Region Lock 2019 - The Golden Appendage
The first time I spoke publicly about "Region Lock" was in April 2011, since then I was vocal more than a few times and explained in plenty why I thought Region Lock was instrumental to the development of Non-Korean StarCraft talent and by proxy creating greater stability for esports and general interest in StarCraft II as a game. Over time, I went on to write very long reddit threads   detailing my thoughts, culminating in a great "Region Lock" article that extended 10 pages long in 2015 advocating for Region Lock for 2016, The article touches on many points we'll make here, but also offers solutions to Barcodes for example that were only partially implemented and I continue to actively pursue whenever I get a chance 4 years later. I, (somewhat aggressively) pursued & presented my article's points at the Summit that year and that was when Mike Morhaime descended from the heavens and told me "We won't make any changes until I've read your article". The man, seeing as how he is the man; honored his word.
Back then and despite my best efforts the community was still mostly divided, and I (alongside Apollo and other tournament organizers) constantly got flack for advocating for what a lot of people considered a "Welfare system". Tournament organizers being good at their jobs of course understood where and how to spawn interest, and getting eyeballs on their content in the long run was likely their primary goal; this should (still) be everyone's goal. If you planned to stick around StarCraft 2 for the long run over the past 8-9 years, if you still do; then it must be understood that the game's growth benefits everyone within the ecosystem, especially, the best players in the game - regardless of where they are from.
What I, Apollo, Adebisi, Suppy and many others were advocating for was always simply what we viewed as being in the game's best interest. What, why and how to give StarCraft the most exposure and allow for sustained growth; those are the questions we must ask of ourselves to make a careful objective analysis of this situation.
Region Lock was never about wellfare, much less racism; but rather about growth & sustainability. Many of us, as humans we are, default to empathy and are quick to repel anything that seems "unfair" especially from an individual standpoint as we (individuals) can best relate to that. The challenge then is to zoom out and gain perspective, attempt at understanding the bigger picture. Games are driven by sales, player-base, interest.. The esports island is primarily driven by views that can be monetized via advertisement / product placement. The main problem with StarCraft II: esports in Korea is (no different than it has been since 2010) is a glaring lack of interest. The game just isn't popular there, never was, and will probably never be.
I personally think, that without Blizzard's intervention, foreign StarCraft left to it's own devices was making big strides and could've continued to be self-sustainable in the esports ecosystem without Mother Blizzard's help. I also think that to say the same for Korean StarCraft would be a big stretch.
Lets fast-forward a bit. Over the last few years, foreign StarCraft has made many strides forward, with Serral's Blizzcon Championship, good foreigner runs in other tournaments and the GSL, interest spikes in StarCraft esports seems to be at a strong high today. Naturally, F2P, big patches or initiatives like DeepMind are great windows of incentive for large influxes of new or returning people to enter our ecosystem. But on an esports realm exclusively, the game was already en-route to sustainability even without these strong pushes - a big contributor, imo, has been Region Lock.
Since the retreat of KeSPA from our space, foreigners and Koreans (baring initiatives like the JinAir, ROOT-Unity house, the 'old' ROOT house) have been on 'even grounds'. I was happy that ByuN won Blizzcon when he did because with the KeSPA disband looming - ByuN was an example that a player given the right circumstances could still persevere and Triumph outside of the KeSPA system."Korean Elitist" apologists will argue KeSPA was already on it's way out that year, but the larger perception (all that matters here, really) is that ByuN beat the system; de-legitimizing it & KeSPA right before it's exit was EXACTLY what StarCraft II needed to dodge most negative "What if's" on this realm moving forward.
Legitimacy is an important topic to discuss when determining the game's best interest relative to Region Lock as this type of underlying tone or perception is part of the tectonic shifts that could lead to an esport's success - in the case of StarCraft, Legitimacy is a gigantic factor because of the game's 20+ year-old history.
