is full of warmth and passion. The height of Starcraft's popularity in the West (in 2011/2012) didn't come about by mere happenstance. Rather, that success was created by ten years of hard work in Korea and abroad. It was created by people who had a vision for what Starcraft and esports could be—and also by people who simply wanted to pursue their passion for a video game to its fullest extent.
This article is partly about those people, but it’s mostly about the overarching story of Starcraft as a sport. We have plenty of written material on Team Liquid Dot Net about the gripping narratives built around Starcraft: Brood War (SC:BW) players—for example, YellOw’s eternal struggle with second place—and I’ll link to them when appropriate. What we don’t have is a cohesive narrative explaining the process of Brood War’s rise from a very popular game to the first, and in some ways still the most sophisticated, esport. Nor do we have an article detailing SC2’s history. After all, we lived that history ourselves.
I’ve tried to write this series to be accessible to outsiders unfamiliar with either game. In case you’re unfamiliar with Starcraft, the basic concept is this: players may choose to play one of three races—Zerg, Protoss, or Terran. Players use the unique abilities of their race to create an army and to destroy the other player with it. It is a major feature of the game that the army is difficult to build and control.
In this and future articles, I’ll be referring to “Westerners” and “foreigners” interchangeably. They mean the same thing: non-Koreans.
1. Brick by Brick (1998–2005)
Before its expansion pack (released in 1998), Starcraft 1 was not a game that could have been an esport. It was simple and imbalanced—it was a dominant strategy against Protoss to just pick Zerg and build a whole bunch of mutalisks. But with the release of SC:BW and various balance patches, the game reached a state where it was (1) difficult, with a mechanical skill ceiling too high for a human to approach, and (2) strategically deep, with a metagame that continued evolving for years after the last-released balance patch in 2001. These are generally the base requirements for a grassroots esport to be successful in the long term.
The way the metagame continued evolving deserves elaboration. Here's a simple example: at one point in 2009, it became popular for Protoss players to use an early attack in Protoss vs. Zerg (PvZ) with speed zealots and archons. For a couple of weeks, Zergs were at a loss: game after game, the zealots and archons would run in, kill the sunken colonies (static defenses), then kill the Zerg units, then kill the drones. The solution came when Shark, a legendary Zerg innovator, started to build his bases so that zealots would have to squeeze through tight gaps between buildings to reach and destroy the sunkens. In matches against Shark, the zealots became stuck in those gaps and were easily cleaned up. Once other Zergs began to follow Shark’s lead, Protoss early pushes became much less effective. For context, this was eight years after the final balance patch for SC:BW. One can contrast this to other games like Dota or Hearthstone, where viewers generally start complaining about “stale” gameplay just a few months after a patch.
Shark’s so-called “sim-city” building structure
So the game was a fertile ground for competitive play, but obviously there needed to be something more to make SC:BW into a national phenomenon. The best theory for how this happened was advanced by the WSJ in 2000, and anyone writing on the subject since then has simply followed their lead. The basic idea is that PC cafes in Korea (called “PC bangs”) grew rapidly in number and popularity during Korea’s economic recovery in late 1998 and 1999, fostering the growth of Starcraft as a natural result. (There is a somewhat different theory which says that unemployed Koreans, having nothing better to do during the 1997–98 recession, hung out in PC bangs en masse and played the hot new game, Starcraft.)
It’s clear that the success of PC bangs and Starcraft fed each other—Starcraft is best played on a broadband connection, which PC bangs had in 1999 and most homes did not (which meant that players who loved Starcraft were driven to PC bangs to play). And the social experience of playing any game in a PC bang (instead of alone at home) would have been intoxicating to middle and high schoolers, as anyone who has had social gaming experience knows.
By the end of 1999, the game and its expansion combined sold over one million copies in Korea—incredible for a country of only 47 million. Throw in (1) pirated copies and (2) the fact that you didn’t have to own the game to go play at a PC bang, and you can infer an absurd percentage of Koreans playing the game early on and therefore an absurd amount of cultural penetration. The growth of the game as an esport was practically a foregone conclusion—after all, the most important factor to the popularity of an esport (given a baseline level of competitiveness) is the popularity of the game itself.
The first organization to make a serious try at tapping into this phenomenon was On-Media, the parent company of a cartoon channel called Tooniverse. In a move with Western parallels, someone at On-Media apparently decided that it might be prudent to broadcast more adult content on the network late in the day, when fewer kids are watching. So in late 1999, they decided to broadcast a Starcraft tournament, on cable for the first time ever... on a channel for cartoons. What a weird start to esports, huh?
