David vs. Goliath: An In-Depth Look at Region Lock in StarCraft II
I'm brownbear. Today I'll be taking an in-depth look at the impact of region lock on professional StarCraft II.
Skip directly to the analysis section, "Back in the Saddle", if you are already intimately familiar with region lock's history and motivation.
StarCraft II has featured region lock on-and-off at various points in its history, including a fairly strict system in 2012. Region lock, in general terms, means that players are limited to what events they can participate in based on factors like citizenship or country of residence.
Region lock is a simple solution to a complex problem. Historically, Korea featured the best infrastructure for professional electronic sports. The country developed an obsession with Brood War, going on to spawn some of the world's most prestigious leagues and some of its most famous pro-gamers. Korean teams put together team houses with live-in players, full-time coaches, and rigorous practice schedules. Players started professional training early, some as young as 12 or 13 years old. A regular stream of tournaments - broadcast live on television - provided plenty of incentive to practice and play.
In sum, Korea in the late 2000s was ahead of every other region in terms of developing and growing the very best real-time strategy players. This advantage extended into StarCraft II, with Korean professionals dominating the early days of the game. In 2013, 74% of all prize money flowed to Korean players. The WCS Premiere League that same year - ostensibly featuring separate regions for NA, EU and KR - sent half- or majority-Korean squads from America and Europe in every single season.
This dominance challenged the sustainability and development of the foreign (non-Korean) StarCraft scene. "It's pretty important that you build results to be better," said Marc "uThermal" Schlappi, a Dutch professional StarCraft II player, in 2016. "If you're stuck in the [round-of-32] because of the Koreans, you can't grow to become a better player. You need to be able to get further in tournaments to learn more and do better. If you just lose in the [round-of-32] all the time, there’s no room to grow ever." WCS commentator Ravi "feardragon" Pareek described the situation as something like a wall: there was no step-by-step path to follow in order to become the best, just a massive barrier that stood in everyone's way.
The most affected groups were the up & coming players who had an entry level requirement of beating "some of the best players in the world" to earn almost anything because koreans were not just in the WCS system but even common-place in small online cups. - Ravi "feardragon" Pareek
It was reasonable to hypothesize that Koreans flying all over the world and crushing players at their own local tournaments was at odds with developing local talent. It would further be reasonable to hypothesize that lack of local talent would hurt local viewership, and therefore local interest in the game - the absence of "hometown heroes" made it difficult for a newcomer to get into the game and understand who to cheer for. None of this was guaranteed, but it was a reasonable perspective given the game's demographics, with the vast majority of the playerbase residing outside of South Korea.
In an attempt to solve this, Blizzard introduced region lock for its WCS-branded tournaments. A set of rules comparable to today's system first appeared in 2015, when players were limited to participating in the regions they lived in. While plenty of Koreans made the move out West to continue participating in local tournaments, the system eliminated the days of Koreans flying in, winning a bunch of money, and immediately flying out.
This "soft lock" was in many ways a success. Kevin "Harstem" de Koning, a Dutch professional player, noted the following at the time:
The reason that koreans are helping us(europeans) get better is because they are living here. MMA, Mc, Hyun, patience, golden, first, forgg and yoda all had to look for customs with europeans or just ladder. This is what helped us get better. 10 koreans showing up for a tournament beating u 2-0 2-0 does not make you better. - Kevin "Harstem" de Koning
In 2016, Blizzard formalized this system. It split its competitive scene into two regions: WCS Korea, covering Korea, and WCS Circuit, covering almost every other region in the world. Blizzard maintained residency requirements on participation in WCS Circuit events, effectively barring Korean players from participating. It also restricted how long players could be away from their declared country of residence, making it more difficult for Koreans to obtain valid visas but continue to train on their home turf. Crucially, the system also took existing events that were previously open to everyone, region locked them, and then used them to replace WCS Challenger and WCS Premiere League.
The reasoning for these changes was, quote, "providing more opportunities to expose, develop, and celebrate the top talent from regions outside of Korea." While Blizzard took great pains to emphasize overall improvements to the scene - such as increasing the total Blizzard-sponsored prize pool from $1.6 to $2 million and elevating the importance of live events - the most visible and controversial aspect was region lock.
