The current era of StarCraft II is not the highest skilled

The current era of StarCraft 2 is not the highest level of skill in the game’s history.

That’s a controversial statement, sure, because it goes against the common belief that the current era is always the most skilled. The basic idea of that argument is that the more a set of players does something, the more skilled they get at it over a longer period. To a certain extent, I agree. Overall knowledge of a game is increased over time as well as mechanical prowess.

The problem is that belief ignores all other context of the scene and the players moving in and out. It also ignores other attributes that are critical to skill. Just as we acknowledge today’s players for playing more refined games, so too must we praise the players earlier in the game who built the knowledge upon which the current framework rests.

Players come in and go out, but the new players who come in don’t need to reinvent the wheel. They can just take the strategies, tactics and builds of past players and work on them. No one needed to reinvent Lee “MarineKing” Jung Hoon’s split marines against banelings. No one needed to reinvent Ilyes “Stephano” Satouri’s 3 hatch Zerg builds. Players can focus more attention on iteration and refinement. By the end of Wings of Liberty, Shin “RorO” No Yeol may have been the best bl/infestor player, But I don’t think he had it in him to recreate Stephano’s strategies from scratch if we sent it back in time without any knowledge of the SC2 past 2010.

Iterating and refining strategies isn’t always more skillful than creating them. It depends on the context, and sometimes the innovation or popularization of a new strategy far outweighs whatever refinements future players do. That’s why it took so long for even a game like Brood War to solve certain matchups. It wasn’t until Ma “sAviOr” Jae Yoon that modern Zerg was established. It wasn’t until Kim “Bisu” Taek Yong’s revolution that ZvP became balanced. That is why despite overall knowledge and mechanics increasing over time, Bisu in his prime was better than Heo “JangBi” Yeong Moo despite the latter winning the last 2 OSLs. It is why I believe sAviOr is a better player than any of Park “July” Sung Joon, Kim “GGPlay” Joon Yung, Park “Luxury” Chan Soo, Kim “Calm” Yoon Hwan, Shin “Hydra” Dong Won and Kim “Effort” Jung Woo. All of the latter players won an OSL or MSL in later years than sAviOr, but I’d argue with anyone if they think those players were more skilled than he was in the totality of their achievements and impact on the game.

There are multiple cases in both esports and traditional sports where previous generations of players are heralded as higher skilled despite not doing as well in later eras. Making value judgements like this on players or groups of players is subjective and requires someone to analyze strategies, tactics and how the game itself rewards the various types of strategies and tactics.

It is like making a value judgement on what is more difficult: A team-based or 1-v-1 game. They are miles apart in what is required from each, and the answer ultimately comes down to subjective reasoning. There is no way to find common ground in this type of argument.

So instead of doing that, I will focus on three specific arguments that can be tangibly proven on some level. They are: player pool, the WCS 2016 argument and the region locking information shut down.

The idea of the player pool argument comes from a debate Daniel “Artosis” Stemkoski and Rod “Slasher” Breslau had about which players were more skilled: Brood War players or Quake players? It was only a segment of the entire argument, and I can’t find it anywhere, but the crux of the idea was this:

Artosis said he believed Brood War players were overall more skilled, despite Quake being an incredibly hard game. More professionals were playing Brood War than Quake. After all, competition can only grow to a higher level when there are more and more people playing the game.

Now I don’t know if that argument holds water in Quake vs. Brood War, as I’d need a much higher analytical knowledge of both games and how they reward/limit certain types of skill sets, but what if we were comparing different eras of the same or similar games?

The lowering player pool, especially in Korea, is why overall skill has gone down this year. In previous years there have been more overall players. Look at the general population of 1-v-1 players at rankedftw.com. The data is recorded by counting all teams ranked in a season. The data goes back to 2013, and at that time there were approximately 150,000 in EU, 135k in NA and 58,000 in Korea. By the release at LotV EU was at 86,000, NA was at 76,000 and KR was at 53,000. The numbers overall have been declining.

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Another way the site tracks overall population is the number of games played per day. Those stats show a similar trend. At the beginning of HotS EU was around 117,000 peak games, NA was at 98,000 peak games and KR at 52,000 peak games. In all three cases, the amount of games slowly declines over time.

In LotV, EU started at 109,000 peak games, NA at 92,000 peak games and KR at 63,000 peak games. What has happened over the year is interesting. All three regions drop substantially in the amount of games played in all three regions as time went on.

But what is most important to me is the amount of pros playing. There have been mass retirements in the Korean scene in particular. I hand counted 262 Korean pros that have retired over the course of SC2’s lifetime. These are the players who were on either ESF or KeSPA teams who either officially retired or have stopped playing enough to be considered inactive by aligulac.