A snapshot of the finals of the first televised tournament. #productionvalue
As you can see above, the show they put on was pretty good for a first try. That first tournament was called the 1999 Tooniverse Progamer Korea Open, and it was successful enough that On-Media decided to create a new TV channel in 2000 called Ongamenet that was dedicated purely to broadcasting game-related content. The staff of Ongamenet (OGN) quickly improved their craft, and although various competitors sprung up (most notably MBCgame), the Korean perception was that OGN was always a step ahead of its competitors in terms of production value and overall quality.
After this, progaming grew swiftly from nothing, and it was obvious by late 2002 that Starcraft was an attraction that could fill arenas. As it became clear that esports was something that might actually generate profits, conflicts arose between the tournament broadcasters and the players who they were arguably exploiting. That led to the formation of the KPGA (Korea Pro Gamer Association), which represented players, helped threaten and organize strikes against the broadcasters, and performed miscellaneous administrative tasks like running small one-day tournaments and running a centralized progamer ranking.
Players and broadcasters alike therefore played their part in adding structure to the scene. The netizen “Seiji,” in an article at Pgr21, said it best: “The Ongamenet broadcasting [producer] that first planned a televised Starcraft, the devoted Starcraft broadcasts by the commentators and MCs, and many progamers are all distinguished persons and heroes that have made a contribution [towards esports].” Everyone who cared about Starcraft and spent effort on it in its early days played a role in building the scene up, brick by brick.
The Critical Point: 2002 SKY OSL
Trying to piece together a cohesive story of Brood War’s early years makes me feel like this guy. But the more I read about that era, the more I think that the finals of the 2002 SKY Ongamenet Starleague (“OSL”) was a turning point for the game.
Fifteen to twenty thousand people showed up to the 2002 SKY OSL finals, shattering projections and overflowing the arena. Why?
The most important reason is probably the fact that one of the finalists was this gentleman:
photo credit: neverGG
The man pictured above is Lim Yo Hwan, a Terran player better known in the West as Slayers_BoxeR. (An aside: Koreans generally refer to Korean players by their real names, and Westerners generally refer to players, Korean or foreign, by their tags.) In early 2004, OGN released a list of their most-watched VODs, and Boxer was featured in each of the top six most viewed. Boxer was so popular that when he entered the Korean military service required by law, the Korean air force created an official Starcraft team just so he could join it.
The general conventional wisdom is that Boxer’s massive popularity stemmed from his play. For example, Boxer was featured seven times on an unofficial top 15 list of the “best plays” of 2002. Stylish play certainly played a massive role: just browse Youtube for plenty of examples of how he wove his magic on the field. But another reason for his fame stemmed from the fact that Boxer knew how to market himself. He was, as far as I can tell, a finely tuned PR machine. Where he needed to trash talk, he delivered, albeit politely. Since he was an active player when he wrote his short autobiography, he needed it to be bland and pleasant to avoid stepping on any toes—and boy, did that book fit the bill, especially the “bland” part. And he didn’t just market himself, but also the SC:BW scene itself. When a large bank sponsored an OSL, Boxer made a quip about how he hoped he’d be able to deposit the first place winnings into his “newly opened Shinhan Bank account.” This kind of gratuitous marketing for sponsors is something that most esports professional players are still learning to do today. Boxer understood the need for it way back in 2005. In 2006, he said, “I think I had a sense of duty to change the social perception of e-sports.” His actions backed up that talk.
Uhjoo, a TL staff writer, said in 2005 that “Boxer is definitely the biggest star in progaming, bar none. He conducts himself like the superstar he is, knows how to smile for the camera and deal with his fans. The guy exudes confidence and professionalism and has a certain charisma which I gather only comes from being the face of SC in Korea if not the world.”
In his autobiography, Boxer claims a few of the traits common in the most successful esports players: hard work, a complete disregard for the “correct” path in life, and an understanding that his play had consequences other than simply winning or losing the game at hand. “I also wanted to be a progamer that was acknowledged by others. To do that, the first thing was to practice, and the second thing was also to practice. I practiced relentlessly.” … “Playing games with friends as a hobby and being a progamer are different. Obviously a progamer must play games well, but they must also play games that make it enjoyable for the people that are watching. . . . Is it not because of the fans that I am able to continue gaming? If there were no fans, who would be watching my games?”
