In this interview, Archer and digmouse talk about why Starcraft is struggling in China, China's versions of TeamLiquid, MLG, IPL, and NASL, the overall skill of the Chinese players, the BWC tournament held in China, Blizzard's role in all of this, and what the western world can do to help them out.
monk: Can you introduce yourself and your role in the Chinese SCII community?
Archer: Hi TL! I'm Archer, editor in chief of s.163.com, China's biggest SCII coverage site. I'm also known as nayuki. S.163.com belongs to Netease, which operates Starcraft II in China. As any other fansites, we handle game news only, just as TL. My primary job is reporting anything about SC2, be it news, tournament updates, reviews, translations or features, which covers hot contents from all over the world. I handle photos, contacts and communications as well, essentially taking charge of an entire website on my own.
digmouse: Hi fellow TL readers, I'm digmouse from China, I currently work for Popsoft, the biggest video game magazine in China, and have been around in the eSports industry since 2006. I'm a regular reader and poster on TL, primarily focusing on translating Chinese esports material and covering Chinese esports events.
monk: Before we continue, can you expand on what Netease is and what their relationship is to SCII?
Archer: Netease is a major Chinese internet general service provider, and contains three major departments include gaming, news coverage and mail service. Netease both operates foreign games and develops some on its own. For example, Starcraft II is operated by Netease in China. According to Chinese regulations, foreign companies can not handle game services and distribution on its own, so Netease provides these for Blizzard.
The Netease gaming channel, which I work on, belongs to one of the three core Netease departments, gaming. There is Starcraft II official site, which is sc2.163.com. In contrast, s.163.com only handles news content, just like any other fan site. And just like any other fan site, we don't have any early access to official news and announcements. We don't know anything official about Blizzard or Netease faster than anyone, but since we have 163.com in our link, some people might misunderstand. We also solely focus on SCII content. The official SCII Chinese site operates in Shanghai while s.163.com, the fan site, is stationed in Beijing. The latter is moving to Hangzhou though.
monk: What's the current state of the SCII scene in China?
Archer: In general, SCII in China is way better than people might think. We have thousands of new players entering the game. We have major tournaments going on and broadcasting everyday, with a lot of news, videos, interviews etc. But the problems is huge as well. A lot of players leave after trying SCII as they think it's hard. The remaining core players are mostly old BW fans coming along, having established a career or family. SCII for them is mostly watching tournaments and video.
The pro scene is even more lackluster. We have no more than 20 full-time progamers, and most are veteran players dated back to even BW days. We rarely see new blood coming in. Only iG and Spider have team houses now, and the rest few teams are only training online. Our players are actually pretty good, with 7-10 always being in Korean GM, but the lack of tournaments results in a lack of experience, which leads to the biggest bottle neck for Chinese players.
digmouse: We don't have that many active players. In PC bangs, most players play League of Legends or DotA. I don't have a solid number, but it's no way near NA or EU. Regarding pro scene, the biggest problem is we don't have a healthy amateur player base to support it. Most active progamers are still the ones who has been around since 2010. Being a paid game, and a traditional RTS which is substantially more difficult than games like DotA or LoL, SCII could not steadily increase its player base in China. Though I think it's a universal problem that lies in the fundamentals of SCII itself, it's more obvious here as SCII is having a hard time attracting new players.
monk: At a recent press conference, Mike Morhaime, CEO of Blizzard, said that one of the biggest reasons SCII has not been as successful in China as WC3 is that WC3 captured a gaming market right when WC3 was exploding. Do you agree with this assessment? And what do you think are the main reasons SCII is not as successful in China as WC3 was or as SCII is in the western world.
Archer: I think Mike Morhaime is partially right on this. Back then in China, there were not many good games to play, and Warcraft III was a great great game, arguably the best on the market. But it wasn't until Sky was crowned the WCG champion in 2005 that that WC3 became the hottest game in China. But besides the Sky factor, for most Chinese players, "Free" is the reason to go. They have long been in the gaming culture of piracy; this plus no LAN support is the biggest factor.
Speaking of SCII, there are indeed problems. The biggest, imo, is that Blizzard did not handle their relationship with media correctly. Ten years ago everyone talked about how "Blizzard means quality". These days, Blizzard still produces great games but no one is talking about them, and no media is willing to report SCII related news. How could a game be popular under this situation? Not to mention the only remaining active media don't receive the support they need and deserve from Blizzard at all.
