Part Three: Cataclysm
By 2003, StarCraft fans were penciling the franchise into their “Most Wanted Sequels” lists with a rather furious commitment. Little did these men and women know (and would not know for another four years) that StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was already in development, a cycle that began immediately after Blizzard Entertainment finished work on Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. It was never in doubt whether StarCraft would receive a follow-up. It just took a very long time for Blizzard to begin working on it. The new Call of Duty game is in production the moment its predecessor is released. Half-a-decade is a century in video game development. But really, there was no reason for Blizzard to rush things. StarCraft was still selling strong. With this success, the company assumed a unique problem that any video game developer would kill to have. It was becoming more and more urgent with every passing year. That whole “people playing StarCraft in front of a live studio audience” thing? It had been upgraded to “people playing StarCraft in front of stadium audiences”. South Korean StarCraft had become so popular that any casual American discussion of South Korea would be littered with punchlines about Zerg rushes. StarCraft was in full throttle and it would become a country-wide phenomenon.
In the early years of StarCraft history, Brood War was nowhere close to being “solved”. There was still a lot of sloppy and imperfect play to go around. And with imperfect play, there comes the possibility for creative deviations from “standard play”. Back in June of 2001, SlayerS_Boxer was an unknown commodity playing StarCraft in front of small crowds. Two years later, he was the darling and superhero of competitive StarCraft, revolutionizing the Terran playstyle with robust Vulture play and constant Terran Dropship harassment. (Yes, it took four years and a once-in-a-generation talent for Terran to be considered an equal with Zerg and Protoss. Think about that the next time you whine about game balance on the StarCraft II forums.) Even at a time when the best players were employing one-base strategies featuring limited unit counts, Boxer was dominating opponents with his unit control. In a game that was designed for flashy unit control, it was the flashiest style of play possible.
The public overwhelmingly approved of the man they would select to be their leader, their “Terran Emperor”. His defining moment would come on March 22nd of 2003, when Boxer would perform one of the greatest acts of skill in the young history of competitive video games. He would launch a successful worker rush in a tournament final against the man who would become his biggest rival, Hong Jin-Ho (Yellow).* While Boxer would eventually lose that best-of-five series to Yellow, the moment became an encapsulation of professional StarCraft in South Korea.* It didn’t merely measure the skill and creativity of the participants, who were playing StarCraft in upwards of forty hours per week. But at this event, thousands upon thousands had shown up to watch two gamers perform their best at a video game, a great percentage of the spectators being women. These people did not show up sporting the sense of awkwardness that pervades the casual fandom of competitive video games in the West. They showed up in colors indicating which of the players they were rooting for, filing into separate seating sections, and then delivering an uproar when their chosen player was making a push. They showed up to watch a video game and did it with an enthusiasm reserved for sports.
Now, why would I make such a stink about that iconic moment? Well, these matches were undoubtedly generating brand awareness and software sales for Blizzard. However, it would have been foolish for the company to ignore how these legendary moments were being financed. In those famous March of 2003 matches, Yellow was sponsored by Korea Telecom Freetel. At the time, the company was one of the largest telecommunications companies in South Korea. The “KTF” logo was splattered all over Yellow’s custom-tailored uniform, some strange cross between a jumpsuit and an auto racing outfit. Boxer was sponsored by Orion Confectionery, one of the largest food manufacturers in South Korea.** The Korean e-Sports Players Association had been aggressively courting sponsorship since its creation. These players required facilities and salaries, and some of the largest entities in South Korea would get in on the action: Electronics manufacturer Samsung, telecommunications giant SK Telecom, and jack-of-many-trades Hwaseung Corporation would all become sponsors. Even the South Korean Air Force would support a team, designed to take in veteran StarCraft players who could no longer avoid the mandatory military service that comes with being a South Korean national.
In exchange, these companies could use the jersey and the game to promote their goods. Imagine the amount of free advertising that comes with being “Your StarCraft OSL Champions: The Samsung Team!” How a big a check does that cash? Yeah, the original Starleague event was sponsored by Coca-Cola. It would be nonsense to say that the advent of televised StarCraft was about the love of the game. That event would be dwarfed by what was to come. The zenith of StarCraft‘s spectator popularity would arrive in 2006 and it would be covered in the colors of some of the biggest companies on the planet. This was no amateur endeavor. This was South Korea’s take on American college sports. This was serious business.
