Red Bull Battlegrounds shows that Archon Mode is just what StarCraft needs

No game has an esports history as rich as StarCraft, but the most recent version of the franchise just can’t seem to catch a break as other esports titles rise around it

Screengrab via Red Bull Esports/Twitch

No game has an esports history as rich as StarCraft, but the most recent version of the franchise just can’t seem to catch a break as other esports titles rise around it.

After its 2010 release, StarCraft 2 led an esports renaissance around the advent of live streaming platforms like Twitch. But as games like League of Legends, Counter-Strike, and Dota 2 continue to grow huge esports audiences, StarCraft 2 has languished. There’s dozens of reasons for that—its business model, the ease of attracting new players, its relatively high barrier of entry—but that’s opened the door for some tourney organizers to try new things.

This weekend, Red Bull Battlegrounds hosted a professional tournament using Archon Mode, a new game mode in the upcoming Legacy of the Void expansion that allows two players to take control of a single set of units in-game.

Set for a December release, Legacy of the Void promises to shake up the StarCraft metagame with drastic changes to macro play designed to speed up the pace of the game. Battlegrounds used the expansion’s beta to showcase those changes alongside Archon Mode.

Designed to make learning the game easier, Archon mode allows a more experienced mentor to guide a newer player. But in a professional environment, it’s helped provide some of the most exciting games of the year for a couple of reasons.

One is the novelty of Legacy of the Void itself. Some teams showed off new builds, like an innovative Ghost rush by Kevin “qxc” Riley and Aleksandar “Beastyqt” Krstić that shut down a couple of Protoss teams. But the biggest benefit came from pairing two players together.

Giving two pro players the reins to a single faction frees up all sorts of strategies that just aren’t possible for one player to execute. Teams executed two-pronged attacks with unprecedented skill. Talented micro players focused on controlling units while a teammate handled most of the macro side of the game, optimizing player talent. There were twice as many actions available for every aspect of the game, allowing for a much increased level of play, especially when teams get more practice together. There’s an infinite potential for teamwork, coordination, and highlight-reel micro that isn’t possible with a single player at the helm.

Plus, it adds an important aspect that’s often missing from pro StarCraft: the human element.

Fans get to see teammates interact with each other. They talk builds and strategy. They communicate how they’re going to push and defend. Players who often look like StarCraft-playing robots get animated and emotional with someone at their side to share those emotions.

That enhances the patented “lives” format introduced by Red Bull last year. Every team has three lives, lost by losing matches, and when you’re at zero, you’re eliminated. Matchups are determined by a challenge system where teams, in order, pick who they want to challenge to a battle of life and death. The selection process adds a lot of drama to the tournament process. Do you pick on the weakest foe? Which matchups do each team and players think are easy? Will a team challenge someone specifically to eliminate them, or team up against a perceived strong opponent to hopefully eliminate them as a group?

That tournament format combined with Archon Mode is a perfect formula to inject a little more drama and excitement into a game that often needs it.

This weekend’s Battlegrounds, hosted in Santa Monica, was a qualifier for a Sept. 19 final in Washington, DC. Two teams qualified from Santa Monica. The Zerg pair of Park “DongRaeGu” Soo-Ho and Bang “TRUE” Tae-Su took top billing, just ahead of high powered Protoss pair Chris “HuK” Loranger and Jang “MC” Min-Chul. They will battle last year’s Battlegrounds champion, Choi “Bomber” Ji-Sung and whoever he chooses as his teammate in DC, as well as Kim “viOLet” Dong-Hwan and Maru “MaSa” Kim, who qualified in Toronto in June.

This weekend’s event was a success in many ways. It received rave reviews from fans and players alike—at least, the ones who watched it.

Real talk: Archon games from this weekend were the best SC2 games I’ve seen since early WOL. I’m very sad that so few people watched. 🙁

— Ben Nichol (@MrBitterTV) August 31, 2015

Of course, there may be a few reasons why the event didn’t receive the response it perhaps deserved. This weekend was filled with esports and gaming goodness—PAX Prime, the biggest video game event of the year, hosted a couple important tournaments at the MSI Masters Gaming Arena, including a StarCraft 2 event. The League of Legends regional gauntlet saw some of the most exciting series of the year as underdogs Cloud9 pulled off a couple of epic comebacks.

Perhaps the timing just isn’t right. StarCraft 2, in many ways, is on its last legs in the current expansion, Heart of the Swarm. It’s still a solid and consistent esport, but not on the scale of its brethren or even its predecessor. The upcoming release of Legacy of the Void may be the last chance it has to change that, and the Red Bull Battlegrounds may have provided a blueprint for a resurgence.