Community opinions varied. Apollo, who currently works for the ESL, wrote a public blog post stating that the system was "awesome" for professional StarCraft. Kaelaris - a long-time host and commentator on the title, as well as an ESL employee - noted that it reignited the fire for passion and competition among foreign professionals. Several notable community members were also enthused, with some like CatZ long-advocating for a region lock system. Others were more skeptical, concerned about purity of competition and the impact of the system on Korea.
But it would be years before there was concrete data showing the precise effects of the system. Would foreigners close the skills gap with Koreans? Would region lock hurt the Korean professional scene? Would Blizzard's investments in developing local talent actually pay off?
Back in the Saddle
Three years later (or four, depending on how you look at it), we can now take a look back and try to understand region lock's impact.
The most immediate and tangible effect was a shift in overall prize winnings. In 2013, Koreans took home 74% of all prize money. By 2018, this had dropped to slightly less than 50%. This translates to close to a million more dollars in the pockets of foreign players, plus additional paid travel and additional public exposure. The table below provides a breakdown for every year in-between:
The more profound effect was an increase in earnings at the top of the foreign community. Overall, median and 90th percentile prize winnings hardly changed - more than 300 foreigners took home prize money in 2018, most of them miniscule dollar figures from small online cups. But if you limit the calculations only to those foreigners who made more than $1000 in prize money in a single year - i.e. try to eliminate those who are only "semi-professional" - the numbers look very different.
With that $1000 constraint in mind, the median prize-winnings per foreigner in 2013 were close to $4000. In 2018, that hardly changed at all, rising to close to $4500. But at the 90th percentile, there was a significant shift, rising from $18,000 in 2013 to close to $34,000 in 2018. This despite the fact that the total number of prize-winning foreigners only declined marginally, from 388 in 2013 to 311 in 2018. (Aligulac, which has better data on recent, small online cups, actually shows nearly 600 foreign prize winners in 2018, the highest number in the game's history.)
This is in-part a side-effect of the top-heavy prize pools in StarCraft. For example, the most recent WCS Summer featured a $100,000 prize pool spread across thirty-two players. But only 20% of that went to the bottom sixteen, while the first through fourth place finishers collected 42% all by themselves. When you structure tournaments in this way, most of the money will end up flowing to a small group of players at the top, simply due to the way the system is setup.
Region lock didn't much change the incentives for lower-tier players - a wide number of smaller improvements, like better community engagement, likely played a bigger hand in that. But for top-level foreigners - now protected from Korean competition by strict WCS rules - the system provided serious and material incentives to practice and play professional StarCraft.
Now, every foreigner is super tryhard to get to every event. Not everyone can win, but everyone has a chance at top four, top eight. There's actually a point in going to events now. - Marc "uThermal" Schlappi, 2016
And how did things change for the Koreans? Well, on its face, the data is pretty compelling. The 90th percentile Korean made $86,000 in 2018, almost two-and-a-half times more than in 2013. Add in the same $1000 constraint and this rises to an eye-popping $151,000. But there are some wrinkles. First, Koreans that participated in Proleague earned salaries on top of their prize winnings. This source of cash disappeared in 2016 with that league's closure. Furthermore, fewer than 70 Koreans earned any prize money at all in 2018, a more than 70% drop from five years prior. When there are vastly fewer people competing for an essentially fixed block of cash, winnings-per-player will inevitably go up.
Interestingly, foreigners' larger share of the global prize pool did not coincide with significantly better win rates against their Korean counterparts. In 2013, the top eight Korean players at Blizzcon - sOs, Jaedong, Maru, Bomber, Soulkey, Polt, Dear, and duckdeok - collectively went 82-14 in offline matches against foreigners, translating to an 85% win rate. The corresponding group in 2018 - Maru, Classic, Stats, Zest, TY, Rogue, Dark, and sOs - went 134-33, a fairly similar 80% win rate.