The fact of the matter is that there were always too many Korean pro players for the environment to support. So as time went on they were each squeezed out or lost interest. Interest in the game has also gone downhill in Korea, a trend the ranking of SC2 in PC Bangs supports. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that in sheer depth, the Korean talent pool is the shallowest it has ever been. Thus two things happen.

First, it takes less to get results we’d previously think were meaningful. Also, this increases the chances of getting a lucky bracket leading to a top placing. I consider the very top tier of the game roughly the same, though there were more world class players in years previous (though that notion is subjective).

But as the number of pro players decreases, so does overall knowledge of the game. Plenty of players throughout history were low or mid skilled players but also brought strategic ideas or specific builds that were taken and used — to better success — by other players. Eugin “Strelok” Oparyshev once used a brilliant reaper opening into a mech TvT build to beat Lee “NaDa” Yoon Yeol in NASL. NaDa then took the same build to win his GSL group a week later. Before Choi “YongHwa” Yong Hwa started to reel in strong results, he was the first to create a way to beat the 4 gate in PvP games and his ideas were taken and disseminated throughout the player base. Lee “Seal” Joon’s use of creep made Zergs realize the power of creep, especially against bio based TvZ players. There have been multiple other players who have done the same throughout SC2’s history.

In the current era of Korean SC2, there is no future generation of players. There might be one or two newcomers, but never a surge of players that all come with new ideas, new tactics and new strategies that shake the foundation of strategic and tactical thought.

Think about it this way: If you have a class of 200 students and a class of 30 students and both are studying the same thing with equal talent, which class will advance further in their studies? Isn’t it the 200? They have more people to discuss, trade and talk to and more people who can cover a larger set of ideas. In this example, the 30 students come afterward and are allowed to use the 200’s notes. No average scientists of the current day consider themselves smarter than either Newton or Einstein, despite the former knowing more about science. All that is happening is we’re building up on the previous generation’s knowledge. We had a head start. As Isaac Newton says, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

In the same sense, a player pool with more pros will inevitably lead to a higher skill level than a player pool with fewer pros if the game is the same (as it is in SC2). You could argue about skill ceilings of the different iterations of SC2, but all versions of the game had a skill ceiling that no player ever truly reached.

The next argument is the WCS 2016 argument. Many of the foreigners had felt they were always behind their Korean peers throughout SC2 because of the sheer player base and depth Korea could field. Not only were Koreans getting the best practice on their local ladder, but their B-teamers were of very high skill. Many such B-teamers throughout SC2 history could make a top placing in an international event if they were in the right form and met the right opponents.

There was also a lack of infrastructure, salary and motivation. It didn’t matter if you could upset a Korean or two early because there were so many in international tournaments that you eventually ran into someone better than you. So what was the point?

So one of the main ideas behind the current circuit was to help increase skill among the foreigners by giving them a closed circuit. It gave them more money, more competitive chances to win and — perhaps most importantly — motivation.

The real benefit of this system is that it helps the middle-of-the-table players most. Brilliant players like Artur “Nerchio” Bloch, Tobias “ShoWTimE” Sieber and Alex “Neeblet” Sunderhaft would have been great no matter the circumstances.

What convinced me this system was working for foreigners was the increased skill in players like Théo “PtitDrogo” Freydière, Marc “uThermal” Schlapp, Mikołaj “Elazer” Ogonowski and many others. These players had struggled with breaking out of Tier 2 among foreigners but have all personally increased their skills, mentality and consistency since the region lock was put into place. Whether or not they are definitively better than their previous selves is subjective, but it’s impossible to deny they have more confidence than they did in years past. This is what uThermal had to say about the changes:

“Yeah, I’m sure people are better. You can also see a lot of the players who weren’t that motivated before — Nerchio is a good example. He was really not that good in HotS, and then in LotV the game became better and the system allowed him chances. Now he’s trying pretty hard and he’s gone really far.

It’s kind of similar with me. Last year, I had been trying really hard for a long time. When all your effort results in a single top eight, and some Ro32s and whatever — it really felt like it was pointless to practice back then.

Now, for example, Elazer and Drogo and all the players who have a chance for BlizzCon—and me and all the top players—are trying really hard. I do think we’re better than ever, for sure.”

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So what about Korea? I think the players there follow the same rules as foreigners. As Neeblet said: “The Korean scene is dying at an incredibly fast rate because either Blizzard doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that Koreans have no tournaments to play in. It’s hard to stay motivated when you can’t show anything that you are practicing for another six months.”

This year there have been fewer Proleague games and now Proleague has dissolved. In addition to that all of the KeSPA teams besides Jin Air, Afreeca and MVP have quit. The players must have known about the difficulties of Proleague and the KeSPA teams, which must have affected their mentality. As foreigners have said, it’s hard to play when you don’t know if your future will be secure. So we are in a scene where Korean players either know or suspect that their economic futures are uncertain. There are less games to be played in the most important tournament in Korea. At the same time, the 2 tournaments that do run in Korea have their qualifiers run in the same time frame, so if you are in brilliant form after those dates, there is nothing you can do (as happened to Cho “Maru” Seong Ju).

