Even so, the numbers playing in PC baangs (net cafes) have been lower than expected, with only two to three per cent of Korean gamers playing SCII in the month after it was released. It’s a tiny number given that Korea is perceived as StarCraft’s home market, that the game was released in time for the school holidays, and that it launched with a $30m ad campaign. In fact, StarCraft II’s three-million-plus sales have been mainly in the west.
But after months of tense negotiations, the future may be shifting Blizzard’s way once more. In recent weeks, one of the two main StarCraft: Brood War league organisers, MBC, has reluctantly made overtures to Gom TV for the rights to broadcast. It means that KeSPA – which is supposed to represent the entire e-Sports industry – is losing its grip. Since Gom TV owns the Korean rights to broadcast StarCraft II and the original game, Blizzard effectively has KeSPA, and Gom’s rival TV channels, over a barrel. Gom TV gave the two established StarCraft leagues until the end of August to finish their now-illegal matches. Since then, however, negotiations have been going badly.
Blizzard president Mike Morhaime at the TG-Intel STARCRAFT II Open Season1 tournament
“It’s hard to look at the one-sided and coercive demands as negotiations,” a KeSPA source said in late September. The pro team KT, which was involved in the negotiations, went further. “We once again confirmed that [Gom owner] Gretech does not have any desire to negotiate as they deny the existence of pro-game teams and the Proleague,” said its spokesman.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the pitched battle over broadcast rights, Korean pro-gamers are beginning to make the switch to StarCraft II. Jaedong, widely considered the best Zerg player in the original StarCraft at present, now says he will move over to StarCraft II. “I will definitely switch as I feel StarCraft II has a higher status than StarCraft: Brood War,” he told e-Sports website Rakaka. “We will see more international tournaments in SCII compared to StarCraft: Brood War and this will make the change natural for me. I want to build my reputation abroad and reach out to the international audience.”
For pro-gamers, the case for switching between two similar games was given a boost by April’s match-fixing scandal, which engulfed some of the original StarCraft’s most highly paid players, including the legendary Zerg player sAviOr. Many players were forced to quietly resign or stay out of the limelight, while disgusted fans began abandoning the game, speeding up an existing trend away from StarCraft towards newer, Korean-made titles. As Milkis notes, Korean e-Sports has been shrinking recently: “People are growing up, getting into different kinds of games, and events like this [the Blizzard crackdown] and match fixing are drawing people away from the game.”
For now, Blizzard is pinning its hopes on StarCraft II pro-gaming taking off worldwide, rather than remaining in the Korean ghetto of ultra-high actions-per-minute and ten-hour-day practice sessions. To that end, Gom TV put on an open tournament in Seoul in early October, with prize money totalling £315,000. Despite being open to players from around the world, the tournament was largely Korean, and the Korean Zerg player FruitDealer sent in the Ultralisks to ensure ultimate victory.
He was one of the earliest pro-gamers to make the switch to StarCraft II, after he was forced to leave the original StarCraft scene and his team, eSTRO, to deal with a family emergency. Returning, he picked up the new game and proved himself the current master, pocketing £53,000. With his historic win, FruitDealer has staked a firm claim that Korean StarCraft gamers are still the world’s best. It’s a promising sign for Blizzard and Gom TV, but the future is not certain. We won’t know for some time if Blizzard’s tough tactics have damaged the StarCraft phenomenon in Korea beyond repair, or if it all merely boils down to transitional road bumps.