Then there's the marketing issue. Blizzard thought they knew China, but it turns out they were terribly wrong. For example, the complex Battle.Net registering process scares a lot new players away, and when WoL launched, there was only monthly subscription as payment plan. This even became a weapon for the anti-Blizzard folks to harm the reputation of SCII and Blizzard. Combined with the media issue, most potential players are misdirected in the first place.
Although we love SCII, as fans and media ourselves, our contribution to the SCII scene is literally zero. We, the Chinese fans and media, are not united and consistently fighting with one another. We are isolated don't know each other are thinking. There are two main reasons: First we are all too driven by benefits. Secondly, a lot of them/us don't know how to cooperate, because we are either too shortsighted or not professional enough. For example, in 2011 Neotv broadcast GSL while also producing lots of good content. But in 2012 MarsTV buy the copyright, only to broadcast, never contributing to the community with any other content.
The only cooperation in the scene is between s.163.com - MarsTV - IPL, but even then, only because I was the initiator. I report (for s.163.com), IPL gave Chinese seed, and MarsTV broadcast. As a live organization, we need more domestic SC2 matches, not only Koreans. This is why I contacted IPL, and gave the IPL5-China broadcast to MarsTV.
digmouse: Well, it's well past 10 years since WC3 was released in China and the gaming industry has changed a lot. The Chinese gaming culture now heavily shifts towards F2P(free to play) online games, which are more casual. Plus a sad but unavoidable issue is that WC3 and BW are easily pirated in China, while SC2 is a paid to play game, which reflects a more traditional gaming culture which still stands strong in the west, but has long gone invisible in China.
The retail gaming market has been rendered almost to none in China in the past 10 years. Nowadays the games in China are mostly F2P with some subscription based. But sc2 is another genre and doesn't fit in the subscription model at all. In the west, SCII is all about a one-time purchase; you can play whenever you want and don't have to worry about additional payments. But when WoL launched in China in March 2011, the only payment option is monthly subscription, though cheap enough (3$ a month), it's still inconvenient for most players to worry about paying for another month. The unlimited access didn't come until Feburary 2012, almost 1 year after WoL was released in China.
And by the gaming industry shifted, more casual competitive games entered the scene. DotA was a great success in China as a custom map of WC3. And League of Legends is more appealing to casuals, and is F2P. This is in addition to the precise and effective marketing of its operator Tencent, which controls the biggest online community in the world known as QQ, heavily blasted into the scene with LoL.
SCII is, in its root, a competitive traditional RTS with a deep learning curve and high skill ceiling. Even with easier mechanics and better UI than BW and WC3, SCII is still way harder compared to other competitive games in the market. And the Chinese players, in my opinion, are more against these hard games They don't just play for fun, but for easy fun.
And yes, another big part is that Netease and Blizzard did not choose their marketing avenues correctly. As Archer stated, the lack of media coverage severely hurt player reputations of SCII, with not enough exposure, it's harder and harder to attract new players, and keep old players in the game.
monk: How many and what types of SCII fan sites exist in China, and what's their viewership like?
Archer: We have websites, printed media and video broadcasters. Websites include s.163.com, wfbrood, replays.net, sc2p, and 178. The biggest printed media is obviously Esports Magazine, and Popsoft has some investment in SC as well. Video broadcasters include NeoTV, MarsTV, SiTV GameFY, GTV and PLU. But with duowan.com and 178.com pulling out in 2011, s.163.com became the sole powerhouse, as the other sites were just copy/paste. Esports Magazine focuses on tournament coverage while Popsoft Magazine is more like a general gaming magazine and has only limited portions of esports content. NeoTV, MarsTV and GameFY provides most SCII content, PLU once had a lot of content but since the later half of 2012, most of their production switched, except their star host, "Alone".
That leaves one website, s.163.com, two printed media, Esports Magazine and Popsoft, and three broadcasting media. NeoTV has the most professional SCII broadcasting crew, and the most professional casting duo, xiaoseforever and ms_joy, nicknamed "The Chinese Tastosis". MarsTV currently handles GomTV and OGN broadcasting in China and they host IEM as well And SiTV GameFY hosted BWC, WCS Asia and WCS China, as well as long-time tournament, G-League.
digmouse: Speaking of fan sites, we actually have several ones, but most are branch departments of general gaming sites, like sc2.178.com, sc2.replays.net (both of which I've worked for), www.sc2p.com, and sc2.plu.cn etc... We also have multiple broadcasting media(Editor's note: think Dreamhack, IPL, or NASL), namely neotv, which handles WCG and runs NEO StarLeague, and was the official GSL broadcasting partner in 2011. MarsTV is a newly formed company that is currently broadcasting GSL in China. SiTV GameFY is most well-known for G-League and organized WCS China, WCS Asia and BWC. PLU.cn is the biggest BW community and has been in SC2 scene with limited success. The last one is GTV, which is a cable TV channel, but they don't invest into SC2 much.
