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Starcraft II:
Heart of the Swarm

Blizzard Entertainment

Released March 2013

For Microsoft Windows,
OS X

Typically when I write a video game review, my focus is on answering the question, “Should you buy this, and if so, for how much?” This framework works fairly well for video games, but not as well for books or movies or music or the Mona Lisa. Some things you don’t review so much as you critique. You can judge a work’s creative merit, but trying to translate that merit into dollars and cents is futile.

The new expansion for Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm (HotS) isn’t the Mona Lisa. But it does belong to a category of objects that demand a critical analysis, not a consumer report. It’s an e-sport. Asking whether you should buy it is a little like asking if you should buy a football. Yes? Maybe? Do you play football?

The article on whether or not you should buy HotS can be written in one paragraph: Starcraft II remains one of the best, if not the best competitive real-time strategy game ever made. The HotS single player campaign is shorter and much easier, but otherwise just as well done as the original, so if you thought Starcraft II’s campaign was worth the price of $60, HotS probably makes sense at $40. And if you play Starcraft II for its multiplayer, then you really have no choice — virtually everyone will be switching to the expansion.

The article on what HotS means for Starcraft as an e-sport is considerably longer, and the question it focuses on is this: will this expansion return Starcraft to its position as the king of e-sports?

For years, Starcraft was the e-sport that ‘made it.’ Salaried full-time players, intense competition and training, games cast live on national (Korean) television, large prize pools, sponsorship from companies… the Starcraft series had it all. It wasn’t much relative to say, baseball, but it was a lot more than what fighting games, first person shooters, and the rest of e-sports all cobbled together had.

Around some time last year, however, Starcraft II was eclipsed by another game, League of Legends (LoL). Today, the player base, viewership, and prize pool of LoL is at least an order of magnitude ahead of Starcraft’s — Riot Games (developer and publisher of LoL) reports that it regularly has over 5 million concurrent players, with 12 million playing daily and 32 million playing at least once a month. By contrast, Starcraft II sees around half a million players play at least once a month, with only 6 million copies sold in total. Viewership for LoL is through the roof — regular season games between professional teams are cast weekly Thursday through Sunday, with a consistent 150,000 to 250,000 viewers, and last season’s championships in October saw a peak of 1.15 million concurrent viewers watching the world’s top teams compete for a $2 million prize pool. A solid Starcraft tournament on the other hand might reach 100,000 viewers with a $75,000 prize pool.

The growth of LoL relative to Starcraft is disconcerting for the Starcraft camp, and not just because the two compete for viewership and player base (and thus advertising money). Where LoL is at today is where a lot of people hoped Starcraft would be — that LoL realized this success and Starcraft plateaued seems like evidence of a missed opportunity. With the release of HotS, the Starcraft community’s dream of e-sport grandeur has been rekindled. HotS offers a second chance at the big leagues. It might work. I think it won’t.

There are three reasons why LoL has succeeded where Starcraft stagnated, and two of them can be linked to the business models of their respective game companies. Blizzard Entertainment monetizes Starcraft by selling copies of the game, which means its incentive to promote Starcraft the e-sport is limited to the number of new players it thinks such efforts would bring in. Riot Games, on the other hand, is funded by micro-transactions — LoL itself is free and players can unlock game content either by playing the game or by paying money. As LoL grows in popularity, Riot makes money not just off of new players, but also its existing player base. Moreover, the micro-transaction model means that Riot captures more of its players’ willingness to pay. Some players never pay a dime — others pay thousands of dollars.

As a result, while Blizzard has been largely unresponsive to the needs of its e-sports community, Riot has done considerable work to further the LoL competitive scene. From advertising tournaments in the game’s home screen, to developing a LAN version for tournament play, to organizing competitive pro leagues, to chipping in a whopping $5 million dollars for last season’s tournaments, Riot’s proactive approach has yielded dividends.

The prospect of being able to sell an expansion to Starcraft II has roused Blizzard from its slumber, and HotS includes a wish list of improvements, including the ability to resume a game from a replay, tournament servers, and customization options for shoutcasters. Blizzard also seems ready to begin advertising tournaments on the game’s home screen and there are even rumors that they will start up a professional league of their own similar to that organized by Riot. In this regard, HotS is a significant step forward for competitive play, but the open question is whether more support will be forthcoming even after the sales slow down.

The pay-up-front nature of Blizzard’s model also contains another problem, which is that over time the game tends to become stale. Both LoL and Starcraft make balance tweaks, but Riot continually adds new content for players to buy, which means LoL evolves and shifts more frequently than Starcraft. The arrival of HotS and its new units breathes fresh life into Starcraft, but like Blizzard’s sudden interest in promoting e-sports, one wonders for how long the bloom will stay on the rose. Starcraft is a game of reasonable strategic depth, but that depth evaporates when the game remains the same for so long. The build orders and army compositions that are viable become figured out, the demand on players to be dynamic in their decision making diminishes, dominant strategies appear, and much of the attraction of playing and watching the game goes away, especially if the dominant strategies are simple to execute and boring to watch (most long-time Starcraft players will remember the dark days of 4-gate vs. 4-gate).

The final problem with Starcraft is its heavy emphasis on mechanical skill. Part of the attraction of watching strategy games is being able to turn around and implement those strategies in your own games. It’s problem enough when the decision making of the game is too simple to be worth copying, but that problem becomes worse when the act of copying it is restricted only to those dedicated enough to the game to have mastered its complex mechanics. LoL is a mechanically simpler game – the distinction between good and bad players rests much more on their decision making, and so the incentive for casual players of the game to also be avid spectators is high. While watching LoL offers a reasonable chance of making you a better player, watching Starcraft to get better is a little like trying to learn the saxophone by watching Coltrane.

Admittedly, a game that requires technical mastery has advantages of its own in terms of attracting viewers. Sometimes we want to watch the spectacle of extreme talent and practice in motion. But viewers who watch for technical mastery will gravitate toward watching the absolute highest levels of play — not a good thing in a world that is largely prize based and already hands most of its loot to only the very best. In 2012, the top Starcraft player in the world won over $180,000 in prizes — the 50th best won less than $20,000. The existence of reasons to watch players other than the very best mitigates the winner-take-all economics of the scene, and makes easier the transition from amateur to pro. However, if the single player campaign of HotS became easier, the multiplayer certainly did not; the skill cap of the game has been raised significantly, demanding both faster reaction times as well as more multitasking. It has become less friendly to casual players when the lesson coming from LoL is that casual appeal is a derivative of success.

HotS is new, it’s different enough from the original to change the way the game is played, and for the time being its release has gone hand-in-hand with a new attitude by Blizzard toward building the game into a profession. But it is not different enough to think that it will change Starcraft’s trajectory as an e-sport.