After a year of rough breaks for Starcraft II, Blizzard announced the structure for what the 2017 competitive season will look like. They’ve laid it out in extensive detail on their website, with a tone that could be described as weathered, yet optimistic. “We intend to retain the same format for WCS 2018 as in 2017,” reads the release. “While the exact events and timings for 2018 are up in the air, we are committed to supporting this structure and prizing over the next two years for WCS Korea and the WCS Circuit.”
Korea still remains the beating heart of the Starcraft II competitive scene, with the vast majority of serious players coming from the country. The GSL, or Global Starcraft II League, a major tournament run by AfreecaTV, will continue on into the new year, adding on a few supplemental weekend events to help pad out the competitive calendar. The GSL will run three seasons over the course of 2017, with the season champions securing their place in the global finals at BlizzCon.
This will be, according to Blizzard, “the most competitive region, where only the very best players will compete,” which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody. There seems to be a twinge of self-awareness in the Blizzard announcement—of the two pre-BlizzCon international events where players from the Korean circuit can duke it out with the rest of the world, one is IEM Katowice. The other is simply titled “GSL vs. The World.” Details are scant, except that it’s an “all-star event,” and probably closer to a series of exhibition matches rather than a full-fledged tournament.
While the Darwinian pressure cooker of Korean Starcraft players sharpen their techniques against one another, the rest of the world will compete in the WCS Circuit. The Circuit will serve players from all other competitive regions, from North America to Taiwan.
On top of regular regional play, the WCS is defined by its four championship events, all of which are hosted by DreamHack. These tournaments will take place in Austin, USA; Jönköping, Sweden; Valencia, Spain; and Montreal, Canada. Any players that place first at one of these events will walk away with a ticket to BlizzCon.
Taken all together, Blizzard seems basically interested in simplifying and opening up the world of competitive Starcraft, cutting down the complicated system by which the previous scattering of tournaments were loosely hitched together. By making NA and EU qualifiers dependent on the ranked ladder, any player, given enough skill, could make it to the stage of a major tournament. The implication is clear: get emotionally invested, youth!
But viewership for competitive Starcraft has been dropping like a stone all year. While the IEM Winter Championship averaged 44,000 views, the Spring Championship at DreamHack only two months later had dropped to 28,000. KeSPA, the Korean esports Association, announced this fall that they would be discontinuing Starcraft Proleague, the world’s longest running esports league, in the new year. This leaves Blizzard and AfreecaTV’s GSL as the last major Korean Starcraft II league.
In the revamped format for Starcraft II’s 2017 season, Blizzard has also introduced the War Chest, a “seasonal treasure map that StarCraft II players can purchase to gain access to special content like unit skins, decals, and more.” Part of the proceeds from the War Chest will go towards supporting the WCS.
Other esports have had success with player-funded prize pools, most notably The International, which community support has helped to grow larger and larger every year. But Dota 2 did not experience the same sort of flagging interest and fading glory that competitive Starcraft II has. Whether or not it’s intentional, the War Chest seems to be a test of faith for the game’s remaining fans: is the community willing to buy into one more run, or not?
Update: Originally, this article claimed that GSL had been run by Afreeca since 2010, rather than taking over from GOMTV in 2015.