Header art by Gareth Damian Martin.
Since the mid 2000s, Proleague has been one of the most prestigious StarCraft tournaments in South Korea. Now, as StarCraft II struggles to maintain an audience, the finals of the current season of Proleague may very well be the last.
How to Watch:
Free on https://www.twitch.tv/sc2proleague
Saturday, September 3, 5:30 A.M. EST
In the mythology of esports, if South Korea is the rarified temple, then StarCraft II is its aging altar. And upon that altar, ProLeague is the sacrament. (Just go with it). First played in the days of StarCraft: Brood War’s prime, winning Proleague—StarCraft’s premier team league—has often been regarded as the esport’s most prestigious prize, transcending individual achievement. For years, it was among StarCraft’s most watched events, and the brief entrance of two western teams (Evil Geniuses and Team Liquid) into Proleague in 2013 was greeted by foreign (i.e. non-Korean) fans with an enthusiasm typically reserved for papal visits. Alas, with the falling fortunes of StarCraft II, so too has Proleague become hoary; it persists like Ozymandias, Shelley’s vision of a ruined king in the desert.
And so, tomorrow night’s matchup between KT Rolster and Jin Air Green Wings may well be the last Proleague finals ever played.
Team leagues were a relatively common fixture in foreign (i.e. non-South Korean) StarCraft II during the years in which StarCraft still drew large audiences. But for all intents and purposes, Proleauge is the only team-based StarCraft II league in the world today; as such, there is something distinct about its aura. A ProLeague match consists of six individual one-vs-one games played by six players from each team, with a tiebreaker of each team’s best player if necessary. Each player’s opponent is revealed several days in advance, and so every competitor knows exactly who they’ll be dueling. Thusly will they study their foe’s strengths and weaknesses with the punctiliousness of an archivist. Open bracket tournaments, where one’s next opponent is rarely known in advance, tend to favor well-rounded players. But Proleague frequently rewards surgical precision at the expense of versatility. As a result, these matches rarely follow the familiar schemata of professional StarCraft II, making a game that has come to be regarded as old-fashioned feel new and strange once more.
Whether or not the world has been watching, the ephebes of KT Rolster and Jin Air Green Wings (it’s typical for South Korean esports teams to be named after large, domestic companies; KT Corporation is a telecommunication group and Jin Air Green Wings is a Seoul-based airline) have spent the better part of the last year preparing for this moment, winnowing away their competitive deficiencies in a largely hermetic team house. They can’t be doing it for the money because there isn’t any. It’s a shame that Proleague isn’t more watched in the West; though the language barrier often obscures the narrativizing that can imbue competitive gaming with meaning, the StarCraft II that will be played tomorrow night will rank among the best ever played. Even if this is the last Proleague finals, it won’t be because the quality of competition floundered.
Listen, I don’t want to sound too depressing here—StarCraft II isn’t growing any bigger, but it isn’t really shrinking anymore either, and whatever floor of fans remains is enlivened by some deep swell of passion, and not cheap hype. If whatever moguls of South Korean esports determined that ProLeague should persist beyond these finals, whether because it is in fact profitable or simply “culturally significant” enough that talk of profitability is a vulgarity, then perhaps we will have another ProLeague. But you’d still be hard pressed to find a fan of StarCraft II who would react to the news of ProLeague’s demise with total disbelief; and so perhaps you owe it to yourself to watch this ritual one last time. Round the decay / Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.