Look at this. There was all of this success turning StarCraft into a real sport, a sport with marketable personalities. There were two separate television networks dedicated to broadcasting StarCraft games. There were companies selling DVD compilations featuring the greatest matches of Boxer. Take a guess who is being shut out of this revenue stream? Take a guess. Go for it. Yup, it’s Blizzard. It’s their copyrighted code, their copyrighted art properties, their copyrighted sounds being broadcasted around-the-clock. They are not receiving a single dime from any television company or any government body. A group of companies much, much larger than Blizzard are pocketing all of the money under the phony guise of “growing e-sports”. (I reject the notion that KeSPA and the sponsorship were “barely breaking even”, as it has been suggested. The National Collegiate Athletic Association claims eighty percent of the schools under their banner are losing money at the same time Division I football coaches are the highest-paid government employees in the United States.** There are techniques for making your stinking shit pile smell like a sincere endeavor.)
Whether you believe Blizzard is entitled to any of this money, the company would have been silly to take a blind eye. With every day of development power being poured into the sequel to StarCraft, the more pressing that issue with KeSPA posed. The biggest risk? A South Korean court could rule that the use of video games for spectator endeavors constitutes a type of public domain endeavor; a use of the product that does not have to be licensed. And if Blizzard had to go into a South Korean court and argue their case, they would be going up against a government-approved sanctioning body. Throw murderers and rapists out of the equation and that’s not a legal opponent I would wish on anybody. Shortly after the 2007 announcement of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (which fittingly took place in Seoul), Blizzard would begin to secretly negotiate broadcasting rights for StarCraft II with KeSPA. It’s unlikely that either company was prepared for the nasty fight that would occur.
Certainly, South Korean StarCraft was not causing Blizzard to lose any money. Two-fifths of the eleven million sales of StarCraft would be made in South Korea,* nearly one copy for every ten people in the country. The situation involving broadcasting rights could be described as a cautious and contentious issue. It was not going to put Blizzard out of business. In 2006, another Asian entity would present a much more threatening predicament for Blizzard. History did what history very often tends to do. History repeated itself. It came back and bit Blizzard in the ass like nothing ever ass-bit the company before.
Much like StarCraft, Warcraft III had developed a reputation for the quality of the custom content created with its map editor. The most popular of these custom maps would become Defense of the Ancients, a map inspired by the StarCraft custom map Aeon of Strife. I’ve stated in the past that the best way to describe this “Action RTS” was to call it “Warcraft III without the macromanagement, micromanagement, or a general need for motor skills.” Little surprise that this gave DotA wide appeal in the Warcraft III community. During this same period of time, quality internet connections were now beginning to find their way into developing portions of the world, audiences in countries that had no consumer distribution model for Blizzard games. They could now get access to these games by downloading them off the internet. For reasons that cannot be explained by medical science, DotA became fantastically popular in the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. Like, “most popular video game in that region of the world” popular. Not bad for a custom map. Much like Eastern Europe and Russia and South America, Southeast Asia has a long and impressive history of not buying computer software for any purpose whatsoever. And since their illegitimate copies of the game had no access to Battle.net, the DotA community was left in the dark. They were disorganized. They needed a way to come together and settle their differences. Do you see where I am going with this? Much like Bob Huntley and Kie Kimbrell parlayed their insatiable appetite for Doom into the creation of DWANGO, Southeast Asia wanted a way to play their unauthorized software through an online gaming service. The first company or players that could meet this demand would be able to make a lot of money.
Something is going on in this picture and I’m sure it sucks because it is DotA. (Credit: Reader Pie_Patel)
In 2006, a Singapore software company would release a social-networking-and-gaming client called GGClient. It would later be known by the same name as the software creator, Garena. It was just a decade prior that Blizzard Entertainment lent their support to a third-party networking tool in order to create demand for Warcraft II. The networking tools that Blizzard endorsed and sustained were now back and they were better than ever, and they had come back to haunt the company. Garena was Kali reborn. The service allows players to use copies of their software (legitimate or elsewise) to facilitate the creation of matches through the Local Area Network function. Only now, the internet had gotten a hell of a lot better. Garena is a purely peer-to-peer endeavor and it played like one. I’ve bashed Xbox Live for being a peer-to-peer service, right? The difference is that once Garena creates your match, your internet connection does not phone home to anything. No information is routed back to a central server. By extension, no additional latency is generated.