SC:BW is SC2's dad. to further understand arguments concerning legitimacy and region lock i'll propose, we must first understand our past and the circumstances that lead us to where we are;
If you're reading this, if you like StarCraft or even esports in general; you and I both owe South Korea a great deal. Korean gaming culture should be celebrated as one of if not the clearest original proponent of modern esports. I haven't studied Korean culture enough to attempt to pin down how it came to be, but what I know is that gaming and PC Bangs became very wide-spread quickly and with few stigmas, gaming became an acceptable entertainment source and thus also monetizable in the motherland before just about anywhere else to incredible degrees.
This self-sustainable eco-system attracted more money and success organically (No Mommy's help) and lead to things like televised matches and gigantic live events that represented an esports boom in Korea years before we would see anything similar at a global scale.
With attention and interest comes growth, more viewers translate to more players, and vice-versa. I think that ROI on interest generated from esports is incredibly difficult to track. But I know from experience I am more likely to play games after I've watched a stream or tournament of that specific game, not even related to StarCraft. And more importantly, I know Brood War in Korea happened for a fact, I seen it.
With StarCraft blooming as one of the most popular ways of competition in Korea and an ecosystem that could sustain and attract players to commit their livelihoods to the game and a few brave soldiers willing to game for a living (at the risk of certain uncertainty) Players and orgs were both enabled to "step up their game", with enough interest and eyeballs, it isn't difficult to attract funding and sponsors, now representing some of the largest companies in the country, competition flourishes to it's maximum potential - not only do you want to be the best, you are now backed by giants that share and benefit from your interest in success. Along that feeling come team-houses, coaches, structured practice and different methodologies, no shortage of guidance for younger players to attempt at realizing their full potential and the tools to enable them to do just that within their reach. The original spawning of esports isn't free of "luck" - circumstances that we can easily take for granted include heavily-weighted factors like the density of Seoul as city (population-wise) thus making it an easy central hub for the esport boom to happen all-organically (the opposite would be fore example California as the hub of Overwatch League, created artificially - as it costs A TON of money to do that). It was thanks to a perfect storm that Korea was able to spawn and provide a model for the rest of the world to borrow from in years to come.
A magnificent sight to behold, no doubt - it almost brings me to tears to think of how an esports utopia spawned flourished and nearly perished before my eyes - it got "too big" and the systems in place just weren't ready, corruption, abuse and decay of the system ensued.
Now, I was a StarCraft I player existing outside of this system.. I could only, barely, peak through a blurry Twitch-less glass and admire the system that I could not belong to. My envy for these players and of this ecosystem wasn't rooted in malice, but rather in hope and desire; maybe one day.
It wasn't difficult to realize that (as a player) I was at a great impasse, there is no interest in my country (Peru) for SC2 outside of 15-20 nerds that met up once in a while for food to play on Lan or WCG (once per year). Maybe 5 of whom are sort-of-ok and could even maybe tell you about the one time they took a game from a Korean who once defeated an actual good Korean. In America, the likes of Artosis, iNcontroL, Tasteless, Day9, etc. would likely find themselves on a similar boat.
So now that you know daddy bw a bit better, it should be easy to understand why Koreans were simply just better at StarCraft: BW and how an evolving culture and a perfect storm put them years ahead of the rest of the world in terms of practices, rewards and viability.
When StarCraft II and this topic came about I was quick to realize two things:
1. The Audience / Eyes / $ were no longer in South Korea, but predominantly in the west.
2. Korean players still had all of the experience & cultural infrastructure in place to succeed.
Physical infrastructure soon followed, though not to the same degrees as it did in bw until KeSPA came around. Put 2+2 together and what happened was always destined to happen; Korean domination ensued. It is far BEFORE we reached this junction that I made my first video advocating for what we now call Region Lock - We called it "Home grown esports" back then because this wasn't a discussion that existed at the time and so I wouldn't have known to use the term "Region Lock" which has a much better ring to it as a policy.