Boxer essentially gave up the chance to go to college because of how much he played the game. He went all-in. And he had a championship mentality: after he lost the 2001 SKY OSL finals due to a map glitch, he blamed himself for not preparing an additional strategy (after initially feeling “so wronged that my tears were about to come out”). Naturally, one should take anything written in an autobiography with a grain of salt.
So Boxer was one of the finalists, and that was a big deal. But his opponent made the match even more interesting than the usual Lim Yo Hwan finals.
First, his opponent played the Protoss race, which was interesting in and of itself. Protoss was easily the least successful race of the three early on, and that didn’t exactly change quickly—the first time a Protoss progamer climbed to the top of the KPGA/KeSPA progamer rankings was in 2007, when Bisu did it. The 2002 SKY OSL started with a typical early SC:BW race distribution. Yet, both in the 2000 and 2001 OSLs in autumn, a Protoss player had won, creating something that sportscasters love to talk about: a streak. The success of the perennially battered Protoss race during the fall months was given a pithy designation, “The Legend of the Fall,” and since the 2002 SKY finals also took place during fall, one of the storylines was whether that streak would continue.
Second, his opponent was a man, which seems at first glance a strange statement. But if you are familiar with Korean Starcraft players, you know that the bulk of them have no bulk. They’re pale and skinny. It was rare in 2002, as now, for a Starcraft player to look like someone who might steal your girlfriend. But Park Jung Suk, aka Reach, captivated Western audiences enough that he was christened the “Mantoss,” with his unusually effective zealots achieving the title of “Manlots.” Reach himself called Protoss “a race for the men” and declared that “complex strategies make my head spin.”
photo credit: neverGG
Mensrea, a TL staff member, set the scene for the match itself:
“The Korean rock band Cherry Filter (sounds suspiciously like the name of that drink I had last weekend, I swear...) puts on a pulsing pre-game mini-concert, then, in the ultimate display of coolness, grab seats themselves to watch the entire game. Now the jaded amongst you may think ‘well, that's just part of their job.’ But their faces during the game said otherwise: they were very, totally absorbed.”
In the pre-match interviews: “Managers from both sides get into it to psych out the other player. Lim's team manager discloses that Lim not only practiced against IntoTheRainbow, but also a few other ‘outside specialists’ brought in by the team just for the occasion. Bak's team manager reveals that all 9 members of the Hanbitstars team locked themselves up in a practice room for the past week doing nothing else but help Bak prepare for the game of his life. And you're wondering why the Koreans are so tough in SC? Sheesh.”
“You wanna hear about professionalism? Reach took some time off the day before game day to check out the physical grounds of where he would be playing. ‘Image training’ he called it, to familiarize himself with the look and feel of the place he was going to face Boxer. Wow.”
Like almost all Starcraft matches before 2006 or so, the actual games of the finals are not worth watching. Advancements in gameplay and production value make older VODs seem uniformly slow and boring. But the result of those matched—a 3-1 victory for Reach and a 1-3 loss for the massive fan-favorite—had earth-shattering consequences.
This was the second time that Boxer had lost to a Protoss player in the finals of a tournament, and this was apparently the straw that broke the camel’s back for his father, who was dissatisfied with the fact that Boxer’s team, IS, was unable to procure good Protoss practice partners (and was underpaying him for the number of public appearances he was making, appearances that were also cutting into his practice time). IS was a team with many top players, and Boxer later said that one of the reasons he left was that so much talent created a poisonous atmosphere because the players kept facing each other in high-stakes matches (so they couldn't practice with each other and give away strats).
Whatever the reason, Boxer left to form his own team, at about the same time that sponsors were really starting to take notice of Starcraft as a money-maker. Boxer’s team environment changed drastically as a result, since he surrounded himself with mostly amateur players—those who were not then part of a pro team.
One of those amateur players was named iloveoov, who would later dominate the SC scene for a period of time. Here is where most articles on early Brood War history would wax poetic about Boxer’s eye for talent; how he saw something special in the young, teamless iloveoov; how he handpicked him for his own team and guided him upon the road to becoming an absolute monster. It’s certainly true that iloveoov was a shrewd pick that turned out to have incredible talent—he went on to win three MSLs and two OSLs, a set of accomplishments only surpassed by a handful of other players. But the established narrative glorifying Boxer (which Boxer perpetuated himself in his autobiography) is misleading. Iloveoov’s talent was well-known before Boxer ever laid eyes on him. Nazgul speculated that iloveoov would have been on a proteam if he hadn’t been so bad-mannered. The true narrative is that Boxer is the only team owner who could have made iloveoov function properly in a team—iloveoov sincerely respected Boxer and toned his awful personality down just enough to be managable. As he said, “I learn a lot from [Boxer]. All I can pay back to him is to get better achievement in tournaments. And I've no other chance to say thanks to him in public except interviews. It's true, BoxeR is my mentor. It's not about SC, he taught me many other things.” Boxer’s qualities as a human, rather than a coach/player, made iloveoov into a legend.
