Current State of Play
As the Korean e-Sports Association (KeSPA) and Blizzard transitioned away from promoting and organizing professional Starcraft: Brood War competitions in 2012, the Korean Brood War scene has changed significantly. With broadcast television channels shifting focus to other games (OnGameNet) or ceasing operations (MBCGame), the OnGameNet Starleague (OSL) and MBCGame StarCraft League (MSL), the most prominent and prestigious individual tournaments of the KeSPA-era, have also concluded their respective runs.
In the absence of dedicated StarCraft television, audiences have turned to the popular online streaming service, Afreeca. The streaming network has enabled both players and tournament organizers to broadcast competitive StarCraft to the masses. Using Afreeca, a vibrant Korean StarCraft landscape has developed, with a key figure being Sonic, a passionate league organizer, caster, and fan. Sonic's dedication and financial backing has led the way in the current StarCraft resurgence, sometimes referred to as the Korean Amateur scene, Afreeca Era, or SOSPA (Sonic e-Sports Association), jokingly derived from the KeSPA moniker.
The most prominent tournaments in the present era has been the SonicTV BJ Starleague (SSL), a Sonic-led series held between one to three times a year with increasingly lucrative cash prizes and large audiences. Although the SSL series started in 2010, it did not achieve the legitimacy and recognition it does now until more recently, with SSL 8, and particularly, SSL 9, as the number of KeSPA-era progamers participating continued to increase. These included such OSL/MSL winners as Bisu, JangBi, and Mind, all of whom were making their first appearance at a SSL; SSL veterans and stalwarts of the scene such as HiyA, Sea, and Killer; and popular Afreeca showmen such as Terror and Larva. With this star power, and many of the touches of a Starleague, such as corporate sponsorship, the live broadcasted group selection ceremony, the offline group stages at a broadcast studio, the grand finals held at a large auditorium, endorsement and support from Blizzard, strong production values, Korean pop music performances, and even Stargirls, the SSL truly started to resemble an OSL/MSL.
In addition to the SSL series, Sonic has been prolific in leading various smaller tournaments, a number of team-based competitions, and a variety of show matches, all with cash prizes and being composed largely of progamers. Alongside Sonic, other groups and individuals, or Afreeca BJs (broadcast jockeys), have also organized competitions featuring KeSPA-era players and cash prizes. These include:
- 32-player leagues led by amateur players who have stepped into organizing and casting roles such as 41, BCTV, and LoveTV, with the latter BJ also leading a prominent Korean StarCraft clan.
- 16- to 24-player leagues organized by former progamers such as Zeus, ZergMaN, Terror, and Firebathero.
- a series of four-player invitational events by Hungry App, an online network focused exclusively on gaming and e-Sports.
As a result, these competitions have not only entertained audiences and provided discussion topics for the community, but enabled opportunities for players to compete, earn prize money, and heighten their public profiles.
Aided by this public recognition, many players have taken to Afreeca to stream themselves competing, generally, on either the Fish ladder, a popular Korean Battle.net server, or in show matches sponsored by fans. Consequently, Afreeca streaming has enabled players to earn an income from their live streams via balloons, an electronic currency used on Afreeca, which are generally donated to BJs for being entertaining and/or game-play excellence. For example, when Bisu started streaming in September 2013, audiences responded explosively with balloon donations. Additionally, the most popular BJs often have opportunities to secure sponsorships from businesses in exchange for advertising space on the players' streams and Afreeca sites. Notably, StarCraft is still among the most popular games played and watched in South Korea, as measured by Gametrics and Afreeca viewing data. Generally, however, only the most popular Afreeca BJs are able to sustain a living through donations, with South Korea being a relatively small market and Afreeca not being conducive to donations from abroad.
Brood War returned to OGN
and television broadcasting with the most lucrative prize purse in the post-KeSPA era. Featuring surprise participants such as Firebathero
, Zerg players were eliminated early, with Protoss following soon thereafter. Group stage B featured a thrilling 9-game tie breaker, while TvT's dominated the elimination bracket as sSak won the title over Last.
Strong participant field, two-thirds of whom were KeSPA-era progamers. Largest prize purse in SSL series at the time the tournament was held. Highly contentious group stages with many notables defeated in group stages, including JangBi, Killer, and Sea. In play-offs, Bisu defeated three consecutive Zerg for title.
First team-based "Proleague" of Afreeca era as run by Sonic. Strong field of KeSPA-era progamers, including Bisu
. Eight teams total. Inspired 5-0 play from Mind, Movie, and hero during early rounds. KT
, despite low seed, upset each of its opponents to defeat SKT
in finals, led by Modesty
Unique invitational event in Shanghai featuring four top players from South Korea and China. 1v1 and 2v2 events. Outstanding production values organized by PLU, a Chinese fan community; streamed live bilingually.