To be honest, SCII media in general does not receive high viewership due to the lacking situation of the game right now. Besides s.163.com, most websites don't have much original content, and only NeoTV and MarsTV has substantial SCII content in their broadcasts.
monk: What do you mean when you say s.163.com is the only powerhouse left?
Archer: Back in 2010, duowan had a gigantic SCII coverage crew of 13 editors, while 178 had 6 and they were heavily competing at that time. s.163.com used to have 4 editors, but by May 2012, I became the only one left.
monk: How big is s.163.com and what kind of coverage do you do?
Archer: We used to have 4 editors, but in mid-2012 we were reduced to only one, me. We have around 35-40k daily unique views with around 200k pageviews. Currently I have several part-time volunteers to help me out, 2 Korean translators, 1 video subtitle maker, 2 video makers, 1 score updater and a strategy/battle report writer.
In terms of coverage, we do news from both abroad and domestic, mainly Blizzard related and game-related stuff like patches. For major tournaments that get global broadcasting, we are covering it no matter where it is, be it Chinese, Korean or Western. In terms of tournament coverage we have scores, streams, schedules, think: a lesser TLPD. We have original contents like interviews, some are done ourselves and some are translated by our English and Korean translators. We write/translate strategy guides, do battle reports and tutorial videos as well, plus commentaries, know-hows, trivia and everything Starcraft 2.
Additionally. s.163.com is part of the Netease Gaming Channel's Blizzard Games branch, sometimes we work alongside our colleagues from WoW and Diablo coverage team with mini-site constructing, photo-shopping and translating jobs in situations like Blizzcon.
monk: What are the conditions of professional players like in China? Are there constant Chinese tournaments with decent prizes? How do they live and, what do Chinese teams provide them?
Archer: Our pro teams works similar to western teams, with own team-houses. They have managers but most of them are not very professional. Players are offered housing and salaries. I'm not sure about the actual numbers though; I've heard that top players like XiGua and Comm make over $1000 USD/month, but the rest are substantially lower.
We hardly have any big leagues with huge prizes going on; most of them are small cup-style ones. And among these some even don't pay out their prizes in time, the most infamous one being ESL. There are rarely tournament opportunities abroad, and most times there is just same old people playing against other same old people. This results in the lack of motivation to communicate and even practice together among Chinese players. Most times they practice on ladder, with no designated coaches or professionals to help with analyzing, Chinese players are often easily figured out, but know nothing about the outside world."
digmouse: The real pro scene is quite small, with no constant money in the scene. The tournaments are mostly inconsistent, and only G-League and NSL are the major leagues here. Furthermore, neither of them are not that regular. For example, G-League didn't start it's Season 1 mid this year and there was a 7 months gap between the end of NSL Season 1 and the beginning of Season 2.
Most pro teams have no team houses; only iG and Spider have one. The team-house environment is decent though, comparable with top foreign and Korean team-houses. Most teams will provide their players with tournament opportunities and salaries, pretty much the same as with foreign teams.
monk: How would you rate the overall skill level of the Chinese players? Who are the best Chinese players?
Archer: It's quite subjective, but personally I think MacSed is the best. XiGua, Toodming, Comm, XY and Jim are good too though. On a global scale, I think we are on the same level as NA pros, a little under Europeans.
digmouse: The best Chinese players can compete with the top foreigners and mid-low level Korean pros. Imo, the best players are Toodming and MacSed, with XiGua, Comm, XY, Jim being good as well.
monk: Why do you think Blizzard decided to hold the BWC in China and how successful do you think it was?
Archer: With Mists of Pandaria releasing in China along with rest of the world for the first time since The Burning Crusade, and Heart of the Swarm coming up, Blizzard will need more work in China. And another big factor: manpower is cheap here.
I can't say sure about it's successful or not but if you look at the SC2 audiences, it's working. Except for the times after Comm lost, the seats are pretty much filled all the time. Though Sen contributed a lot in this, the fans want to see more Chinese or Taiwanese players anyway. Plus, the very talented and professional host from Taiwan TeSL greatly hyped the whole stage, and this is what most Chinese event must learn from.
