RPS' e-sports correspondent is ESFI World's Samuel Lingle.
E-sports lacks many of the catalysts that foster rivalry in other professional sports. There are no Manchester Derbies, since teams and players are not regionally associated. There isn’t a Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees clash; there is no division to fight over or playoff spot on the line throughout a season. Instead, rivalries in e-sports must grow more organically, from chance meetings in important matches to drama outside the game. But there’s one thing that players of both electronic and traditional sports are sure to get pumped over - (pride in) their nation of origin.
Throughout e-sports history, the biggest rivalries have not actually been directly between players, but rather between nations, at least in the eyes of the fan bases. With the common denominator community of e-sports being the Internet, not your neighborhood, town, or city, the only lines drawn are the ones featured most prominently on the world map.
The quest to be the best e-sports nation has consumed competitive gaming since before the term “e-sports” was even in common use. X3 vs. NiP at CPL in 2001 became legendary not only because it was an amazing showcase of Counter-Strike performance, but because of the strong competition held between America vs. Europe, USA vs. Sweden. It was a clash with the weight of nations and continents behind it.
A quick look at the World Cyber Games medal standings - not the greatest measure, but a quick proxy for how nations have fared over e-sports’ history - reveals some of the traditional powerhouses. Korea, the United States, Germany, and Brazil are all near the top, thanks to strong e-sports infrastructures on their respective continents (or perhaps, the causation is the other way around?). Sweden, for example, has typically dominated the PC scene, especially in FPS titles. China has produced both world class players and world class fans, when the events do get out there, but it’s still a bit of an e-sports mystery. Japan is well-known as the fighting games mecca thanks to their prominent arcade scene.
There are plenty of other nations that deserve mentions on this list, but one has risen above the rest over the past couple years - the Ukraine. Their dominance was made clearly evident on home turf at the Intel Extreme Masters Global Challenge in Kiev last week.
The Ukraine used the home field advantage well as they took the Counter-Strike tournament as well as two of the top three spots in StarCraft 2. While the Ukrainian League of Legends team at the event faltered, neighboring Russia picked up their slack to score a surprising title win.
Eastern Europe has always had a bit of an e-sports “wild west” feel to it. Russia produced a number of dominant players in many games over the past decade, including Quake legend Anton “Cooller” Singov and Quakecon 2002 winner Alex "LeXeR" Nesterov. However, outside of Cooller, no player or team really established themselves as a consistent world class contender. The eastern scene was a bit of a mystery to the rest of Europe, isolated but with a reputation for hiding some hidden gems.
Apparently, the rumors were true. The talent was there all along; it just needed a shove to get it moving. This much-needed boost was provided by wealthy businessman and e-sports benefactor Murat “Arbalet” Zhumashevich. Arbalet had long backed the e-sports scene in CIS nations and eastern Europe, hosting tournaments there and across the globe. He decided to support a young Ukrainian Counter-Strike team who was starting to make waves in the scene, providing an apartment for them to live in and train, and giving them a mandate to show the world what the Ukraine can do.
In 2010, Natus Vincere (Na’Vi) burst onto the Counter-Strike scene, taking the Intel Extreme Masters 4 World Championship before embarking on a run of nigh unprecedented dominance, winning a record $212,749 over the course of the year. Since then, the Ukraine has emerged as elite in other e-sports games, including StarCraft 2, where a trio of Ukrainians are in the conversation for the best player of each race outside of Korea, and in DotA 2, where Na’Vi took home Valve’s $1 million invitational, securing them the regard as the top team in the world.
The Intel Extreme Masters now marks Kiev as one of their better venues, with spirited fans attending what have turned out to be great tournaments. This year’s version was no different, with the home crowd providing a boost to their local heroes.
Unfortunately, Na’Vi failed to replicate their 2010 success in 2011, as teams like SK Gaming and ESC Gaming ascended to the top with superstar lineups. In Kiev in 2012, however, their revenge began. They advanced to the finals despite dropping a group stage map to SK, and in a rematch swept the Swedish juggernaut off the stage, much to the delight of the home crowd.
In StarCraft 2, the Ukraine fared nearly as well. While the player many feel is ready to inherit the title of best in the world, Korean Terran Sung-Won “MMA” Moon, took top prize, Ukraine landed two players in the top three and three in the top five. Zerg player Dmytro “DIMAGA” Filipchuk, Ukraine’s most successful and one of the top Western players in the scene, with success at events including the Global StarCraft League World Championship, reached the finals after knocking down a fellow Ukrainian, Mihaylo “Kas” Hayda. Kas has carried a reputation as one of the top Terrans in Europe throughout his StarCraft 2 career, but he’s failed to perform in major tournaments. He terrorizes the online scene but admits he’s failed to play up to his potential at live events. Perhaps his home crowd’s support spurred him to put on a good performance, as he took 3rd place by beating Jung-Min “Zenio” Choi, the newest member of Team Liquid and a stalwart in GSL Code S since the inception of the league. Also placing well was Protoss player Oleksiy “White-Ra” Krupnyk, StarCraft’s elder statesman. White-Ra is one of the game’s more popular players thanks to his endearing personality and adorable accent, and while his play has been relatively inconsistent over the course of his StarCraft 2 career, he’s put together a number of tournament victories and solid performances, with Kiev ranking as one of them.