Anecdotal evidence in 2018 also suggested that the skills gap between foreigners and Koreans had not significantly changed. In 2018, Blizzard put on a tournament entitled "GSL vs. The World", in which foreign and Korean players competed head-to-head. While this was eventually won by a foreigner - Serral - three out of the top four finishers were Koreans. The Teams competition showed a similar result, in which Serral won his match while every other foreigner lost. Shortly afterward, Serral himself listed only Koreans when asked to name the next four best players in the world.
This data does not quite tell the whole story, however. I spoke to several commentators in the scene that vouched forcefully for the increase in skill among foreign players. It's important to note that commentators are at risk for bias, given that they are foreigners themselves who owe part of their livelihood to Blizzard. However, they are also some of the most informed observers in the scene, simply because they cast and study games on a daily basis.
[Region lock is] an attempt to create a stepping stone for non korean pros to get to that ladder [of competing with Koreans] - and it's definitely succeeded in bridging that gap - it can't be argued with. Not just Serral, but Neeb, showtime, Scarlett, Special and Reynor - there's a lot of stand out players who are much stronger vs Koreans, and far more consistent then they were before. - Jared "PiG" Krensel
Commentators cited several observations about foreigners: an increased willingness to prepare for individual opponents, increased confidence and decisiveness, and significantly improved mechanics. Of particular note is the way region lock has enabled regional metas to develop - for example, European Zerg players in 2018 learned how to safely transition into late-game tech in Zerg vs. Zerg, something their Korean counterparts struggled to deal with. Neeb showcased something similar in his 2017 KeSPA cup victory, emphasizing disruptor play in a Korean PvP meta dominated by adepts. Foreigners now pull consistent round-of-32 placements in the GSL. Meanwhile, multiple Koreans even praised Serral's performance at Blizzcon.
We can get a better picture of this by looking at the data for just the very best foreign players. Below is a graph of the eight foreign Blizzcon finalists in 2018, comparing their offline match win rates against Koreans pre- and post-region lock. Note that, ideally, we would want to take the best players of 2013-2015 and look at how their performance changed in 2016-2018; unfortunately, this is not feasible because most of those players have retired (and even if they were still playing, age-related performance decline would add another wrinkle to that data set).
Across the board, foreigners have improved their win rates against Koreans. Neeb and Serral even managed a greater than 50% win rate in 2018. Another player that achieved the same (not listed here) is Reynor, a young, rising star who recently won two separate WCS tournaments.
Arguably the best example of foreign skills development is the aforementioned GSL vs. The World. In 2017, no foreigners appeared in the final four. In 2018, a foreigner - Serral - won the entire tournament. And in 2019, foreigners laid claim to both finals spots, almost reversing the results of 2017. Below I've also listed out the overall win rate of the top 8 foreigners prior to Blizzcon 2019. Everyone is above a 30% win-rate, while three are at or above a 40% win-rate against Koreans:
The data shows that the best foreigners have closed the gap considerably with the Koreans. But it's noteworthy that only a handful of top-top players like Serral found consistent success: even Tier-1 foreigners struggle to break the 50% mark. For example, ASUS Assembly Summer 2019, held just weeks prior to GSL vs. The World, featured six Koreans in its round-of-8 in addition to an all-Korean finals. Furthermore, while a 30-40% win-rate against Koreans sounds like a pretty good number, it is in-line with the lifetime winrates of the historically best foreign players in the scene, including such greats as Stephano, Scarlett, NaNiwa, HuK, IdrA, and Snute.
In this way, win rates start to look a lot like prize money: most of the benefits flowed disproportionately to the very best players. Indeed, previously I noted that the best eight Koreans in 2018 won approximately 80% of their offline matches against foreigners. But the best eight foreigners in 2018 - Serral, ShoWTimE, SpeCial, Neeb, HeRoMaRiNe, Has, Nerchio, and Lambo - collectively went 280-90 against their fellow foreigners in offline matches, translating to a 76% win rate. In other words, as much as the best Koreans dominate the foreign community collectively, so too do the best foreign players themselves.
To put this another way, the legendary players of today are off the charts relative to any historical foreigner, while the close-to-top players perform as though they were the legendary players of yesterday. And this creates a positive feedback loop, with those players collecting more money feeling ever-more motivated to continue practicing and developing their skill.