But Boxer didn’t stamp out oov’s bad manner completely. As the interview linked just above implies, iloveoov brought his own spice to the scene. On his confrontational style in pre-match interviews, he said, “E-sports is Mind-sports. Practice is important, while some factors outside the stage weigh much as well. As a progamer, I should be polite to media and fans, but I don't want to show the impression of weakness to people. I'm always confident of winning, so I express my confidence, which is helpful to the matches in my opinion. . . . Dad often suggests me learn from Reach's reaction in interviews (be modest?). Whereas, I don't think so. That's not my style.” Later, he said, “I've always been nervous before a game... And to hide that nervouseness, I've lied. That's why I always say, ‘I am very confident’ [in pre-match interviews].”
While Boxer was cultivating new talent, a large company was buying up the old. KTF, a phone company, formed a new team and promptly attracted top players like YellOw, Nada, and Reach to join.
KTF and Boxer’s first finals match occurred in the LG IBM MBC Team League in early 2004. Boxer's team (then named Orion) was coming from the loser's bracket, so KT got to decide who their opponent would send out first. They chose iloveoov, presumably so that they could prepare strategies against him specifically. Despite being at a disadvantage in preparation, iloveoov stomped through three of KTF's players, including their aces, Chojja and Reach. Orion rode iloveoov's infinite units to an initial 3-0 lead in the finals and an eventual 4-2 victory. Boxer's team and KTF maintained a one-sided rivalry for many years, with KTF only being able to win it all when their all-time best player, Flash, was at the peak of his skill.
Teams are the lifeblood of sports. I can say that confidently when looking at the most successful professional sports. Team games are simply uniformly more popular than individual ones. Therefore, the move from a primarily individual-based ecosystem to primarily team-based was a huge boon for Starcraft. Progamers treated preparing for the team leagues as the most important part of their jobs, and the team league finals drew the biggest crowds. An individual game that is won “for the team” matters more, both to fans and to players. That’s just the way sports work.
Soon enough, SKT, another phone company, made a play to compete in the SC:BW scene, buying Boxer’s team and showering him and his teammates with an ungodly amount of money. In one of the first reports regarding the move, the amount of the contract was reputedly $400,000. TL netizens scoffed at the figure, saying that there was no way such a huge sum was accurate. The true figure, however, was $1.7 million. Other companies soon followed.
As was inevitable, the money completely changed the Starcraft scene. The players’ union, KPGA. was taken over by the corporate sponsors and redubbed KeSPA (Korean eSports Association). From the date of the takeover, players had no real leverage against their teams, which were invariably corporate-owned—coordinated labor disputes between players and teams were basically unheard of. In fact, the teams made rules among each other that had the practical effect of depressing the salaries of the top-paid players. But the sponsors were the source of the money fueling the entire enterprise and literally putting food on the table for the players, so it’s hard to say with conviction that there was anything unjust going on.
The sponsors, i.e. KeSPA, used their “assets” (the players) to their full advantage. Although there were no major/public disputes between players and teams, there were certainly disputes between the sponsors and the broadcasters, with the players used as leverage. KeSPA dictated unfavorable terms to the broadcasters, and if the broadcasters didn’t comply, well… they might not see any progamers show up to their next big tournament. Pretty bad for ratings!
KeSPA quickly modernized, streamlined, and restricted the life of being a progamer. They created a license system, so that only people who had (1) won a grueling amateur tournament called “Courage” and (2) been picked up by a pro team could enter the Brood War tournaments that mattered. They created “progamer orientations,” events apparently meant to teach procedures or some sort of common code of conduct to progamers. They brought in staples of other professional sports, like rookie drafts. And they created a bunch of stupid rules; more on that in the next article.
KeSPA sounds pretty bad the way I’m describing it. But there’s no doubt that the appropriation of the Starcraft scene by KeSPA led to a golden age of Korean Starcraft, a period of 5-6 years where teams, players, storylines, and great gameplay were able to flourish. The value of stability to an esports scene can’t be overstated. How easy would it be to be an NBA fan if there were a significant chance that the team you cheer for ceased to exist? (Just ask Supersonics fans.) KeSPA provided the stability that the scene needed.
The next article will talk about that golden age and some of its highlights.