It wasn’t meant to be like this. Not at all. Blizzard’s long-anticipated launch of StarCraft II was meant to be a dream – a triumphant return to the RTS genre that made the company’s name in 1997, when the first StarCraft revolutionised realtime strategy gaming. The centrepiece of the game’s launch? South Korea, the epicentre of world competitive gaming, where the low-specs original spread like a virus, hopping from the gamer fringe to become a mainstream sport within five years. Of the ten-million-plus copies of the original game sold worldwide, half were in South Korea. Two television channels sprang up to broadcast matches between the 12 Proleague teams, and fans flocked to see elite players face off against their rivals. The best players pulled in big money, earning up to £200,000 a year.
It’s no wonder that Blizzard looked to South Korea as the land of opportunity for the sequel. With so many players and fans still playing the original, with dedicated television channels running constant promotion, with an entire sport evolving from a single game, what could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as it turns out. When Blizzard made the original StarCraft way back in 1998, in the early bloom of gaming as a massive entertainment industry, the company had no way of predicting the success of the game in Korea. The blossoming of the e-Sports industry there, spearheaded by StarCraft, took place in an ad-hoc, unregulated manner, and not a single dollar was paid to Blizzard by any of the Korean entities which grew up around the StarCraft phenomenon.
This time around, things have changed. Vivendi took part control of Blizzard in 2008 through its majority-owned company Activision, and a new, more commerce-focused slant became apparent despite Blizzard’s relative independence. Now there would be no chance that an entire sport would spring up unauthorised. This time, Blizzard was going to take control of its own intellectual property and control what was done with it. Stung by the experience of battling World Of Warcraft bots, task automators and gold farmers, the company took a hardline stance against KeSPA – the Korean e-Sports Players Association – and the two TV channels, MBC Game and OnGameNet.
In an open letter on May 27 – two months before the full release – Blizzard president Mike Morhaime laid it out in the open: “In 2007, we were shocked and disappointed to learn that KeSPA had illegally sold the broadcasting rights for StarCraft tournaments without our consent. With this clear violation of our intellectual property rights, we were forced to become more actively involved in the situation and make our voice be heard.”
Strong words indeed. Morhaime wrote that his company had tried hard to negotiate with KeSPA – which has the backing of the Korean government, the teams, and the TV channels – but had got nowhere, effectively forcing Blizzard to ditch KeSPA and give exclusive broadcast rights to SCII matches to a minnow of an operation, Gom TV. The announcement sent shockwaves through the Korean e-Sports establishment, and rippled out into the English-speaking world. To fend off the perception of a money-grab, Morhaime tackled the issue head on: “Unlike the negative rumours you might have heard, Blizzard’s intention towards e-Sports is not to ‘dominate’ it and create excessive profits from it. From the beginning of the negotiations up to now, the basic framework we have thought of is one where e-Sports can continue to grow, while we can protect our intellectual property rights.”
Why is Blizzard getting so hardline about broadcasting rights? After all, the 12 pro-gaming teams are sponsored by major Korean companies who regard the sport simply as a way to get young people interested in their brands. There’s no real money in broadcasting StarCraft – the large audience is nearly all teenage or in its early 20s, a group that in Korea does not have much disposal income, and attending a StarCraft stadium match costs nothing. As Jae-Gyoon Yi, one of the founders of professional StarCraft and the coach of the Woongjin Stars team, told us, when a company sponsors a pro-gaming team, it’s simply another marketing avenue for product exposure.