Much Ado About Nothing
We've come for your money
The popular narratives of IPL3 and IPL4 couldn't be more different.
IPL3 was the start of a revolutionary October, where foreigners proved that not only could they compete with Koreans, but that they could win as well. Meanwhile, IPL4 looked like the second coming of MLG Columbus, except worse (a la, Battle.net). Koreans trounced the foreign competition, netting a devastating fifteen of the sixteen top spots. No foreigners made it through the open bracket, seeded foreigners IdrA and White-Ra were rolled, and only Stephano was left behind to pick up the pieces for a respectable tie-5th showing.
In the aftermath, a lot of people have been trying to trace the thread from IPL3 to IPL4, asking 'what went wrong?'. Although the strength and depth of Korean talent has been obvious for a long time, seeing such a vivid demonstration drove the point home like never before. The massacre has revived the old protectionist argument of limiting Korean participation in events, and has led to a fair amount of hand wringing in general.
As it should. It's embarrassing to have foreign tournaments result in such skewed prize distribution. Interest is inevitably intertwined with the success of foreigners, and it drops off steeply as the foreigners fall. This IPL, while featuring a final with two very skilled and decently well known players in aLive and Squirtle, will probably be somewhat forgotten, simply because so few people held a stake in the final contestants, and because the few Koreans to enjoy massive fan favorite status bit the dust early.
But while what occurred last weekend in Vegas was obviously unfortunate, and should spur foreigners to redouble their efforts, it was completely and totally predictable. The answer to the question 'what went wrong?' is simple: Nothing.
The thing that's wrong is the misplaced frustration and disappointment in the foreign community about this single tournament. The Koreans might have monopolized the top rankings at IPL4, but foreigners didn't underperform – in fact, they probably overperformed. What's truly behind this Korean 'domination' is a rather a silly tournament structure, terrible streaming, short-sighted choice of invites, and simple math.
Why the non-koreans performed so poorly:
The easiest and most obvious reason why the Koreans seemed to dominate IPL4 is that there were so many of them. IPL4 hosted the first GSTL match outside of Korea, and you could say it hosted the first Code S tournament outside of Korea as well. Nine of the twelve group participants were Korean. Those players alone account for eight of the Koreans in the top sixteen. Of the Koreans, only PuMa was invited and finished out of that top group. The other seven Koreans in the top sixteen came from the open bracket, where all eight spots were filled by Koreans. (In this instance, GanZi was the odd man out.)
Meanwhile, the foreign invites to the groups were exceptionally weak. Strong as they might have been when they won IPL's 1 and 2 against middling foreign competition, both IdrA and White-Ra were poor choices for the groupstage. The conceit that the invites were based on previous IPL wins is silly. Both were invited to IPL3, and there could be no reasonable expectation among fans and players that invites to IPL4 would be based on year-old tournaments. Instead, their invited status was obviously a product of their popularity. That's not always a bad thing, and both enjoy huge fanbases in part because they have achieved tremendous success in their careers. But in terms of competitiveness, it was never going to fly. In essence, their invite system essentially locked two foreigners into the 16-20th spots, and ensured only one foreigner would automatically be in play in the top 16.
The salvation of the foreign scene, then, could've been the open bracket. Yet we find the exact same story there. Twenty Koreans on GSTL teams joined the open bracket. Add to that the twelve Koreans on foreign teams, and you have an astonishing thirty two elite Korean players in the mix. It's harder to quantify the number of serious non-Koreans in the open. However, only seventeen foreign players in the open bracket had qualified for an NASL, thirteen had ever even been to Korea for starcraft related reasons, two have a higher TLPD ELO than the current Grubby line, and just one appeared on TL's pre-IPL Power Ranking.
A number of notable foreign names were in action last weekend, but stunningly few were at IPL4. ThorZaIN, LucifroN, MorroW, TitaN, and Grubby were at The Gathering. Kas and Happy were at Copenhagen Games. MaNa was at Gamers Assembly. At home were traditionally strong players like Nerchio and Sen. NaNiwa was practicing for GSL. While there's little doubt that the Korean scene is deeper than the foreign one, it is clear that at IPL4 the Koreans were extremely well represented, and the foreign scene was much less so. With a numbers advantage like this, it's not surprising that all eight pool slots went to Koreans.
There was a lot we missed at IPL4
Why we think the non-koreans performed so poorly:
There's another factor at play here. Sure, the Koreans held a massive edge in numbers and placement in IPL4. But they also held a massive edge in exposure, thanks in large part to IPL's assymetric coverage scheme.
The key factor here is how group centric IPL4 was. Being in the groups gave a massive advantage beyond simply making the prize pool. It also guaranteed two days worth of coverage, and a huge chance of making it on stream. With a groupstage so tilted towards Koreans to begin with, it's little wonder that the perception of Korean domination is so compelling. The same small group of Koreans appeared on stream for all three days, often while beating up on the handful of seeded non-Koreans.