Also impressing in Kiev was Russian Protoss Sergey “Pomi” Rodionov. White-Ra has said in interviews that players in Eastern European teams like Pomi’s RoX are just as good as top players in the rest of Europe, and Pomi is no exception, advancing from his group and giving DIMAGA a close game in the first round of the bracket.
The Russians also hit it big in League of Legends, with what might be the most impressive result of the tournament. Moscow 5 stormed through the tournament with a fresh take on the metagame, utilizing aggressive counter-jungling and buff stealing to secure victories over world class teams like SK Gaming and Team Solo Mid. The Russian hero choices included some off the wall picks like Shyvana, Nunu, and an AD-based Kennen, but they showed such quirks were effective, only dropping a single map to SoloMid in the final. While it’s too early to anoint them as new ascendants, and to truly know what effect their play will have on an ever-shifting metagame, it seems likely we’ll be seeing more of them this year. Their Kiev victory vaulted Moscow 5 to the top of the European rankings in Riot’s Challenger Circuit, placing them in line to compete in Riot’s Season Two World Championship late this year, with $2 million on the line.
While the home field advantage probably counted for something, it was impressive to see just how strong the Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of Eastern Europe has become. More and more events, including IEM, are moving into the East, and it’s quickly becoming a hotbed for producing e-sports talent.
E-sports is a truly global phenomenon, and it’s growing on the fringe of an already large global community. Leagues like ESL’s Intel Extreme Masters show this by hosting major events in the Ukraine and Turkey and Dubai. Eastern Europeans are proving it day in and out by their performance in tournaments like the recent one in Kiev. We’re seeing more and more new players from a wider range of locations, including more interest in places like China and Oceania. There are tournaments being hosted in South America and even Africa (on rare occasion). The new year promises to continue this trend, allowing e-sports true global domination!
News and Notes:
The Global StarCraft Team League kicked off this past week, with four teams already dropping to the lower bracket. The biggest standout performance came from StarTale’s Ji-Sung “Bomber” Choi. While the Terran struggled in this season’s individual tournament, dropping out of Code S, he opened the team league strong by all-killing NS_HoSeo, one of the strongest teams during last season.
The GSL Code S tournament also continued, with some surprises: Jong-Hyeon “MVP” Jeong, the #1 ranked player in GSL, fell at the hands of Byung-Jae “GuMiho” Koh, not once, but twice. Despite GuMiho’s weak win rate in the TvT matchup, he decimated MVP with a number of different styles.
Western StarCraft 2 team leagues have also gotten off the ground, with both the North American Star League and IGN Pro League participating in the trend and the EG Masters’s Cup set to start their next season soon.
According to ESL, their IEM Kiev event topped “the highest concurrent viewership in the history of esports”. That’s something a lot of tournaments seem to be claiming these days, so it’s hard to read too much into this other than the simple fact that e-sports had hardly lost any momentum at the start of 2012, and the IEM World Championships at CeBIT in Germany to begin March should be one of the best events of the year.
IEM continues their season this week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, though the South American tournament only features an official StarCraft 2 event, leaving out Counter-Strike and League of Legends (although a LoL side tournament featuring four local teams will be held). With only one Korean SC2 invite, Young-Jin “SuperNoVa” Kim, a tournament win is ripe for the taking by a number of players looking to increase their rank points and earn spots in the IEM World Championships.
Esports was recently spotlighted in more mainstream media on Thursday as CBS News’ Tech Talk talked e-sports with Twitch.TV’s Marcus “DJWheat” Graham. Streaming is the present and future of e-sports, and quotes like this one show why it matters: “There are probably players that made six figures last year. Hundreds made five figures last year.” Steady income outside of prize winnings has always been hard to come by for aspiring pro gamers, but streaming is starting to solve that problem.
DotA 2 continues to trudge along in beta with plenty of online tournaments. The Defense is moving towards completion, but of particular note is the recent Infused Cup. While the event did not feature a cash prize, it drew some of the best competition around the world and ended with a surprise result: the American team Hearts on FIRE took top honors, showing that the MoBA/ARTS scene in the US isn’t only League of Legends. You can find a more eloquent recap on ESFI World, as well as an interview with the team after an earlier tournament win.