A decade of Starcraft 2: A Gentle Sunset
As we close the books on another great year of Starcraft and turn our gaze away from the triumph of Dark it’s time to look to the future to know what await us. 2020 will mark Starcraft 2 10th anniversary, for a game many were prone to burry before it’s time, it can now stand fairly hopeful as it closes its first decade. A strong player base, multiple up-and-comer, stable viewership and an establish pro circuit looking to expend into China should carry it into the future. Nevertheless, the end of the decade also mark the end of Starcraft as we came to know it, this year will be the last South Korea has the upper hands over the rest of the world.
Competitive success in our world has been deemed a matter of will, to be the winner you need to be the one that want it more, the one willing to practice every day, to push harder, sweat more, sacrifice everything. But everyone knows the truth, take a bunch of kids, put them in front ESPN at 2 years old, sign them up to play sport at 6, make them compete against each other for social prestige, then finally drill them to practice until they barely know what to do when they have a second for themselves and you have the recipe for Olympic gold. For over decade it’s what Korea had, creating an army of hopeful dreamer raised with Starcraft in their lives that asked nothing more than to be put in the meat grinder of the pro circuit.
It’s already been a few years that the Korean Esport Association has left Starcraft, but in many ways it never was a Starcraft 2 association. The robust institution that had been built during the Brood War days never transition into his successor. Blizzard may have forced the teams and players to switch to its new game, but make no mistakes, it’s toward League of Legend that Kespa made his transition. It’s lol that inherited the masses of fans, the convoluted league and draft systems worthy of the silliest of Shonen, the mountain of cash and more importantly the endless lines of bodies ready to sell their youth for a chance at the spotlight.Instead SC2 got two things from Kespa and the Brood War glory days. First it got a culture; based on intense practice, coach supervision, a superior ambient knowledge of the RTS genre and a tradition of team houses and tournaments organizers.
And second it got his champions, the heirs to the proud dynasty of Brood War.
At first, they came in form of those who were swept away by Brood War; NesTea, Mvp, Polt, NaDa, MMA, BoxeR, Squirtle. They found in this brave new world a place to thrive, away from the suffocating shadow of Kespa. With them came the prodigies, a group of kids old enough to have grown with Brood War, but young enough to have been protected from the gaze of lol and Overwatch; Leenock, TaeJa, Life, DRG, Creator, MarineKing, MC and the rest. Under the tutelage of veterans, they found the perfect place to express the fire and focus of youth. This first glory age of SC2 was also mark by the rise of foreign players. Many claimed that if foreigners were to put the same dedication into the game as the Koreans, so too would they climb to the top, and so did Jinro, ThorZaIN, HuK and Stephano, but with every passing month the gap seemed bigger and bigger.
Then, finally, came the Kespa switch. Those old enough to remember the time when talks about the mythical “elephant in the room” animated the pages of this website will recall the unabashed optimism of some. Sure, a section of the small-time pro would be left behind, but the true champions would continue to dominate. Just like those who thought a new game would be the opportunity for foreigners to catch up to Korea, they felt into the trap of believing that passion, will and talent could beat organized excellence and systematic discipline. The Kespa transition came as wreaking ball, between the day the first Kespa player step in Starcraft 2 and the day it shut down, only 6 non-Kespa players managed to win a tournament in Korea; PartinG and Sniper who won only weeks after the switch, Life and Maru the two brightest stars who were co-opted by the Kespa regime and ByuN and Neeb who came in as a vulture to feast upon a dying body. Everything else was won by players made in the factory of that strange corporatist behemoth. The champion of old were force into exile to crush any illusions the foreign scene still had, relegated to permanent irrelevance in Korea or simply disappeared of the face of the earth.
But Kespa in SC2 was left to itself, it wasn’t a thriving organization but merely a mad train destroying everything on pure inertia. Slowly and slowly it was slowed down by the resistance of the world around it. It didn’t make sense anymore to have house full of practice partners, the inhumane practice regiment were pointless now that no one else was snapping at the heels of veteran, the sacrifice of liberty wasn’t balanced by the hope of the chant of crowds but by the gentle applause of a forever shrinking studio.
