As the 2017 season hasn’t started yet, I thought it was a good time to explain what games I plan to watch and why. This way, anyone can get my take on what makes a game compelling and gain a chance to expand their horizons. In no particular order:
StarCraft II: This is the game I am most intimately familiar with. It is probably the second best RTS game in competitive history, though there’s not much competition in that category, and it’s faster paced than its predecessor, Brood War. Once one of the dominant esports scenes, it has shrunk at a rapid rate. With so few tournaments left, though, it is incredibly easy to follow. Sadly, there is very little international play left in the scene (though Sasha “Scarlett“ Hostyn recently qualified for GSL).
The three most stylish players are Kim “sOs“ Yoo Jin, Cho “Maru” Seong Ju and Eo “soO“ Yoon Su. sOs is the epitome of what every casual thinks about the Protoss race (abusive, cheesy, and unfair) backed by an incredible intellect; on his best day, he can completely mind-screw his opponent. While Maru isn’t in top form at the moment, he still delivers some of the most exciting matches in the game. He has some of the best battle micro in the game today (I’d put him as the second best micro player of all time), and unlike “ByuN” Hyun Woo, he is a Terran who loves to use nonstandard builds. soO is the polar opposite of sOs and Maru: as a Zerg, he prefers a pure macro style, which he tweaks with tiny adjustments depending on the situation. Most importantly, no one utilizes the classical Muta/Ling/Bane composition against Terran better than him. Watch his finals against ByuN in OlimoLeague to see his prowess first-hand.
I rarely listen to casters when I watch games these days. I know too much from years and years of experience, so there’s little point. But I remember them being pretty good overall, especially when it came to analysis.
Brood War: Brood War has a complicated history with StarCraft II. Contrary to initial assumptions, the professional scene didn’t smoothly transition from one to the other. In Korea, BW’s days as the dominant game prematurely ended when KeSPa forced the players to switch. Now that StarCraft II is on the decline, many players have returned to play Broodwar. It is one of the most storied games in the world, and four of the greatest players to ever play it have returned: Song “Stork” Byung Goo, Kim “Bisu” Taek Yong, Lee “Jaedong” Jae Dong and Lee “Flash” Young Ho.
Known as God among his fans, Flash is rightly hailed as the greatest player in Brood War history and one of the greatest to ever play any game. Jaedong was his rival during Flash’s peak and if the latter didn’t exist, we’d likely be reserving all those accolades for Jaedong. Bisu is the most mechanically apt Protoss to have ever lived and revolutionized PvZ when he won his first MSL. That match is unique in esports history, and given how game balance and design works these days, it will never be created again — no developer will let a game stay imbalanced for nearly a decade just so a god-tier player can crack a matchup. Although Stork is one of the all-time greats, he has more of the everyday person sort of feel. Bisu, Jaedong, and Flash were considered demigods in their prime. Stork was just a man, but one who refused to ever bow down to their greatness. He fought them time and time again and with the exception of finals could beat them anywhere. Stork is a player with incredible longevity and tenacity; for that, he deserved recognition within this group.
This is a great glimpse into a game that helped define Korean esports. Also, I think it’s the best 1-v-1 game played at a professional level. The great Tastosis duo of Dan “Artosis” Stemkoski and Nicolas “Tasteless” Plott casts this as well.
League of Legends: Personally, I find the long season format of League of Legends boring. It is made even worse by the fact that Riot Games patches the game before playoffs, so league play feels inconsequential. Because of that, I generally just watch marquee matches or wait for the playoffs.
That said, there are good things about this format. It gives a consistent product across the year. In addition to that, the scene has great coverage in videos and writing about nearly every team or player from the major regions. League Champions Korea is of particular interest as many of the great players have returned, and multiple strong teams have formed in their wake. Additionally, the game is consistent in its formula. Each meta has a certain beat and rhythm that a majority of games follow. While I can’t recommend this game to people who aren’t willing to invest time into learning the basics, it does have a large audience. People like that sort of thing, right?
The teams I’d follow this season are SK Telecom T1, KT Rolster, Longzhu and the Afreeca Freecs (Korea); Immortals and Counter Logic Gaming (North America); and Fnatic and G2 (Europe). Keep a close eye on the Doinb/Swift rivalry in China, too.
Overwatch: The newest “big” esport. The game just started, and many people are confident it has legs. What makes this game interesting is that it’s a giant melting pot of players from various games and for many people, it’s their first competitive game. In a meta sense, there is a lot of money being put into the game in both tournaments and teams.
There is a certain quality to watching an esport from the very beginning. It lets you appreciate all of the players and teams more once you gain a sense of history. It also amuses me to watch new people deal with Blizzard and realize the frustrations that comes with it.
As it’s so young, the only team I could tell you to follow with any confidence is EnVyUs. They’re the best in the world right now.
Street Fighter/FGC: Among the games listed here, this is one of the smaller scenes. Although it has grown over the years with more monetary investment from Capcom, it never moved far away from its roots. The scene is still reminiscent of the old school LANs. Most tournaments don’t have official organizers, but rather a bunch of people gather in a place to fight it out.
