The changes to the WCS system for 2016 are the biggest since the transition from 2012 to 2013. On top of that, the announcement was convoluted and difficult to understand. After conferring with others, I tried to analyze and clarify what will likely happen in WCS in 2016, and the implications of the new system on the larger narrative of SC2. The following is purely my personal opinion.
The premise of this year’s WCS seems to be that they want BlizzCon as an event to change. Instead of being the best 16 players from a united WCS system, it will be split in half between Korea and the international circuit. The thing was, previous iterations of BlizzCon didn't necessarily result in the best 16 players in the world at the time, but this year’s BlizzCon gives a definitive split. A compromise between fans that want to see foreigners at BlizzCon and fans that want to see the best players at BlizzCon. This waters down the competitive integrity of the tournament, but the argument is that GSL/SSL were already the hardest tournaments in the world anyway. Whereas BlizzCon will now give fans who want to watch foreigners play more a glint of hope in the yearly finals and give fans who want to see the best play each other a chance to watch that in the later rounds.
After that, WCS will be split into four parts.
Korea now has 2 seasons of GSL/SSL and whatever KeSPA/Hot6ix Cups are made (only one KeSPA Cup has been announced so far).
The WCS Circuit will have 3 Championships with regional qualifiers as well as 8 circuit tournaments as of this time (according to Apollo here, there are currently about 11 planned. Assuming 3 are the Championships, that leaves 8 others being IEM/DH/RB: http://apollosc2.tumblr.com/post/135405158638/my-thoughts-on-wcs-2016). These are essentially repurposed DH/IEM/RBs.
Tournaments under this brand are open to everyone and are non-region locked. However they have much larger restrictions to set up as a tournament organizer and based on some of them I’m expecting maybe 1-3 of these at the most next year. Requirements here: http://wcs.battle.net/sc2/en/articles/2016-wcs-details-and-requirements
While there are multiple benefits to running a WCS event as you get Blizzard to sponsor your prize pool, not all events have to fall under the WCS umbrella. TaKeTV for instance found that region-locking Koreans out of HSC wasn’t something he was willing to do whether because it goes against the natural spirit of what HSC stands for (Can it really be called home, if half the SC2 players in the world can’t come?) or some other undisclosed reason (Source - Richard Lewis: http://www.breitbart.com/tech/2015/12/11/blizzard-reportedly-radically-overhauling-world-championship-series-of-starcraft-2/).
Here are the overall positives:
- More prize money overall
- Travel/support for qualified players for events, meaning more chances for lesser known foreigner players to make it to an event.
- There are more foreigner-only tournaments for foreigners to compete in (boosted from 3 to at least 11 this year)
- Foreigners will definitely be playing during BlizzCon opening weekend, with 8 spots assured.
- Doesn’t address raising skill level in local regions.
- Region locking of the ladder for international regions.
- Fewer GSL/SSL leagues with only one KeSPA Cup confirmed (but no details) and no confirmation of Hot6ix Cup
- Doesn’t address support for mid-tier Korean players. (Not particularly Blizzard’s fault as GSL/SSL are still top heavy and are setting the prize pools).
I’ll skip the positives as those should be self evident as to why those are generally good things. I will note that it's very good for fans that want to watch more local heroes.
Now onto the negatives. The system doesn’t address one of the main reasons it was initially created: to foster local growth. This is directly connected to the ladder system. Here is the exact quote:
"Participants are required to play all tournament and ladder games required of them from the country listed on the account during the tournament season."
This affects NA/CN/SEA the most. NA server is bad, mostly because NA players on the West Coast can play a decent amount on the KR server to raise their skill and then play on the NA server to get some practice at ladder conditions. Players on the East Coast can do the same thing, but play on EU instead of KR. At the same time CN/SEA players can play on KR to help their practice. That clause directly forces those players to play on their own ladder, which is worse than Korea. The fastest way to improve as a player is to constantly play against better players over and over and Korea has by far the most depth of any server—that’s inarguable. It’s a great tool for anyone to practice on and one of the reasons as to why Koreans are always so sharp. With the lock down, players that had access to such a tool will naturally devolve.
TotalBiscuit had a proposed solution here, a repurposed ShoutCraft America that incentivizes the ladder for local regions. You can listen to his thoughts here: https://soundcloud.com/totalbiscuit/wcs-2016-rumours-and-na-ladder
Of course this could be temporary and be fixed depending on the details of what the Regional Cups do, but it’s something to think about.
The next bit is about the GSL/SSL. There are only 5 guaranteed tournaments (there could be multiple KeSPA Cups but only 1 has been confirmed). Fans that want to see more high level SC2 are worried because Korea will have 2 fewer tournaments compared to last year. The argument that is constantly brought up against this is that there is plenty of high level SC2 already, perhaps too much.
First of all, that’s a personal preference and as we shouldn't judge fans for wanting to watch foreigners, I also don’t think we should be judging fans for wanting to watch more high-level SC2. Another argument that’s brought up is oversaturation. In that case, no one has to watch every tournament and fans can pick and choose what they want rather than be starved for a lack of content. A third quibble people bring up is that it dilutes storylines.
