News of KeSPA finally closing the curtain on the StarCraft Proleage — the World’s longest-running eSports league, since 2003 — understandably shocked fans and industry spectators alike. After all, many who now call eSports as their profession began by watching what is in all likelihood the father of the modern eSport: StarCraft.
Who could forget the fanfare and the global gawking after KeSPA first announced that it would merge the then two leagues of Korean StarCraft: Broodwar: the KPGA Team League and the OGN league.
It was a novel idea at the time; it was novel enough in 2000 when the Korean government approved of a body for eSports. It was unthinkable at the the time that subsequent tournaments could be broadcasted on TV to the extent that it had to be regulated by KeSPA.
In a lot of ways, what KeSPA did for StarCraft — unifying different leagues, figuring out how to balance media rights, sponsorships and syndication between teams, players, media entities and game publishers — is the kind of conversation we’re having today for eSports. It seems that history is ripe to repeat itself
With the Proleague ending, what is next for KeSPA? An interesting line in KeSPA chairman Jun Byung Hun’s statements caught my attention, and it points to a possible future that involves Blizzard, the lessons from Proleague and a new player in the industry.
Chairman Jun Byung Hun of KeSPA intimated in his press releases that one of the main reasons that the StarCraft Proleague is ending is due to “…difficulty securing league sponsors, and match fixing issues have made it challenging to maintain ProLeague.”
What began in 2008 as an offshoot of the global financial crisis (drop in sponsorships leading to less lucrative tournaments, which then opened the doors for predatory groups to lure players into match-fixing) may have started StarCraft on its road to death, but eight years later, we are on the precipice of a deluge of sponsorship support. Much bigger than where we thought 2016 would end up in.
Marketing firms such as SuperData and Newzoo projected that the global eSports industry might grow to just shy of $500 million industry by 2017, but acceleration from a number of high-profile investors from the sports, media and tech world have accelerated that timeline. With that acceleration comes advertising and sponsorship interests that in theory, could sustain a brand new league.
So that answers the chairman’s first problem: if the sponsors are here, it should be fine to make another StarCraft 2 league, right?
Except that’s not where the interest lies. To understand eSports, one must understand that it is essentially an Attention Economy; what matters most is where people are placing their attention. What are people watching? What’s capturing interest?
That’s where the money is, and that’s where the leagues can be built.
Do you know what the single, most reliably driver of interest is? The latest hotness. Overwatch.
Chairman Jun ByungHun goes further:
“As mentioned before, KeSPA will strengthen its partnership with its members, game developers, and local/foreign partners to further grow eSports. We hope that StarCraft ProLeague will live on in the memories of its players, fans, and all affiliated parties as an invaluable asset that pioneered the eSports industry and contributed to establishing competitive gaming as a mainstream culture in Korea.”
That’s a very neutral way of saying that they are looking to create something new — a possible league — without dropping too many hints to preserve the hype.
We know from videos made by industry veteran and shoutcaster Christopher “MonteCristo” Mykkles that there are plans and information happening in the background that drive his decision to get in on Overwatch’s ground floor. OGN, MonteCristo’s current employer, is already hosting the APEX tournament. Is it really so far-fetched to think that KeSPA will follow suit? Is history repeating itself, culminating in a unified Korean Overwatch league?
Of course this is all speculation, but the basis is rooted in both history and market trends. The fact of the matter is that StarCraft 2 was no longer financially viable; the interest simply wasn’t there anymore and with it, the money that supports it.
Other big money leagues in the sports world have gone the way of the dinosaur faster, even if they were pumped with so much more capital.
But in today’s eSports market, the interest is revolving around Blizzard’s upstart shooter. With KeSPA closing down the league they built since 2003, it won’t be surprising to see 14 years of experience be channeled into a new league. An Overwatch league.