Unlike larger games like League/SC2, there is no region lock or structured tournament circuit. Instead, people run tournaments in local areas with an entry fee. If you pay, you get seeded into a double elimination bracket and play. Majors are designated by a combination of attendance (how many of the top players showed up) and legacy (though that can get pretty vague), while EVO is designated as the Super Major. The cast of S-class players is extremely small at any given time, but there is a huge number of A/B-class players fighting to reach that next level; many of them have histories running back decades.
The relative intimacy is the best part about the scene. It’s small enough that everyone knows each other personally, and participants have more leeway to express themselves without large public backlash. Zhi can make as many borderline jokes as he wants during his casts. Players regularly talk trash all the time, and grudge matches are usually settled via the salty suite or money matches. The most famous one in recent memory was Perfect Legend losing in a “First to 10” Mortal Kombat match. It was made all the better by the fact that Perfect Legend was talking all kinds of mad shit to SonicFox, the EVO champion, before the match. He lost 10-0 and blamed the character selection. SonicFox then switched characters and beat him another three times. This is one of the most legendary blowups of all time. The worst part of the scene is that events like these are mostly undocumented. A lot of its history is unrecorded, and most of the older stories are transmitted through word of mouth.
The casting is unique because for the most part, they don’t bother with any level of objectivity or a standard of professionalism. They’ll take a side instantly without hesitation for whatever reason they feel like. If they think a character is cheap, they’ll call it cheap with both equal amounts of derision and praise. Pros often jump on the casting desk and cast games. The best part is if you just want to watch high level matches, you can stick to the top eight of the major events.
The five players to monitor are Infiltration, Daigo, Tokido, Nuckledu and Xian. Infiltration is the best player from Korea and one of the most dominant players since his debut in Street Fighter 4. Daigo is a beloved legend of the game with roots stretching all the way back to Street Fighter 2. No matter how often Daigo fades away from the public eye, he finds a way to come back and win tournaments. Similarly, Tokido is another legendary Japanese player infamous for finding the “cheap stuff” in every fighting game he touches; his ruthless focus makes him a foreboding threat in King of Fighters, Marvel vs. Capcom, and many other games. Nuckledu stands as one of the most promising talents from the newer generation. He came up around the same time as Infiltration and has developed into the best North American player. After winning Capcom Cup in dominant fashion, he is undoubtedly one of the best in the world. Xian is a fascinating anomaly from Singapore, a place not known for a strong scene. He has earned his place as one of the top players by bringing niche characters to the forefront. Through execution and character knowledge, he wins with traditionally “weak” picks against the highest level of competition.
Melee: The reasons to watch Melee are both similar and different to the FGC. The casting style is similar (though no one is as willing to push for edgy jokes as Zhi). Both are fighting games. The major difference is that Melee is primarily focused in North America while Street Fighter is international.
Another important difference is that if you’re only interested in the highest level of play in Melee, it is much easier to watch. Unlike Street Fighter, the scene is far more stratified in terms of skill. There are only six names you need to know: Mango, Mew2King, Leffen, Hungrybox, Armada and PPMD. In terms of narration, it’s the easiest to learn as they made a documentary about it. I’m not a fan of them trying to create LCS-like production with analyst segments into the tournament, but that’s only happened once as far as I remember.
Dota 2: This is probably the hardest game to understand in the current esports market. It is a direct sequel to the original Dota mod for Warcraft 3 and is the originator of the MOBA/AOTS genre. The primary developer is the anonymous and infamously reclusive Icefrog.
It has one of the best tournament circuits. The year is punctuated by three events, the two Majors and The International. In between those are multiple international events of varying size from small to extremely large prize pools.
It is a constant game of change in terms of design, balance and the influx of new players and teams. There is an infinite amount of data to learn, and it allows for multiple ways to play the game, though it has become more teamfight-oriented in recent years.
Casters and analysts are really good. The game itself seems to create natural analyst sections because of the drafting system. My favorite teams right now to watch are Wings and Ad Finem. Teams swap all of the time, so it’s easier to follow a player you like if you need a reason to be invested.
Counter-Strike – This is the game I watch the most because it has the most LAN tournaments, and the game is good. It is currently in a parity era where multiple teams have risen up to be champions. This is likely because of teams not adjusting to a packed tournament schedule and not having enough time to adequately practice, creating a strange field where the best teams slid a little and the mid-tier teams have risen up.
As a game, it is among the easiest to follow. It allows for both team play and individual skill to shine. They have the funnier desk segments (the only other people that can make me laugh as much is Zhi or Yipes going off), and the game seems to lend itself to great casting. They have a lot of great voices for casting, which is an odd thing to note as I can’t quite describe why this is the case.
The tournament circuit revolves around the Majors and one of those is coming up in January. There are a lot of interesting teams running around. I’d say the most compelling to watch is Virtus.Pro because they’re a catalyst for great matches.
Cover photo by Helena Kristiansson/ESL, eslgaming.com