From my perspective, more tournaments increases the strength of story-lines and narratives. The reason soO is considered a God is because he got to 4 consecutive GSL Finals. The reason Dream was incredible was because he was able to get to 2 SSL Finals. herO was an incredible player because he did so consistently in every Korean LAN. ByuL was considered the best Zerg at the end of HotS because of his multiple second places in SSL and GSL. If you start cutting down tournaments, you also decrease the value of a story. It's always more impressive when a champion consistently wins and places well against the entire field multiple times rather than just the once. That's why we still glorify NesTea and that's why no one remembers Seed.
Finally there doesn’t seem to be any plans to help low to mid-tier Korean players, so we should probably be getting another wave of retirements again as GSL and SSL continue to be top heavy.
Another major concern is that the success of WCS this year largely depends on outside organizations (ESL and DH, as well as Red Bull/Gfinity/etc) creating more SC2 events. Global events have too many requirements and if I were an organizer I'd just make WCS Circuit events as they're easier to make. Similarly, if I was a non-WCS event like, say Gfinity, I don't see the point in helping pay for flights for a small LAN with some Koreans in it, when you can kick out the Koreans and get support/money from Blizzard and make a WCS Circuit event instead. I think the point of the circuit is to return to the form of 2011/2012 where there was a plethora of international events. However there are distinct differences between then and now, which comes to my final critique.
The foreigner narrative in SC2 can never be as strong as it was in the past because of the region-lock. It seems counter-intuitive as there will be more events with foreigner-only events, however in the case of the best foreigners, the book has been closed. The reason is simple. While some people are trying to equate the region locked 2016 tournament circuit to the 2011/2012 circuit, that is simply disingenuous as it ignores one simple facet. Almost all of the LANs from 2011-2015 weren’t region-locked so foreigners could play against the best and prove they could beat the best. WCS 2012 was the only region locked tournament, and it ran side by side with international LANs. In 2016, that will no longer be possible except for a few Global events and the Ro16 before Blizzcon. In that kind of arena, we had rivalries and storylines such as:
Idra vs Jinro, Idra vs HuK, HuK vs NaNiwa, NaNiwa vs ThorZaIN, Stephano vs Korea, Stephano vs Polt, Scarlett vs Bomber, Snute vs herO, Snute vs SSL/GSL Champions, Nerchio vs MaNa, NaNiwa vs NesTea.
The reason these rivalries had so much depth and meaning was not just because they met time and time again; not only were they playing at the top of their game, but at the top of SC2. Jinro vs Idra is legendary because they met in the Ro8 in a GSL. MaNa vs Nerchio was incredible because both were dark horse EU players that could (and had) won tournaments with Koreans in them. Stephano vs Korea is still talked about in reverence in his one man campaign to take tournaments from Koreans time after time after time. What made this possible was that there was a multitude of events where foreigners could participate in (numbering about 40 on average each year until 2015). Going into 2016, a foreigner only gets BlizzCon, and however many Global/non-WCS events that have top tier competition, to prove that he ranks among the best players in the world. Even Stephano, unarguably the greatest foreigner ever, got to attend around 30 international LANs in his prime to make his name. When a foreigner now hits their prime, they'll get a handful of times per year to compete against the best.
Going into the future, no foreigner will ever get the chance to match the achievements of the past because those chances will not exist. Make no mistake, winning a WCS Championship is a feat, but that will never match NaNiwa’s run at Providence in 2011. It can never shock you like when Jim beat both Life and Taeja at IEM. It won't ever be as incredible as Sen saving 2014, won't be as heart pumping as Scarlett playing Bomber at Red Bull or IEM, will never resound in your soul in the same way as Sjow upsetting Life at DH, can never awe you like Snute beating Rain and Classic right after their GSL/SSL victories.
With this system, we are to a degree closing the book on how successful a foreigner can ever be in SC2. You will get more local narratives, build up more appearances and recurring stories about players in the international scene and give players that had very few chances their opportunity to shine. But for those few players, the ones that don't just want to be the best locally, but be the best ever, they will never get a chance to outshine someone like Snute. This is because Snute got the chance to prove his mettle by beating players like: herO, sOs, Classic, Rain, Solar. Most of whom were in their primes. Now if a foreigner reaches that level again, they just won’t get to meet the same level of competition except for once a year at BlizzCon and the occasional Global event (there could be none, there could be 3, there could be more, no one knows).
There is a give and take here. I agree that this system is far better for foreigners, but you just won’t get these kind of narratives for foreigners in SC2. They will never get he chance to build these kinds of stories across multiple tournaments in multiple meetings over a series of tournaments.
Heyoka told me that stories like these just don’t happen anymore. Maybe he's right, maybe I'm too optimistic about giving future foreign players the chance of living up to and surpassing the past. Stories like these may not have happened in a while, but with the system as it is now, perhaps they never will.