However, a lot of the Chinese media presented in Shanghai were not professional enough, and thus the coverage is not as good as our fellow western journalists, but it's not BWC's fault. For example, few Chinese sites took the initiative to take their own pictures and waited for the Blizzard official ones. Few actively sought interviews and most just waited for the official conferences. And most cared more about Yaoming, cosplay, and pretty showgirls than the actual event.
digmouse: In general, I think it's a good idea, China has the biggest Blizzard game community in the entire world. Such a huge event, being equivalent of BlizzCon, will definitely attract a lot of Chinese players. With Mists of Pandaria launched in China, Blizzard surely will push itself more into this huge market, and it needs to promote SC2 more as well. Overall I think BWC was quite successful; the western audiences might disagree judging from the quirky streaming experience but as a spectator on the ground, it's fantastic.
monk: What was your experience like at the BWC as a part of the Chinese media?
Archer: Being the hosts, we were not allow to walk around, and take photos expect for public areas. We were not able to do interviews freely, aside from with Blizzard staff. We were not able to approach any player. If it had not been for the fact that we brought a Korean translator with us, and that PartinG was being extremely nice to media, we wouldn't have been able to do any interviews on the ground. The rest of interviews were all crowd ones/press conferences, and some questions asked by the Chinese media were straight-up silly. This, in addition to the tight schedule, made me very exhausted after I'm returned from Shanghai.
digmouse: As the local media, covering an event hosted on our homeground, we did not receive any benefits. Be it photoshots or interviews, we are actually having more difficulties than the Korean and western media. You won't see this at a MLG or GSL because the local western/Korean media will do a much better job, but BWC in its root is still a western event run by Blizzard. We feel like outsiders, despite the fact that we speak the same language as the staff or audiences.
monk: What relationships exist between the Chinese scene and the western scene? What about between the Chinese scene and the Taiwanese scene?
Archer: We don't have a lot of communications with western media. Maybe a couple of senior editors might have contacts of major sites like goodgame.ru or gosugamers, but the rest mostly lies in digmouse.
The same problem lies in Taiwanese scene as well. As far as I know, TeSL(Taiwan eSports League) only has connections with GameFY. At BWC, I also had some conversations with the Taiwanese caster, Sobad, who is known as the 'Godfather of Starcraft' in Taiwan. (Sobad just like Day of Taiwan, handsome, professional, and a player since the beginning of BW, he single-handedly gave birth to the entire TW sc2 scene.) We agree both of us needs communications, and we need to see what we can come up with.
digmouse: The Chinese scene almost has no major connections with the western scene or Taiwanese scene. The former is limited language barriers and time differences, while the latter has no such issues, but is simply not being explored yet. We've tried several times to collude with the western scene, but none of them have turned out well. I know that at BWC, Archer started a talk with TeSL as a initiative to connect China and Taiwan more to help each other.
monk: What do you hope to get out of this interview? And what can the western scene do to promote the growth of SCII in China?
Archer: From a media perspective, I think we need to recognize ourselves first. We are not that big, but not that small and weak either. We still have professional coverage and very talented players like Infi. Esports-wise, I hope more western events could give Chinese players more chances, like IPL did.
Mostly though, Blizzard needs to step up. If they put 10% of their investment in Korea into China, they would make a hell of a lot more, and also make a huge break-through. A Starcraft II with only Koreans in is boring. Adding a billion people to compete with a nation with only 50 million, isn't that more appealing? The consuming power of Chinese SC2 players are overwhelming, they just need to realize it, to embrace it."
digmouse: I don't expect much help actually. If this interview could let the western scene know a little more about the Chinese scene, I will be more than happy about it. The only way to get out of this tough situation lies in ourselves. We need better cooperation, we need more stable money, and we need a good way to promote the game and support the players and media from Blizzard.
monk: Any closing thoughts?
Archer: Thanks monk and TL for taking an eye on Chinese SCII. The Chinese SCII scene is like a lost kid, without exposure, without environment, only with a group of dedicated fanatics are fighting for it. If the western scene or Blizzard could know about it from this interview, it could be the best result. Thanks all of you for reading this long interview. I hope that while SC2 is flying high all around the world, someone will remember that other great esports nation lost in far east, China."
digmouse: First of all, thanks everyone for reading. monk and I met at BWC, and along with other fellow journalists, we shared a lot of our thoughts about SCII, about esports, about China. It was great meeting all of you! Thanks monk and TL for providing this great opportunity to speak up. <3 TL, Liquid Fighting!
Note: Since this interview, Archer has quit Netease and thus s.163.com for personal reasons. Netease is moving its game channel(game.163.com) to Hangzhou, but Archer wanted to stay in Beijing.