ESFI World's Sam Lingle wraps up the events of 2011.
Two years ago, it would have been easy to give e-sports up for dead, especially in North America. MLG’s console league was having some success, and ESL was still puttering along in Europe, though without the growth that marked the earlier years of this decade. E-sports seemed to have hit a wall after the disastrous end to the Championship Gaming Series. 2011 changed that.
A slew of new e-sport titles have energized the scene. Fans have turned out to events in throngs unimaginable compared to previous events in North America and Europe. Streaming media platforms like Twitch.TV, Own3D.TV, and UStream have helped create a community around the fans and players no one ever dreamed possible. Developers have committed to e-sports in ways never before seen. It was an important year. Let's look at the details.
2011 was a great year for the industry. In typical year-end fashion, I’ve put together a top 10 list covering the past year. I’ve included a variety of topics, including specific games or tournament performances, historic results, and more general topics and trends. The list ended up having a bit of theme after I put it together: the viability of e-sports in North America and Europe, both as a business and as a competition.
Valve puts up $1 million for DotA 2 at GamesCom
Valve made an emphatic statement when they threw their hat into the MOBA/Action RTS ring when they held a $1 million tournament to celebrate DotA 2’s imminent (we hope?) release.
The tournament was a success, drawing 1.5 million stream viewers, according to Valve. With Asian teams expected to dominate the tournament beforehand, it was a bit of a surprise to see the Ukrainian squad Na’Vi decimate the Chinese team EHOME to take the top prize. The competition was good for such an early event, despite the restrictions placed on players who had only been able to touch the game in a closed beta for a limited amount of time.
On the one hand I want to chastise Valve for throwing a huge lump of money at a single event, churning out a major promotional shindig instead of investing into a more lasting structure. But it’s amazing to see Valve, a company that has typically been lukewarm towards the e-sports community, actually show a commitment to their game as an e-sport title.
Gabe Newell himself has lauded DotA as a competitive platform, noting that professional level players showcasing their skill at a game enhances the value of his product. On the Steamcast podcast early this year, Newell and Valve Project Manager Erik Johnson discussed DotA as a spectator sport: http://dota2talk.com/news/valve-speaks-about-dota-2-as-a-spectator-sport/
“Every time I see one of the people at the elite levels playing any game whether it's WoW or DOTA or Counter-Strike it's just stunning how good it is,” said Newell, “But I think what's also stunning is the terrible job we as an industry have done so far in terms of making it entertaining to watch and appreciate how talented and skilled those people are. So if I had to pick one problem to tackle in that space it would be to make it more fun to be a spectator.”
“I think DOTA is going to be the product where we are going to focus on this problem,” said Johnson, “It presents some advantages over some of our other games in terms of viewing just because of the type of game it is. It has a very well-established, mature, professional scene. We're going to push on this. I think it's way undervalued. There's a lot of room there.”
Valve’s first foray into DotA 2 e-sports was a success and it sounds like they will be putting in some effort to keep it that way.
GSL’s Blizzard Cup closes 2011 in style
The Global StarCraft 2 League (GSL) set the gold standard for e-sports productions this year, providing a near daily broadcast with excellent production value and even better level of play.
Their biggest problem all year was that the excitement of their finals didn’t live up to their other high standards. Since “Mvp” opened the year sweeping “MarineKing” 4-0 in January, the scorelines of each GSL final seemed to favor the institution of a mercy rule.
The Blizzard Cup, an event designed to crown a yearly champion and close out the GSL season, bringing together the top three players based off GSL’s point rankings and champions of various international events in a final tournament, finally broke what had come to be known as the GSL curse.
The finals between rivals “MMA” and Soo-Ho “DongRaeGu” Park was no doubt the most exciting series of StarCraft 2 played all year. Both players showed impeccable play in a rollercoaster ride of a series with lengthy macro games and quick, creative rushes. MMA jumped to a 3-0 lead in the series, but DongRaeGu battled back to tie it up and take it to a decisive seventh game. The final game served as a microcosm of the series, as MMA seemed to push DongRaeGu back before a massive counter-push nearly overcame him. In the end, MMA secured his second GSL title at the expense of the Zerg.