Starleague champions returning from StarCraft II
Veterans of the Afreeca/Korean Amateur scene
Popular Afreeca showmen
In the KeSPA era, players largely relied on their team-based contracts, supplemented by tournament prize winnings (pictured), almost all of which came from corporate sponsors. In turn, sponsor logos and banners proliferated on player uniforms, at events, and other avenues visible during television broadcasts. Although team-based salaries provided consistent wages, the contracts were very much favored on the side of the teams, with the free agency process by which players could switch teams being highly restrictive. This resulted in players being locked in with one team for the duration of their careers, with limited opportunities to re-negotiate contracts.
In the current Afreeca/Korean Amateur era, players' incomes streams rely largely on direct sources, such as fan donations on Afreeca in the form of balloons (pictured), supplemented by tournament winnings. Additionally, in the current era, popular players frequently also acquire corporate sponsors directly from the business, with the streaming players placing advertising banners on their screens (pictured) and Afreeca pages. As such, these income streams are neither fixed nor consistent. At the same time, players now have the freedom to stream, or work, as they see fit, without the schedules prescribed by teams in the KeSPA era. High performing players often build large Afreeca followings and benefit from more donations, such as Bisu or Sea. Notably, some of the strongest players, such as Killer and sSak, however, have relatively meager audiences. As such, the frequency of fan donations often do not correlate with player achievement, and thus are often not meritocratic. Rather, many players who are not the highest performers, such as Terror, Larva, or Shuttle, nonetheless have among the largest audiences and receive among the most donations for their entertaining streams which feature strong viewer-interaction and, at times, physical stunts.
In terms of tournament winnings, unlike the peak years of StarCraft popularity, where Starleague prize purses often exceeded $100,000, they have rarely surpassed $10,000 over the past few years. Although this represents a significantly decline in supplemental income, it is notable that prize winnings largely benefited the top finishers, with funds concentrated at the top, so income derived from tournaments was and is, by and large, not a steady source of wages.
Good News and Milestones
- In October 2012, the snipealot streams started re-streaming Afreeca broadcasts on Twitch, gradually expanding to four dedicated StarCraft channels operating around the clock. The streams enabled non-Korean audiences to watch streams with lower latency and a chat interface for viewers. Access was further expanded in October 2014 when Afreeca enabled Flash-player streams of moderate quality and less lag.
- In February 2013, the TLPD began a separate SOSPA section to distinguish matches in the Korean Amateur scene with its separate field of players and Elo rating.
- KeSPA era progamers continue to join the Afreeca scene: Bisu, JangBi, and Mind in September 2013, ZerO and PianO in October 2013, Last in June 2014.
- In December 2013, Sonic announced the opening of Sonic TV Studio for offline events with a capacity of 100. The group stages of SSL 9 were held there.
- As of November 2014, Afreeca viewership of StarCraft continues to exceed just about every other game, except League of Legends, far outpacing the likes of DotA and SC2. Individually, the top 100 BJ rankings includes Bisu, Larva, and Pusan.
Not so Good News
- In mid-November 2012, just before the SSL 7 grand finals, Blizzard notified Sonic and Afreeca's parent company of copyright infringement/lack of licensing, akin to the KeSPA dispute from a few years ago. Sonic later announced successful negotiations and the acquisition of licenses, with the finals resuming after only a delay of two weeks.
- In mid-December 2012, during event matches ahead of SSL 8, Sonic revealed match-fixing had been taking place, with few details. After two tense weeks where Sonic considered ending all future events, he announced resolution of the situation and SSL 8 would continue.
- Terror, immensely popular on Afreeca, was temporarily barred from streaming from April through October 2014 for various physical stunts carried out on-screen, particularly throwing a bucket of soy sauce on two teenagers. Additionally, Terror was outlawed from participating in Sonic-organized events in August 2014 after promoting an illegal betting site during a Sonic-led show match.
- sAviOr, banned by KeSPA in 2010, has continued playing on Fish Server and in select amateur tournaments, with his Afreeca stream quite popular. Nonetheless, he has elicited ire for several happenings. In March 2012, sAviOr started offering paid lessons. In 2012, Sonic had included sAviOr in a previous event match, but due to negative reactions from viewers, sAviOr was barred from all future Sonic events. After winning a Chinese invitational, KeSPA requested sAviOr be barred from other Blizzard-sanctioned events.
Mong at SSL 9
group selection, January 2014
Packed auditorium for SSL 8
finals, June 2013
Did you know...
- Killer has ZvZ and ZvP winning percentages of over 70%, with a ZvT of over 50%. Against Sea, however, Killer's win rate is only ~35%.
- During Sbenu Super Fight #3, the rules called for the loser to wash the winner's dishes, but Mong signed offline immediately after completing the last game.
- In the Sbenu All-Stars Tournament, sSak, who generally streams from home, played the best-of-five finals, surprisingly, from a PC bang (cyber cafe). Nonetheless, he calmly defeated hero 3-0 in 45 minutes for the title.
- Sea forfeited his group tiebreaker match in LoveTV Starleague Season 2, thus failing to advance, because it was nearing 2:00am at night.