The good and bad of StarCraft II's e-sports region lock
In 2016 Blizzard implemented a new way to bring out the best of the best in competitive StarCraft when we all gather in Anaheim, California for BlizzCon. The idea behind region locking was to create some diversity in the World Championship Series Global Playoffs. Otherwise, the top 16 players are Korean nationals competing in other regions. Seriously, 2015 had 15 Koreans and one French player, 2014 had 16 Koreans, and 2013 had 15 Koreans and a Swede. In both cases when a non-Korean made the top 16, that player was knocked out in the early stages.
Nobody is surprised that Koreans dominate the scene. It is their game, after all. Region locking was supposed to allow only residents of each region to represent that region. So now that we’ve had the region lock for nearly two full years of StarCraft II, and BlizzCon fast approaching, let’s take a look and see if it really accomplished what it set out to do in the first place.
Ultimately, the region lock has worked if you look at it from Blizzard’s perspective. Memes notwithstanding, the SCII scene is not what it used to be. Sponsors have dropped out, numerous teams have disbanded, and viewership is down compared to other e-sports, like League of Legends and Overwatch, and that’s just in Korea! SCII viewership has never been strong for the Western market. SCII is complicated, fast-paced, and, without a decent amount of game knowledge, it’s easy to get lost and wonder why particular things are so important.
I know this section is supposed to be about the "good." I'm getting to that.
Western audiences needed something to help get them into the scene, and the region lock was just that thing. By restricting access to the highest levels of SCII in each region, Blizzard diversified their fan base. Before 2015, talented players from the non-Korean regions were hard to find at the major tournaments. Plenty were out there, but none ever really rose to the top. Few of them ever had a chance to shine or to raise a trophy high above their head in front of a cheering crowd. That honor was for the Korean players, and they defended that fiercely.
The best example of success for the region lock is the rise of Neeb. For those of you who don’t know, Neeb is one of the rare American players—unless you count the now retired Polt. He has been one of the few players to impress the Korean scene and really make them sit back and think. In recent memory, only ShoWTime was able to do that after his performance in Blizzcon 2016 when he 2-0 ByuN in the group stage.
This year we’ve witnessed Neeb absolutely decimate the WCS circuit; taking 1st place in Montreal, Valencia, Austin, and Jönköping. It would be impossible to argue that Neeb doesn’t belong with the Koreans at BlizzCon. He’s certainly earned it, and that would have happened as quickly without the region lock. Remember, it’s not just game mechanical skill that gets you to the trophy. You have to be able to perform under pressure on the big stage, which is something many non-Koreans didn’t have a lot of experience with prior to 2016.
Sadly, once you get past Neeb on the leaderboards, something starts to become incredibly apparent. The rest of the player base is lagging behind the Korean scene with a monumental gap in rankings.
Is it fair for the non-Korean players to be separated from the Korean pros? When you look at the WCS points for both regions you can see a large gap between them. True, the Korean circuit hands out points at a rough 4:3 ratio, but that still doesn’t account for the size of the gap.
I’m going to single out SpeCIal. He currently holds the #8 spot for the WCS circuit with a total WCS point count of 3030. Throughout the year he’s had a decent performance: 1st place at Copa America in Seasons 1 and 3, 7th at Jönköping, and 3rd at Valencia. However, none of that proves that he should be at Blizzcon. The Copa America tournaments don’t have enough top tier talent to really establish a player for a spot at the WCS Global Finals.
What about WCS spots 5, 6, and 7? Nerchio, Kelazhur, and TRUE hold these spots with 3710, 3250, and 3170 points respectively. All three players did well during the year by placing high at the major WCS events, but it isn’t enough for the same reason Copa America isn’t. The level of competition isn’t the same when Korean players aren’t involved.
BlizzCon is supposed to be the best of the best coming together to compete for a trophy that most of them can’t actually lift. Not to mention the prize of $200,000, fame, and your banner hanging in the hall of champions. Do Nerchio, Kelazhur, TRUE, and SpeCIal really belong at that competition?
No, they don’t. While they are in the top 8 players for the WCS circuit, it’s a far cry from the best of the best. Mathematically, they wouldn’t be there without the region lock. sOs currently holds the #8 spot in the Korean circuit with 5000 points. At a 4:3 ratio that would bring him down to 3750 points in the WCS circuit, or 5th place. BuyN, Maru, aLive, and Classic all have more points than SpeCIal when converted. We have to hit Rogue, who converts to 3075 points before there are no Koreans with higher points than SpeCIal. That’s an extra 5 Koreans that should be at Blizzcon with the best of the best.
Is the region lock a good idea?
So Blizzard is denying the fans of some of the best players in SCII. Is it worth it?
Despite the distaste for the system, Blizzard made the right call. The region lock has allowed more non-Koreans to get into the competitive scene where no opportunity presented itself before. It has helped grow the scene by bringing in a wider audience, something it desperately needed. If Neeb is any indication of global talent, then the other regions will catch up to the Koreans in skill as long as they are given the opportunity.