Garena is as good for online video games as your internet connection can handle, offering a service for online strategy games whose latency is comparable (though not equal) to what players receive in computer first-person shooters. Compare that with Battle.net. The information needs to be routed back to a central server in order to prevent cheating. That service also uses a hard-coded delay for Warcraft II, Warcraft III, and StarCraft all set at a minimum of 250 milliseconds. This was done in order to prevent one player from earning an unfair advantage over another simply by having the better internet connection. Battle.net was designed to sacrifice the quality of latency in order to generate a level playing field. Because of that, Garena could offer superior latency. The service became a splash of cold water in the face of any person who had been using the slower Battle.net over the previous decade. Almost immediately, Garena became a preferred destination for league and tournament play, regardless of whether the players were using legitimate software. And for all the people using pirated copies, they now had a place to play Warcraft III online.
The service went all wildfire in Southeast Asia, cementing DotA‘s status as one of the most popular video games on the planet. Today, during peak hours, nearly 300,000 people are using the Garena client. This is almost fifty-percent higher than peak hours on the Battle.net 1.0 service. Most of these people live in Southeast Asia and most of them use the service to play DotA. By simply repeating history, a nothing company stuck on a concrete jungle in the Indian Ocean had created a more popular service for top-notch strategy games than the creator itself, the company that was now the most famous computer game developer on the planet. And there was absolutely nothing that Blizzard could do to stop it. Just like Kali, Garena manipulates zero game files. Key in the keyhole, that’s all. Blizzard cannot sue the makers of Garena for facilitating software piracy because their client does not infringe on any copyright. If Garena’s customers (and they can be labeled customers, because the free-to-play service features microtransactions) are using illegitimate copies of the game, what does Garena care? They have a very easy alibi. “That’s not our problem. We just host the service. Go after the customers.” Blizzard doesn’t have the ability to do that, because, well, the countries of Southeast Asia are too busy trying to stymie a collapse into total anarchy on an hour-by-hour basis. They don’t really give a shit about the copyright laws of the United States of America. Vietnam hears “A software company in the United States is going to be really angry at you!” and invites the States for a second round of total warfare. In many ways, Garena was superior to Battle.net. This same scenario would later be repeated with both Hamachi and the Player vs. Player Gaming Network (PvPGN), a pair of free software programs that would become the preferred methods of Warcraft III online play in China. And there was absolutely nothing Blizzard could do to stop it.
Garena was a critical blow in a decade-and-a-half of products and decisions that allowed the computer game industry to eat itself from within. Starting in the early nineties, computer game developers looked to shed a reputation for graphics that were inferior to what could be found on consoles. They created games like Doom, Descent, The 7th Guest, and Myst. This emphasis on graphics came at a serious cost for game development. With every passing year, these games were turning the video game industry a little bit more into Hollywood, exemplified by SquareSoft and the 1997 release of PlayStation killer app Final Fantasy VII. More cutscenes with more explosions and more dialogue and more high-profile voice actors. With video games beginning to move closer to a “production values” development philosophy, the games got more and more expensive to create. The big question was: “How the hell do you continue to be profitable on a niche platform with a declining user base and dramatically increasing costs?” For most of the major computer video game developers, the answer was “You don’t.” They abandoned their commitment to the personal computer and began creating their lucrative first-person shooters for Xbox Live, lavishing the ability to sell post-release content in a closed network for obscene prices. And now, a third-party network had just struck a huge blow to the value of all company-developed online gaming services.
Garena devalued Battle.net because it made that service feel ordinary. With a competing service on the market, you don’t win by default. You win by providing a better product. That can cost a hell of a lot of money. Blizzard did not have a lot of good options. Ever since the company released Warcraft: Orcs and Humans and never looked back at the consoles, their games and franchises had always played better on a mouse and keyboard. We know this because Blizzard Entertainment ported Diablo, Warcraft II, and StarCraft to consoles with minimal success. The developer had also carved out significant consumer goodwill. They could not depart for the consoles without a fight from their fans. It was a rough situation for the company. South Korean corporations and a Singapore software studio were launching an assault on the Blizzard business model. In order to remain the biggest computer video game developer in the world, Blizzard would have to make a fundamental shift in their business strategy. Fortunately, the company portfolio was not limited to products designed for the Battle.net service. They had left themselves an out.
Continue to Part Four: The Online Sensation