If you only have the chance to watch one series of StarCraft from a year of great games, check out the Blizzard Cup finals. You can watch it free on the GOMTV.net website.
Polish Quartet Win 3rd World Cyber Games Gold
No one player had ever won three World Cyber Games gold medals until a quartet of Polish Counter-Strike 1.6 players managed the feat this year. Jakub “kuben” Gurczynski, Filip “NEO” Kubski, Mariusz “Loord” Cybulski, and Wiktor “TaZ” Wojtas succeeded where many other legends failed. WarCraft 3 superstars Manuel “Grubby” Schenzuiken and Xiaofeng “Sky” Li, both two-time WCG winners, lost in the finals during their bids for third titles.
For many years, WCG was the pinnacle of e-sports competition. Its format mimics the Olympics, where players and teams from hundreds of nations send their best to compete, fostering a superior competitive environment fevered with both patriotism and good old competitiveness. It was the most valued major of the year, though that may have changed recently, in part due to other tournaments gaining prestige and in part due to WCG failing to improve their tournament.
I was at WCG 2006 in Italy when a Polish team - then named Pentagram - surprised the world and swept the entire event - an immaculate start that launched the career of one of the most successful and longest-lived lineups in Counter-Strike history. Where other teams often flip rosters after each calendar year, trading players out for greater talents or different personalities, the Polish team only flipped sponsors, sticking together through thick and thin while playing under a plethora of tags including Pentagram, MYM, aGAiN, and currently ESC. Their only roster change came in early 2010, substituting Jaroslaw “pasha” Jarzaqbkowksi in for Lukasz “LUq” Wnek when Wnek decided to retire.
Even since 2006, after many more tournament wins, they’ve managed to be the perpetual underdogs, always a top team and threat to win a tournament, but never the favorite against all-star lineups like Fnatic and SK Gaming or the more recent domination by Na’Vi. The Polish team doesn’t have the intimidating skill level of those squads, despite the presence of NEO, perhaps the best Counter-Strike player in history. The talent pool in Poland pales compared to what’s available in Sweden and other European nations, and that’s part of what’s forced them to a stability unheard of in high level e-sports. It’s also what’s made them so good.
They’ve developed a kind of innate chemistry over the years, where every player knows what their teammates are going to do at any moment, and every player knows how to react in each situation. It took nearly two years for them to work pasha into the lineup, as 2010 was a down year by their standards, but WCG 2011 showed that their magic has not run out just yet.
The Polish squad will always be one of the most fun to follow in Counter-Strike. They are fiery and emotional, one moment cheering with elation and the next snapping at each other in frustration. They have an uncanny and rare ability to channel their anger into success. When they have momentum, nothing can stop them, and they’ve secured a place in the pantheon of e-sports legends by doing something no one has done before.
The October “Revolution”
It was a dark time for fans of Western StarCraft in August. After some seeming gains against the Korean juggernaut during events like Team Liquid Star League 3 and North American Star League Season 1, the Koreans finally entered the West in force, dominating events like Major League Gaming (MLG) and Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) and leaving Western fans wondering if their favorite players would be relegated to second fiddle much like in StarCraft: Brood War, where the Korean pro players and the Korean player development system simply surpassed anything the West had to offer.
October cleared those worries in short order.
In a month where it looked like Korean domination would only continue, three Western players managed to take down four major international events, beating Koreans to do so. First, Greg “IdrA” Fields won Intel Extreme Masters Guangzhou, followed by Frenchman Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri blitzing seven Koreans in Atlantic City, New Jersey to take IGN Pro League 3. Fields’ teammate, Chris “HuK” Loranger, followed that with the most impressive feat: victory at MLG Orlando, which at the time featured the toughest lineup of Korean players ever seen outside of their homeland. Stephano topped things off by winning the Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC) in Paris.
[Stephano wins IPL3]
It wasn’t just those champions that brought hope back to fans worldwide; other Western players had great showing at these events, too. IdrA followed up his good play in China at MLG. Grzesiek “MaNa” Komincz took 2nd at ESWC, beating Koreans like two-time GSL champion Min-Chul “MC” Jang.
Since October, Koreans have exerted their will more often than not, but that doesn’t mean the Western players have gotten some good punches in.