A crucial caveat to all this is structural changes within the Korean scene itself. The decline in size of the Korean professional player base disproportionately affected lower-tier players - despite a more-than 70% drop in prize winners from 2013 to 2018, eight of the region’s top-ten highest earning players continue to be active, top-tier players. As time went on, every time a foreigner played a Korean, they were more or less playing one of that region's best players. That would inevitably act as a drag on win rates and obscure any pattern of skill improvement.
This leads us into a more difficult question. With all this discussion of the declining size of the Korean size, it's worth asking - was region lock a causative factor?
Whispers of Doom
It is important to stress that StarCraft II is not uniquely unpopular in Korea. It is about as popular there as it is in many other countries. In 2017 the Korean stream of the Blizzcon finals peaked at 3822 viewers. For a country of fifty one million people, that's comparable to the 4810 peak of the French stream, and proportionally more popular than either the Polish or Russian streams. 2019's GSL vs. The World showed similar results when compared to other language streams.
The problem unique to Korea was providing opportunities for hundreds of pro-gamers to make a living off of StarCraft II. Brood War in Korea produced a formidable infrastructure of professional teams, players, and coaches. That resulted in some of the finest real-time strategy players in history, but it also cost a lot of money and required significant financial support from corporate sponsors. This was sustainable - or at least investment-grade - in Brood War because the game was wildly popular. But as many professionals began to shift over to StarCraft II, they found that there was too little market demand for what they were offering.
A number of folks that I spoke with raised this point - Korean StarCraft II in the early days was simply not sustainable. Indeed, the scene's sharpest decline occurred two years prior to region lock, with 220 prize-winning Koreans in 2013 nose diving to just 145 the following year. Korean StarCraft was bleeding long before Blizzard cordoned it off into its own region.
Several factors went into this, including lack of interest in the game, matchfixing scandals, and competition from other esports. All of these would come to a head in 2016 with the closure of Proleague, the world's first team-based esports league. Corporate sponsors provided team houses, salaries, and infrastructure for players to participate in a regular stream of tournaments. Importantly, many competitors within Proleague were not necessarily the very best players in the world - teams would sometimes pick up lower-tier players as a sort of investment in their long-term future, and in the mean-time use them as practice partners for their best players. These were precisely the players Korea needed for long-term growth, and precisely the sort of people who would struggle to survive in an environment where lack of deep tournament runs translated to almost no money at all.
Proleague's closure was a shock to the fan base, and a deeply sad moment in the history of professional StarCraft. Many people in the scene, however, argue that it had little to do with region lock. As professional commentator Dan "Artosis" Stemkoski noted in a 2016 interview, "People are pointing their fingers at Blizzard or the WCS Region Lock or things like that. That just doesn't have anything to do with it." Olimoley - administrator of the Olimoleague, an online tournament that has long provided crucial prize money to Korean players - would echo the same sentiment in an interview later that year.
Region lock certainly did not help Korean StarCraft, but it's difficult to make the case that it was the primary factor behind its decline. It would be easy, in fact, to write off all of the Korean scene’s troubles as the result of market forces. In a way you could almost credit Blizzard for continuing to pump millions of dollars into a scene in which it has limited practical financial interest.
Unfortunately, this isn't quite the whole story. Region lock was not a perfect system, and the way it was setup meshed poorly with the structure of Korean StarCraft. The Global StarCraft League, or GSL, is Korea's premiere StarCraft II league. It is arguably the most prestigious StarCraft II tournament in the world. The GSL earns this reputation in part through its long-form structure, running across a span of three to four months. Every match is preceded by at least a week of downtime, ensuring players have plenty of time to study their opponents and prepare specialized builds to exploit their weaknesses. This means that it is not enough to merely be good at StarCraft to win the GSL; you must also understand the nuances of your opponent’s play, as well as the common holes in your own, in order to progress through the bracket.