From the plethora of new players transitioning from BW with the Kespa switch, only a small core of elite players emerged. And at the end of the 2019 season, this core was still mostly intact. Of the 82 pro-players to play at least one SC2 game in initial 2012 proleague, 12 remained eight years later: INnoVation, herO, Classic, soO, Dear, Zest, sOs, Trap, Rogue, Solar, Stats and TY. Only three man can measure up to them in Korea, Dark, the reigning Emperor, a castaway of a bygone era, Maru, the crown jewel of Korea, who was there on the first day of GSL and who will likely be there at the last and PartinG the world champion who couldn’t stay away from the spotlight. Between them, they have earned 71 premier tournaments trophies, reach 115 finals, won every tournament series on all continents, 12 of them have played for the title of world champion, 7 of them were crown the best in the world.(1) It’s hard to overemphasize how much they dominate Starcraft, of the 102 tournaments played since HOTS where at least one of those 15 participate, they were in the final 86 times, going up to 91% if you discount the first year of adaptation in 2013. GSLvsTW 2019 was the first time a Korean or world class final was played without any of them since Rain triumph over ByuL four years earlier.(2) Despite all playing their career solely in the Korean circuit, they hug 8 of the 10 highest earning spots, and 13 of the top 25 spot.
A few Kespa B teamer and early days players still stick around, and some have tried a comeback (Bunny, Cure, Dream, RagnaroK, Hurricane, Patience, Impact, Creator…) but it’s those 15 that are the bastion of Korea. They are what’s left of Korean Starcraft excellence.
As we close the first decade the game, the bastion has never looked so dusty. Every military draft leaves the last few standing more and more alone. The end of the year saw Classic, herO and even perennial sunshine Gumiho take their reverence, soO and Stats should have done the same next Blizzcon come to pass, Rogue and INno have express multiple time their general disinterest toward practicing, sOs seems more than happy with the state of his trophy collection, Solar, Dear and Parting are stuck in limbo and TY is looking to transition away from progaming life.
For us Starcraft fans, it’s a choc with reality, the mental scheme we have built over two decades can’t hold any longer. Even now, some of us still want to believe in some sort of recreation of the glory day. We want to believe that somehow TaeJa and DRG will storm back into the scene, that Bunny and Impact will reach the heights that always escaped them or that somehow two years in military would have turn Zoun from a joke punchline into a legitimate “up-and-comer”. But the cold truth can be escaped no more, from the troop that was parade in front of the world at MLG all those years ago, only a band of grizzle comrades remain. For most of them, if not all, their best years are behind them, they will never again inspire the awe and fear they once have. And everyday sees a new foreign players to challenge them. To all those in 2010 that were wondering how long the Korean supremacy over Starcraft would last in this new game, we can finally answer: 10 years.
2020 will be the last time the country holds the upper hand over the rest of the world. It will be the last time the question “Who can beat the Koreans?” is still relevant. There is no reason for GSL to die, it’s still home to some the best competition as the last few fight to get that coveted trophy. Korea also host the current best player in the world, it most likely will be the case from time to time into the future, but it will no longer display the systematic excellence we’ve expected for years.
It’s up in the air if China will ever manage to foster that level of competition, but for now we enter the age of the individuals. As ByuN, Neeb, Serral and Reynor have already started to demonstrate, the next line of champions will go to the top by themselves, there will be no coach looking over their shoulder, no teammates to guide them and no practice hours to discipline them. Those who believe the rise of a plethora of new foreign stars has nothing to do with the crumbling of the only real professional system SC2 had haven’t pay attention to the last two decades that just came to pass, as much as we may have wanted it, talent and hard work could never keep up with institutionalized performances. Still there’s a real beauty in this new era, the next world champion can now come from everywhere in the world, it’s up to him or her to set their path to greatness, to figure out the best practice regiment, the best builds, the best way to counter their opponent. As those who were mold by others have almost all fade away, we may finally have a scene worthy of ours idealize vision of meritocracy.
With this crucial year in front of us, with pivot of the pro scene and the incertitude toward Blizzard, I want to take a look with you to the decade that came to pass. Starting at the end of January I will make a series recapitulating SC2 first decade, a year every month, to remember or discover together, the most memorable events, the greatest games, the biggest stars and the wildest drama. So, see you all around January 30th for a trip back to GOMTV, Day9 daily and one base spire in the glorious year 2010.
1 In the last four, Maru and INno won WESG and Dear won WCS season 3 in 2013, both being “best in the world” competition, only Solar never reach a world stage.
2 Rain and Soulkey are the only real Kespa champions to retire pre-2019 with 7 trophy and 11 total finals, both ended up in the top 4 of BW.