The Rise of Streaming
Event organizers spent the year stumbling over each other to convince the world that record numbers of people were watching their tournaments. While the metrics they use are often confusing, one thing was clear this year: people were watching. Lots of people.
EVO 2011 boasted 2 million unique viewers. Valve’s DotA 2 tournament at GamesCom drew 1.5 million concurrent viewers. 3.5 million people watched MLG online throughout 2011. Dreamhack Winter 2011 featured 1.7 million unique viewers. The League of Legend Season 1 Finals had 1.69 million unique viewers, with peak viewership over 210,000.
The most important thing in the e-sports industry this year was the rise of streaming.
In esports’ nascent years, the “shoutcasting” movement was the first to bring live match broadcasts to fans, starting with radio and eventually moving to video when the resources were available. But broadcasting video was prohibitively expensive - broadcasters had to buy bandwidth in order to stream content live from the event, and that made it a break even venture at best.
Companies like Twitch.TV, Own3d and UStream make this process easy: they worry about bandwidth and even selling ads. The beauty of their model is that they make streaming profitable for the big companies like MLG and Dreamhack; they make it possible for the individual.
While being a professional gamer may seem like a glamorous job, travelling the globe while playing video games, it’s never been one that pays. Only the very best players are good enough to earn enough prize money to continue their obsession, and while salaries have grown, they’re are also limited. Streaming provides a necessary revenue stream for gamers, allowing them to build their brand while making a little cash on the side.
How streaming evolves in 2012 will be one of the big questions. Will we reach a viewer saturation where top players won’t be able to draw a larger audience? When do we hit the point where there’s simply too much video content and not enough people watching - where it becomes more about quality than quantity?
Wolfkrone’s One Character Victory over Japan
The fighting game scene is finally starting to garner attention outside of their own circles. Events like Evo http://www.evo2k.com have always been massive, but it’s been only recently that fighting games have started to build the online community seen surrounding e-sports at large.
When Joshua “Wolfkrone” Philpot swept through ten Japanese players, five in the individual tournament followed by an amazing one character victory against the feared Team Japan 1 at Canada Cup, he showed that the growth of the fighting game scene in America wasn’t just in the community around it; it was in skill and talent, too.
For years, Japan, with their healthy arcade scene, has dominated fighting game tournaments, much like Korea’s stranglehold on StarCraft: Brood War. The fact that the Western fighting game scene has produced players capable of competing with the juggernauts of Japan shows that the growth isn’t just superficial.
Fans flood MLG, Dreamhack, Evo and more
While e-sports has always managed to draw an audience online, the live crowd has been lacking. Events like the Cyberathlete Professional League (CPL) attacked this problem by providing a massive BYOC (Bring Your Own Computer) area and making the event a gaming convention, not just a tournament. The World Series of Video Games created a festival atmosphere, adding a plethora of booths and other attractions. The Intel Extreme Masters has handled the problem by attaching their tournaments to larger game conventions and consumer shows, with varying levels of success.
In 2011, e-sports proved itself a spectacle for a live audience, not just an online one.
Dreamhack Winter 2011 pulled a crowd of 20,984 at Kinnarps Arena in Jönköping, Sweden, the home of Swedish Elite League hockey team HV71. Evo pulled thousands of people, and is always one of the most well-attended and energetic events. MLG struggled all year to accommodate their unexpectedly massive crowds, as fire emergency codes prevented them from providing adequate seating at most of the venues they booked. Over 16,000 people attended MLG Providence, the final stop of the 2011 circuit, so hopefully they’ll be prepared for even bigger crowds in 2012.
Perhaps the most impressive crowd of the year was at BlizzCon. While a large majority of the convention goers were there for other reasons, the throng of fans at the GSL finals and BlizzCon finals was absolutely ridiculous.
While other events like IPL3 and NASL didn’t fill their venues to capacity, their live viewing experiences met with largely positive reviews, for those who went to the tournaments.
In 2012, crowds figure to be even larger, and events will be harder pressed to figure out the best ways to present video games to live audiences. We saw some interesting experimentation this year, including NASL’s red carpet introductions and 360 degree viewing area, Dreamhack’s show in a hockey arena, and IPL3’s multiple screens, variable lighting, and stage setup at Caesar’s Palace in Atlantic City. What’ll we see in 2012? It’ll be fun to find out!