The trouble with this format is that, once you get eliminated, there's nothing to compete in for months on end. It's incredibly demotivating, and region lock did little to address this. In retrospect, it’s possible that Blizzard expected additional tournament organizers to step in and offer events in-between major tournaments. Unfortunately, this didn't turn out to be the case.
We can use some numbers to quantify this issue more precisely. Consider, for example, the currently ongoing tournaments in WCS Korea and WCS Circuit, GSL Season 3 and WCS Fall, respectively. WCS Fall begins with a ladder race from July 18-21, held just a week after the close of WCS Summer. Players who fail to qualify through the ladder can try their luck in online qualifiers held on July 22 and 23. These are separate events - players can participate on both days if they fail to qualify on the first day. Players who qualify through either the ladder race or the online qualifiers then enter a Challenger tournament that runs from August 8-25. Players who fail to qualify for Challenger or fail to make it through the Challenger bracket can then show up to the actual event on September 7-8 to try to qualify through the open bracket.
Contrast this with GSL Season 3, which runs from June 20 to September 21. First, notice that it runs for a much longer period of time, a result of WCS Korea featuring one fewer season of play than the WCS Circuit (to compensate, it features extra events in the form of "Super Tournaments"). If a player is eliminated at any point in the aforementioned time span, they are done for the season. There are no second chances, like ladder races, online qualifiers or open brackets. The next event is the Super Tournament in October, meaning a player that loses in the round-of-32 in early July cannot showcase their skills in a major tournament until more than three months later. (There is GSL vs. The World in August, but it's limited to eight players and there are no qualifiers, just fan voting plus the top three players in the standings). This is naturally going to be de-motivating, particularly for lower-tier players.
This structural problem wasn't the only issue. A more grating decision was the choice to region lock the WCS Circuit, but not WCS Korea. Foreigners had always made the pilgrimage to Korea to try their luck at the GSL, with HuK making it into Code S multiple times in 2011. But this trend accelerated post-region lock. It's partly to the system's credit that players felt comfortable training in Korea in such large numbers, and that they organized into a now fairly sophisticated team house. Unfortunately, the handful that succeeded in their Code S dream did so by pushing out lower-tier Koreans in the qualifiers. This was worse than being knocked out of the tournament early - it meant no participation at all.
One argument in favor of this arrangement was that foreign participation would increase overall viewership of the tournament, thereby making it more sustainable and benefiting the Korean scene as a whole. Unfortunately, the data on this is mixed and doesn't show a strong correlation. Consider, for example, the average and peak viewership numbers for 2019's GSL Season 2:
|Match||Average Viewership||Peak Viewership||Foreign Participant?|
|Round of 32 - Group A||7,763||12,608|
|Round of 32 - Group B||7,244||10,203|
|Round of 32 - Group C||8,051||11,946|
|Round of 32 - Group D||8,198||11,990|
|Round of 32 - Group E||6,791||10,142|
|Round of 32 - Group F||8,622||12,670||Scarlett|
|Round of 32 - Group G||9,437||13,633|
|Round of 32 - Group H||10,194||14,240||SpeCial|
|Round of 16 - Group A||8,135||12,117|
|Round of 16 - Group B||8,854||12,154|
|Round of 16 - Group C||8,198||11,189||SpeCial|
|Round of 16 - Group D||10,098||14,996|
|Round of 8 - Day 1||7,977||12,436|
|Round of 8 - Day 2||6,614||10,083|
|Round of 4 - Day 1||6,235||9,882|
|Round of 4 - Day 2||7,021||11,562|
Credit to Fuzic for viewership data cited above.
Solar, a Korean professional, expressed his frustration with the situation in late 2018:
To be clear - this and the other factors cited above are not the primary reason for the decline of StarCraft II in Korea. Furthermore, either the GSL is the most prestigious tournament in the world, or its participants need to be protected from external competition - both cannot be true at the same time, and it's unlikely Koreans would favor the latter narrative.
Nonetheless, region lock did have significant flaws with respect to Korea. It effectively established one set of rules for foreigners and one set of significantly stricter rules for Koreans. That will strike many people as intuitively unfair, and inevitably generate resentment. You wouldn't need to change all that much to address these issues - like setting a consistent standard for GSL and WCS participation, instead of carving out a specific rule just for TRUE - but for one reason or another, Blizzard has decided not to do so.