Of course, someone will bring up that not all of the Koreans got to play in all of the international tournaments. True, not all of them did, though I think a decent amount have. What made these international tournaments so important is the same reason why foreigner pro players were so hyped for the ladder season qualifiers. Kevin “Harstem” de Koning wished there was some way to share the excitement and passion pros had during those times to the masses. Online tournaments for money are okay, but nothing gets your blood pumping as much as fighting your peers and rivals for a chance to play on a large stage.

Whatever you may think about the number or type of Koreans that got to play abroad, you can’t ignore the fact that nearly every Korean had a chance to play in the qualifiers of IEMs and DreamHack. Something that no longer exists.

Here are some numbers. This year Korean players had seven total individual tournaments they could play in: Two GSLs, two SSLs, IEM Korea, Homestory Cup, KeSPa Cup, WESG and IEM Taipei (which I didn’t count because it was an invitational with no qualifier).

Last year in 2015? There were three GSLs, three SSLs, more Proleague Games, two KeSPa Cups, four DreamHacks, four IEMs, two Homestory Cups, four Gfinity events and one MSI. In total that is 23 tournaments to the seven this year. That is more than triple the chances to prove yourself. In 2014, there were 28 possible tournaments for Koreans to play.

If you believe that the WCS region lock in some way helped increase the skill and motivation of foreigners, then the exact same arguments must apply to the Korean region. With fewer chances, less money, less tournaments and less infrastructure, how can it not affect skill or motivation?

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The final argument is the region lock itself. This only affects the Korean scene rather than the foreign scene as foreigners are known for studying Korean players, but not the reverse. Earlier this year, Nerchio was in Live Report threads saying that Korean Zergs were terrible at ZvT games. He was right. Strategically, tactically and compositionally the Korean Zergs were all playing an inferior style to what was being played in EU. This proved to be the case as Zergs started adapting as time went on, but that is one example of many of the problems with region lock.

Ideas, strategies, tactics don’t have crossover in the current scene, especially from the foreigner scene into the Korean scene. Back when Stephano was at his peak, he was considered one of if not the best Zerg in the world for his superior understanding of builds mid-game economy and the infestor. These ideas only came into Korea after the implementation of Antiga Shipyard and Stephano kept beating Koreans at international tournaments, forcing Koreans to interact with him.

This doesn’t only apply to large strategic or tactical shifts, but even minor refinement deviations. I consider Jens “Snute” Aasgaard one of the best ZvP players to have ever lived. I also consider Kim “herO” Joon Ho to be the best anti-swarmhost Protoss player to have ever lived. But the reason herO became so great at that particular matchup was because he ran into Snute multiple times at IEM and Snute pushed him to his absolute limits and broke him, forcing herO to reevaluate and rework his game to become the best anti-swarmhost player Protoss we ever saw.

With region locking minimizing Korean and foreigner interaction and with Koreans inability to scout foreign players until they actually play them, this minimizes the overall exchanging of ideas of strategies, tactics, compositions and builds and thus skill must invariably be lower than it was when it was an open circuit.

Overall these three reasons are why I believe that this isn’t the highest skilled era of SC2. First, the player pool, especially in Korea is smaller than ever and thus must necessarily have less skill than in an era where there was a larger player pool. Second, the reasons why people cite WCS 2016 as raising overall skill level are the same reasons why Korea in 2016 is losing out in overall skill. Third, the lack of international competition hurts the exchanging of ideas between regions, especially in Korea.

I focused on Korea as they are the most dominant force in the scene and dominated the competitive scene for the first five years of the scene. Their demise is a large part of why I don’t believe this is the most skilled era of SC2. In contrast, the foreigner scene is as strong as or better than previous eras, but their overall increase doesn’t make up the difference in what was lost in the Korean scene.

I didn’t write this to trash the current scene or belittle any current players. People can say whatever they want about me, but at the core of my SC2 writing, it is thus. I’ve always only had love for the SC2 scene, it’s players and it’s history. That was why I wrote hundreds of articles for so many years for free without the expectation of advancement or payment. It is also why I am so adamant about giving my honest view of the entirety of SC2 in as much detail as I can so that great players in the past get their due as much as those in the present. When people’s memories grow hazy, when people can’t remember small minor details like Kim “Billowy” Do Kyung using a proxy nexus recall to win a PvZ in Code A, I will. It’s the least I can do for a scene and a game that has given me so much entertainment.

Photos by Kirill Bashkirov/ESL, eslgaming.com

Slingshot senior columnist. StarCraft and CS:GO expert who pushes narratives over numbers. You can reach him at Stephen@Slingshotesports.com

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