The idea was simple; if Koreans have the culture and infrastructure and they have access WITHOUT commitment (flights) to all of the western prize-pools (such as NASL regular season). Then the gap between foreigners and Koreans (that I viewed as hardly existing at the time) would be SURE to increase. This wasn't me being pessimistic as a player, but making a simple analysis of the situation at hand - accounting for factors as I've described them throughout this read. As you may have guessed; no one listened and as the next few years unfolded as I expected; we found ourselves in a ridiculous situation, for example we had a WCS AMERICA finals with a total of 2 North Americans in the round of 16.
In my opinion this system and the lack of Region Lock in the early years was one of the largest contributors to the decline of StarCraft 2 as an esport.
The problem then became that it is extremely difficult to reverse a system like this without insane amounts of backlash - that is when people start yelling "racism" and sentiments like "I just want to see the best players play" or unfounded claims and constant attacks on the work-ethic of Non-Korean players - predominantly rooted in ignorance: I hope that after this read it is clear to all that foreigners were very much swimming up-stream back then.
Region Lock wasn't intended to be a well-fare system but a fostering one to allow foreign StarCraft players to grow into trees outside of a tree-filled forest soaking all of the sunlight. You do this by giving them a chance to grow and fight for attainable goals. Enabling the system to develop and the individuals that conform it to commit their livelyhoods to it - much like the Korean system organically allowed back in the day.
Another issue that plagued the idea of reversing the policy (years late) had to be legitimacy, and the non-Koreans would struggle for a LONG time to steal some of that back and bring some back into our system (predominantly by defeating Koreans). For example; Serral being the world Champion brings A LOT of legitimacy to the WCS System, because anyone to beat or even take maps from Serral will have to be perceived as a Global threat. Reynor, Scarlett and other foreigners that performed well in Korea have also helped bring some legitimacy back to the WCS system in recent history.
I'll be honest, earlier this year I was leaning a lot heavier towards a greater degree of Region-Unlocking. As a strong proponent of Region Lock originally, I felt it was important that I reached out to Blizzard to let them know that I thought it was a good time to re-evaluate. My main reason (again, with the game's best interest at heart) was that I thought foreigners were already better than "people thought", Reynor beating Classic, Scarlett winning PyeongChang were examples of this. This perception meant that I thought that non-korean players are now capable of regaining some legitimacy for the WCS circuit by defeating Koreans and therefore StarCraft stood to gain grounds with a foreign audience by showing that non-koreans can now compete with Koreans on more occasions.
However; the underlying theme hadn't changed because the greater landscape hasn't either - Most / all of the interest for StarCraft II is still outside of Korea and it is this audience that the game should cater to if it is to continue to attempt at being sustainable or even growing (which we've shown we can do!).
Weather you personally agree on an individual basis or not the fact is that it is more feasible to grow and sustain the game more effectively by catering to the non-Korean audience and players. Why? That's just human mechanics, we care about things by proximity and affinity, in the virtual space that we share, affinity seems to me most important. Because we are human, interest in most things and sports/esports in particular is driven by relatable human accomplishment, the more relatable, the better. Most of us are also empathetic creatures to some degree, and in order to empathize we need to understand. Both cultural and language barriers will make it far more difficult for us to understand and empathize with other individuals. This DOES NOT mean that Koreans lack a personality or even that they are "unrelatable", some of my best friends are Korean and have more "personality" in their pinky toe than God-Serral shows in his best interview *prays for forgiveness*, I guess that's why I chose to use the term "barrier"; actively complicating our ability to relate.
With Serral winning Blizzcon, that for me has changed. Serral and the WCS system now have A LOT of legitimacy to go around, and viewers (predominantly non-Koreans) have a much larger array of reasons to watch the WCS circuit that has historically suffered in terms of legitimacy.
Anyone that beats or even takes maps from Serral instantly becomes a world contender, foreigners no longer -need- to beat A-list-Koreans to prove themselves to their audience. This is one of the things that makes me most excited for WCS 2019, it is the first year, in my eyes, that the WCS system won't be plagued with doubt and negative connotations. Legitimacy, is the greater part of the reason I thought Koreans like Polt, hydra and TRUE contributed to the WCS ecosystem and it is through them that players like Neeb were enabled to stir shit up back in 2017.