The Barcraft phenomenon might be one of the more fun things to come out of this year’s revolution. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s when a bar sets their regularly scheduled television programming aside for a taste of esports - in this case, StarCraft, though some locations have tried to host similar events for fighting games and other e-sports titles.
Starting at the Chao Bistro in Seattle, BarCraft has spread across the globe. Many bar owners were both surprised and delighted to find their joints filled with budding StarCraft fans on what would otherwise be slow nights.
The success of BarCraft shows how the current e-sports charge differs from what we’ve seen in the past. While companies like the World Series of Video Games and the Championship Gaming Series tried to force competitive gaming into the mainstream and cash in on its success in a niche audience, this year e-sports has succeeded by growing organically from that audience. Ten years ago, this was something you could only find in hotel basements and at stuffy LAN parties. Today, it’s in your local neighborhood bar.
[Mini-documentary about BarCraft in Boulder, Colorado]
If you are interested in attending, check out the Barcraft subreddit to see if there is one upcoming in your area.
Developers Dedicate to E-sports
E-sports has always survived in spite of developers, not because of them. Counter-Strike became two of the most popular games in the industry while Valve mostly ignored the needs of its competitive community. While id Software designed Quake 3 with multiplayer in mind, the specific needs of e-sport competitors were largely ignored. Game balance issues specific to competition, map imbalances, spectator modes, and other similar problems rarely received attention.
In 2011, developers are beginning to realize that e-sports isn’t something to be ignored...it’s something to embrace. Some companies, like Blizzard Entertainment, came to this realization years ago, possibly in part due to StarCraft’s success in Korea. They were instrumental in making World of WarCraft an e-sport to help promote their arena game mode and developed StarCraft 2 multiplayer with competition specifically in mind.
We’ve already seen Valve’s commitment with the aforementioned million dollar DotA 2 tournament and acknowledgement of video game competition. Their upcoming FPS title Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CSGO) is also focused on providing a solid competitive experience, using input from professional players during the development process and implementing features like matchmaking that help build a competitive community.
Riot Games in particular seem especially committed to e-sports. While League of Legends itself has a reputation as a game that caters more to a casual audience, Riot believes that e-sports is the best way for them to promote their title, as evidenced by their massive $5 million dollar commitment to League of Legends competition in 2012, and the spectator numbers they put up support their belief. No developer has ever been as aggressive in their support.
Other developers, like HiRez Studios and their upcoming Tribes: Ascend title, and ArenaNet, with Guild Wars 2, are also including competition in the development process. HiRez has already helped push their game into the next season of NASL, and ArenaNet was a strong proponent of competitive play with the first iteration of Guild Wars.
We’ve already seen how a developer can help mold an e-sports game with StarCraft 2, so watching the next generation of titles launch in 2012 will be exciting.
Instinct wins MLG Pro Circuit
Tom “OGRE2” Ryan added his 5th MLG National title when Instinct completed their solid 2011 at Providence. Winning five of the eight Pro Circuits MLG has ever hosted is an amazing accomplishment, all the more impressive when you consider it was done over four different games - Halo, Halo 2, Halo 3, and now Halo: Reach.
Ryan has always been a quiet character, opting to avoid the spotlight rather than bask in it like some of MLG’s other high profile stars, but he’s done more than anyone to deserve recognition.
Instinct as a team looked like a lineup capable of rivaling the dominance of Ryan’s days in Final Boss in 2005 when Instinct added twins Jason “Lunchbox” Brown and Justin “Roy” Brown to the lineup, but after wins in Columbus and Anaheim, the team slipped at Raleigh and Orlando. When it mattered most, with most of the circuit’s prize money on the line, OGRE2 and company returned to their dominant form.
What makes Ryan impressive isn’t just the level of dominance he’s shown over the course of his career, but also his longevity. While most of his original teammates, including twin brother Dan “OGRE1” Ryan, have left competition, OGRE2 is showing no signs of slowing his nearly decade-long career, and it looks like 2012 will be no different.