Unpredictable and full of drama, Red Bull Battlegrounds delivers as promised

Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn had a great run, but it was probably over.

Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn had a great run, but it was probably over. Opposite her remained Choi “Polt” Seong Hun, the indomitable and prolific Terran who has won more money in Starcraft 2 than all but three players.

The last remaining $3,000 bounty would be his, if he took out Hostyn’s remaining two lives in the Red Bull Battlegrounds.

The “Queen of Blades”, as fans affectionately call Hostyn, needed to win three best-of-three series against the Terran. That’s a tall task for anyone.

But Hostyn pulled it off, obliterating the Korean with 2-0, 2-1, and 2-0 scores in a three-hour marathon of Starcraft. It was a memorable moment in the her impressive career, one that anyone who watched will surely remember.

And that’s thanks to the quirky and innovative format of the Red Bull Battlegrounds, the first event in the 2014 Red Bull Series.

Most tournaments feature brackets and group stages, much like this year’s World Cup, or the Major League Gaming Anaheim event this upcoming weekend. The Battlegrounds, however, takes a unique approach. Six players qualify for the final, and each of them receives three lives. The lowest seeded player starts the day by challenging one of the other six players to a best-of-three series, and whoever loses that series loses a life.

Each day features six matches, and a $3,000 prize purse is split between the living players at the end of each of three days.

That creates a number of interesting scenarios and storylines that wouldn’t happen in a bracket tournament. Whether this is a good or bad perhaps depends on your perspective, but it certainly made for an interesting three days of Starcraft, and a thrilling prelude to the game’s return to MLG.

The theme for day one was to pick on Brandon “puCK” Qual, an American Protoss and relative newcomer to the top level Starcraft scene. The lowest seed in the tournament, he had first pick, and chose a bout against Korean Zerg player Kim “viOLet” Dong Hwan. After losing 0-2, the rest of the Battlegrounds participants pounced on puCK like panthers onto wounded prey. If they crushed his two remaining lives, there’d be more prize money left for the rest of them.

But Qual was no easy prey. He took Hostyn’s first life in his next series, and entered the gauntlet. He would gain revenge on Kim and beat Mexican Terran Juan Carlos “MajOr” Tena Lopez but lose to fellow Protoss Chris “HuK” Loranger. Qual was still alive, with one more player yet to pick on day one—the top seed, Polt. The Korean Terran showed no mercy, taking Qual’s final life and eliminating him from the tournament.

While exiting with zero money earned after a 3-3 match record was disappointing for Qual, the experience was also rewarding. A full day of matches put him in the collective mind of the community, earning him more fans than even a successful deep tournament run. “Competitions like this just give you more motivation and something to strive for when you return home to practice,” he said.

That led into a day two, which quickly churned up some drama. Apparently, Hostyn, Loranger, and Lopez wanted to gang up on the two Koreans, starting with Kim, who had two lives remaining. But Loranger revealed the plan to Kim. So Hostyn betrayed the betrayer, picking Loranger in her first match. Despite Loranger’s claims he’d take the Zerg easily, Hostyn won the bout 2-0. So Loranger put his money where his mouth was: his pick was next, and he went for revenge against Hostyn. But the result was the same.

Kim would pick next, opting to battle the Mexican Lopez, winning 2-0. Like HuK, Lopez would call for revenge, with his last life on the line. And he followed through, besting Kim 2-0 and evening their series together.

Those opportunities for revenge, grudge matches, and trash talk wouldn’t happen in a bracket based tournament, where intrigue is limited to your seed.

When the dust settled, only Polt, Scarlett, and MajOr remained. The Mexican Terran would pick Polt, perhaps honoring the pact against the Koreans, but more likely afraid of Scarlett’s great ZvT. And she showed just how good it was, by blitzing Polt in three straight series to win the tournament.

The Red Bull Battlegrounds was a rousing success, in large part due to a format that produced intrigue at every turn.

It wasn’t perfect, however. Qual was eliminated on the first day and won no prize money, but he actually tied Kim for the second best series record in the whole event at 3-3. Lopez only went 1-3, but managed to last until the final day. Perhaps he’s a political mastermind, or a perceived scary matchup, but likely he was just a little bit lucky.

“The format? Really good. In theory,” said commentator Sean “Day[9]” Plott.

“As with the design of any system there’s always those degenerate cases, and it looks like we’re just going to keep having it happen, which if a player is down [to one life], there’s a really clear reward to just eliminating him, because everyone makes more money.”

That’s what happened to Qual, but on the flip side, that creates interesting storylines, like his near survival of the gauntlet. It also leads to the weaker players being eliminated, which is a good thing as it sets the later days up to feature amazing sets of matches.

But Plott also had some good suggestions, like adding a bounty to winning a series. Combine the two formats, a survivor pool and a per match prize, and you’ll take care of most of the edge cases.

Eithey way the Red Bull Battlegrounds was a great prelude to the MLG Anaheim games this weekend. If you enjoyed the series of games between Hostyn and Choi, well, you’re in luck: the two are set to meet at the start of the MLG group stage. Fireworks, for sure.