At this junction, I find myself once again and for what I believe to be in the best interest of the game; in favor of continued Region Lock.
It is also important to highlight that the game's growth is ultimately beneficial to everyone, including if not primarily to the best players in the world, most of which Korea still houses today.
Another distinction that is important to highlight is that the WCS system does not thrive at the expense of the Korean one - this seems to be a common missconception. In fact, the GSL and the Korean system gets a lot of support, and boasts a greater prizepool than the WCS system afaik. There isn't a lack of "new talent" in Korea "for a lack of support" of the Korean scene, the sad truth is that there is just a small korean scene for a lack of interest in the game.
Most players in the Korean scene are now relatively old, and with low interest for the game, there is little to no new blood to take their place if they choose to retire or had to go to the army, for example.
Surely, Blizzard could artificially reallocate resources from the foreign or korean scene to recreate a Code A type league in Korea - but again, with little interest or potential to growth for the game in the motherland, I think this would be a bad decision / investment, and one that is sure to fail. Even the GSL doesn't get that many viewers or generate that much interest, really. Imo the best way to go about attempting at future growth or even just the ilusion of it to help it perpetuate into reality in Korea is to simply support up-and-coming (especially if young) individuals there, that's it.
Now moving onto the "Fairness" aspect. A concern raised through Solar's twitter account recently and that has been the topic of discussion around /r/starcraft since the institution of the system. The general proposition is that if Koreans aren't allowed to play in the WCS Circuit then foreigners shouldn't be allowed to play in the GSL.
First of all, Koreans can play in the WCS system, if they live in the region for the duration or a majority of the year. I certainly think the rules (if possible, though there may be legal constraints) could maybe [?] be loosened a bit, but there isn't room for much more than tiny tweaks, imo.
At the moment Koreans require an O-1 Visa to move to the US for example, this is a long and expensive process. Foreigners don't have an equatable constrain in place and can be more free with where they spend their time. The difference of course is that the GSL is always in-studio while the WCS isn't, this creates additional problems as far as regulating attendance or verifying the location of a participant should the WCS system become "more open", for example.
With current constrains in place, it is difficult for Koreans to commit to the WCS, but it also allowed for a trickle of Korean players into the system (hydra, Polt, TRUE) Who as I said before, imo, helped a lot with legitimacy and to mitigate negative perceptions that followed the clearly late timing of Region Lock. For these Koreans that was ez money on paper, but they had to commit a year of their life for it. For foreingers, in contrast, the GSL has historically not been nearly as profitable, but I can understand and (even relate) to the concern of Korean players as things progress - What if Serral starts playing the GSL? That'll leave a dent, surely.
The problem with "Locking" the GSL, is that for starters, it would need a new name and KSL is already taken by Dad. With a new name comes branding expenses and likely some loss as far as perception for legitimacy.
Another problem is that with most interest revolving around foreigners, locking them out of the GSL would actually make the Korean enterprise less viable (if it were to depend on organic growth and not Blizzard). Players often fail to understand WHY they can afford to play for a living; it's simply because people are watching. Less eyes = Less bueno, for everyone (and viceversa!).
Now, I realize this may sound bias, but please try to read objectively; Another issue is that initiatives like the ROOT-Unity house (Which hosts a lot of content in Korea predominantly with Korean players) would cease to exist.
If you are a Korean player, this actually just straight up means less $ in your ecosystem - if you are a foreign viewer, this means a greater disconnect with Korean players. To summarize; It'd be a pretty terrible move.
I don't offer a solution because I don't think that a solution is required, and I think that StarCraft II esports has been walking a forward trajectory in recent history. Also the Korean StarCraft scene has "always" been and continue to be VERY well taken care of as far as prizepools, especially relative to their pull.
Today, I think it best that going into 2019, Region Lock should remain. Everyone's priority, including Korean players should be the game's growth to gain access to a piece of a bigger pie. The harsh truth is that the Korean Scene cannot thrive on it's own; only as the golden appendage of the non-korean scene.