We can draw several important takeaways from region lock. The biggest is that it's just one piece in the puzzle. Professional StarCraft incorporated a number of important structural changes over the years - ladder races to draw community interest, community events to build up streamers and content creators, Warchests to raise funds to increase prize pools, etc. Arguably the most important was establishing the aforementioned team house in Korea, providing foreigners with a low-friction way of training in a more disciplined, professionalized environment in the strongest region in the world.
As far as I know, a majority of the players [training in Korea] stayed in the foreigner team house or had some connection with the team house even if they weren't staying in it (meaning, they probably got advice on where to stay or how to stay in Korea via the long-term foreigners). Being confident in winning tournaments because of region lock could be a cause [of being willing to train in Korea], but I think a major reason is because once the foreigner team house was established, players didn't have to worry about the logistics of living in Korea - all they had to do was pay rent and they had a bed, desk, and internet set up for them. - Olivia "Olimoley" Wong
All of these things coincided with region lock, and in some ways they were enabled by region lock. But they're logically independent, and it would be wrong to credit region lock for their successes. It would be similarly misguided to blame region lock for the various strains the professional scene has endured since its inception, including matchfixing scandals and the closure of Proleague.
Region lock was neither a savior nor a curse. It was a material change to the structure of professional StarCraft that pushed more money into the pockets of top foreign players; it increased win rates against Koreans, especially for the top-top foreigners; and it provided enough money to sustain a small but still-powerful group of Korean professionals.
In many ways the story of region lock can be summed up with what's been called "the Serral effect". Region lock enabled the development of top foreign players; this allowed Serral, a player from Finland, to become the best player in the world; this drove viewership and generated immense new interest in StarCraft.
Indeed, "the Serral effect" is yet more evidence of the larger trend within region lock: most of the benefits flowed to the very best players. It's also important, however, to recognize the many other actors involved. The decision to make StarCraft II free-to-play deserves more credit for increasing viewership, given that it increased the game’s playerbase by around 50%. Blizzard has also become much better at managing its community, with notable improvements in event promotion, esports integration into the game client, and annual community summits to touch base and discuss improvements to the game. (Unfortunately, these improvements saw a partial reversion in 2019 due to a number of layoffs at Blizzard, resulting in the loss of several StarCraft community managers.)
Serral himself deserves more credit than the region lock narrative provides him. He is arguably a product of the system, but so too are dozens of players who to this day can't break a 50% win rate against Koreans. That only a handful of players - Neeb, Serral, and perhaps soon Reynor and SpeCial - succeeded where everyone else only improved is more a testament to them than it is to the underlying system.
Looking at region lock as it stands today, it’s hard to imagine going back to the days of 2013. It's not inconceivable - Blizzard has yet to announce details regarding WCS 2020 - but it would certainly be a surprise. Probably the most convincing argument to do so is the inherent unfairness in subjecting different groups of players to different sets of rules - but the problem here is less about the fundamentals of region lock and more about setting consistent standards.
The future of region lock may in fact be more restrictions, not less. WCS Winter 2019 region-locked North America and Europe from one another, a tacit acknowledgment of Europe's dominance over foreign StarCraft. The consensus, ultimately, is that this kind of system works in achieving its ends. Region lock was not the silver bullet that many hoped it would be, but it was also not the apocalypse many feared it might become.
Author's Note: Aligulac and Esports Earnings report slightly different earnings numbers and total earners per year. Based on my investigation, Aligulac is missing some older data, e.g. TheBest's 2013 earnings are missing, while the player Line is missing completely. This makes sense given that Aligulac only launched publicly in December of 2012. However, Aligulac has more comprehensive data for more recent years, e.g. identifying 573 foreign prize winners in 2018 as compared to 311 on Esports Earnings. To keep things consistent I used Esports Earnings for all earnings data and Aligulac for all win rates data, though where possible I included both. Note that the same general trends appear in both data sets. In addition, earnings-by-percentile closely match across data sets after applying the $1000 constraint referenced in the article.