Can anything stop Korea's 'StarCraft' dominance?
Is there any hope for international players looking to stem the tide of Korean dominance in StarCraft 2?
This was the question many were asking after the results of MLG Anaheim, in which Korean players dominated their international competition—save for one Canadian player who was able to crack the top eight. But these questions aren’t new. They're as old as the game itself.
StarCraft rose to prominence in South Korea largely through “PC bangs”, gaming hubs where players would come together and compete at one location. Over time, the game became so popular that players were able to command six-figure salaries from their sponsoring teams and multiple television channels were largely dedicated to broadcasting and discussing professional StarCraft games.
There was a time when players from around the world were able to take part in Korea’s StarCraft boom. The most notable of these was likely Canadian Guillaume “Grrr” Patry, whose victory in Korean pro league in 2000 remains the only time a player from outside Korea has emerged victorious at the country's highest level of play (though, to be fair, the game was in its early stages, and Koreans themselves were still learning).
Prior to the release of StarCraft 2, no player had even mounted a serious challenge at a major title since Bertrand “Elky” Grospellier of France finished fourth in 2002. After Patry and Grospellier departed the professional scene in 2004, others would trickle into Korea to try and make their mark, but none would be able to find such success.
Famed commentator Sean “Day” Plott thinks the explanation for how one-sided things became is relatively simple.
“In Korea, there was so much cultural acceptance for gaming that you had people willing to train for an extreme number of hours for tournaments and it just grew from there,” Plott said. “In Korean pro (gaming) houses, 12 guys would wake up and do nothing but train and share ideas.”
“Trying to play as a professional elsewhere, you just didn’t get good practice.”
This imbalance created a seemingly impenetrable infrastructure in Korea. But things changed with the announcement of StarCraft 2.
“Koreans aren’t just flat-out good at StarCraft, they got good by devoting a lot of time to it,” Plott said. “When a new game comes out, everyone’s on an equal playing field.”
That equality bore itself out for a time. Following the release of StarCraft 2, players such as American Greg “Idra” Fields and Jonathan “Jinro” Walsh were able to achieve significant success in Korean professional leagues. Walsh was particularly successful, equalling and surpassing Grospellier’s greatest feat from years prior by finishing in the top-four at the highest level of play—not once but twice, in 2010 and again in 2011.
But this success was still limited to a relatively small number of players, and over time it too began to fade as Korean StarCraft 2 players were able to assert their dominance just as they had in the early days of StarCraft. Occasional challengers to this trend have emerged, but none have been able to sustain themselves long-term.
The latest is Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn. Hostyn’s victory in June’s Red Bull Battle Grounds event in Santa Monica, Calif. included big wins over two top Korean players, Choi “Polt” Seong Hun and Kim “Violet” Dong Hwan—both of whom, it should be mentioned, have lived in the U.S. for two years. She immediately followed with a fourth-place finish at MLG Anaheim, where she was the only international player to make a run in a playoff bracket that was otherwise full of Korean professionals.
“The big thing is properly identifying and addressing your problems," Plott said. "Having a willingness to zoom in and look at tiny things in your plays is something most players never even consider.”
“Hostyn identifies weakness and finds a way to fix them. When she said that (a particular technique) was important and that she kept missing it, she did nothing but play alone until she had it absolutely mastered,” Plott continued. “And she mixes that with tons of practice.”
While it may sound as though this would be easy enough for other international players to emulate, it hasn’t yet been the case. Plott pointed to Chris “Huk” Loranger as an example of an elite player who had found significant success in winning multiple MLG titles against some of world’s best competition—while also failing to adjust his style and habits in such a way that would keep him competitive against Korea’s best.
“Loranger practices a lot but there’s a certain style he likes to play which goes against the grain of what’s successful in StarCraft 2. He likes to play by feel. That’s cool, but a lot of times it backfires,” Plott said.
“Meanwhile someone like (MLG Anaheim champion) Cho 'Trap' Sung Ho just plays safe and solid, and he crushes everybody.”
Loranger and other hopefuls like him will have another opportunity this weekend to challenge some of Korea’s best when the Red Bull Battle Grounds series comes to Atlanta, Ga., where he’ll be joined by more recent arrivals on the professional scene such as Brandon “Puck” Qaul. They’ll have their work cut out for them with pros like Seong Hun and Dong Hwan in attendnace.
Blizzard’s World Championship Series helps bring Korean players to more locations across the globe where international opposition could gain more experience against them—something that Plott lauded. Though he also spoke to a need for the game’s developer to enhance cross-ocean connections, so that players in North America and Europe can more comfortably practice against Korean opponents on Korean servers.
But ultimately, there's one thing that really matters.
“The number one thing is just focused and deliberate practice,” Plott said.