Then there's the matter of the lack of coverage afforded to the open bracket. It couldn't have been plainer that IPL was shocked to discover their open bracket had a level of competition usually associated with Code S. Woefully undermanned, the IPL streaming presentation allowed the entire open bracket to fly straight over most viewer's heads. It was hard to catch a game on the second stream to begin with, and when you did, it was inevitably not the game you'd have liked to watch. In all of the tournament (read: Day 1) only ten games from the open bracket appeared on stream. Moreover, three of them were from the open bracket's first winners or losers first and second rounds, which meant that 40% of the streamed open bracket action was tied up in silly pro vs semi-pro stomps. As the competition actually got better towards the end of the day, the scheduled time for streaming ended and games were played in the dark. SaSe, the final foreigner remaining, was a single series away from making the group stage, but it went almost entirely unknown to the fans at home. While IPL appeared to stick to a rough schedule with the open bracket stream, that schedule seemed woefully inadequate for the incredible amount of talent that could've been covered. Overall, it also injured the case for foreign strength. Only two of the open bracket matches didn't involve a Korean, and they were the first three matches of the day. On stream, the foreigners achieved a 2-4 record against their Korean opposition.
Even more importantly, the day's major stories were largely ignored. This goes beyond simply the foreign narrative, as players like TaeJa, GhostKing, Maru, and Creator, each of whom had an obvious compelling reason to follow, yet never appeared once on stream in the open bracket. But not following every move of Scarlett, who could've been the biggest esports story of the year so far, was tournament malpractice. The effect of knowing Scarlett beat Terious was less than seeing it happen. Similarly, (and more on this in a bit) but Illusion, who put together an absolutely filthy run, wasn't given the light of day.
The sum of this inadequate stream coverage was that the foreigner stories in the open bracket were completely drowned out in the sea of Korean vs Korean group action. Where foreigners were featured, they mostly collapsed. Whatever positive notes there were for foreigners at IPL, simply never made it out to the public watching at home.
But wait, the foreigners still didn't do so well, did they?
At IPL3, which at the time featured the most Korean-heavy line-up the foreign scene had witnessed, it was widely expected that a Korean would take the event. The win by Stephano obscured the fact that the non-koreans got absolutely destroyed in Atlantic City. Only five of the sixteen open bracket qualifers were Korean... because only five Koreans entered. Only three non-Koreans beat Koreans at IPL3, and one of the losing Koreans was Artist, who wasn't living or training in Korea at the time. Six of the top eight were Koreans, and this out of a bracket that featured only 44% Korean participants (14/32). The field wasn't even that good, with MMA being the only remaining player with championship credentials after MC was PvP'd out. The numbers show beyond a doubt that the rough conception of IPL3 as being a foreigner's tournament is made of whole cloth.
Completely the reverse, then, is IPL4. While not a tournament that really knocked the Koreans on their heels, the shallow foreign field actually scored plenty of casualties in Las Vegas. Of course, there's Scarlett, who rocked Terious and nearly pulled an unthinkable upset over Oz. But SaSe deserves credit as well, with wins over Golden and Heart, and only losing to Squirtle and PartinG; results that anyone should be proud of. HuK beat three Code S players in Ryung, HerO, and Virus. And of course, Stephano beat Curious, JYP, and Bomber.
Impressive, right? Now what if neither of these tremendous players was the most impressive foreign player at IPL4?
Did you know that Illusion beat Zenio, lost to Maru, then axed KiWiKaKi, Ryung, and Oz before finally falling to Creator just two rounds from the groupstage? No seriously, how the hell did nobody notice that a 16 year old American beat three Code S players?
The Silent Avenger of IPL4
What was the issue again?
Hidden by the idea of a Korean-dominated IPL4 are these incredible performances. For every Ret or DeMusliM who had a slightly disappointing event, there are the runs of Illusion, Scarlett, SaSe, HuK, and Stephano. Not to mention the close calls, like ToD losing 1-2 to two Code S players, CatZ taking a game off Classic, State off of AcE, BlinG off of AnnYeong, and Caliber from HerO. The truth of IPL4 is, foreigners did just fine, taking games from Code S and Code A level opponents. Only a lack of luck and overwhelming math prevented them from making it to the all important group stage. And if we didn't see these games, then that's the fault of IPL4 for having a poor streaming plan, fans for not being informed, and the media for covering the stories poorly.
Since MLG Columbus, the foreign scene hasn't rebounded as quickly as many hoped, but there's ample evidence that foreigners are at least treading water. More foreigners than ever are practicing in Korea, and the talent produced abroad has done a better job of keeping pace.
Could foreigners do better? Of course. Could HuK or SaSe have made the groups? Yep. Is it odd and disconcerting that ex-pat Koreans continue to overperform and beat top level foreigners? Sure. But the takeaway from IPL4 wasn't that foreigners are losing ground, or that we shouldn't continue to invite Koreans overseas. The takeaway was that if you tilt a tournament heavily in the favor of top Koreans, they'll win it. That's not news. What's news is that two unheralded North Americans claimed four Korean scalps, that two foreign protosses have gone to Korea and become monsters, and that the best representative for the non-korean scene is a mercurial
Frenchman American with an effective practice schedule and no fear of the Korean threat.
The views and opinions of the author do not necessarily represent the opinions of TeamLiquid.net