You kids and your MOBAs. It used to be that we didn't have any of this League of Legends or Dota business. The heady days of 2010 were quite the time to be alive. On July 27th that year, Blizzard's real-time strategy (RTS) title StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty came out, quickly becoming the world's biggest eSport. Although, back then, eSports didn't have the profile in the West that it enjoys today, more likely to be sneered at than not outside of the Far East. Young people making money from playing video games? Ridiculous.
How things have changed. Professional gamers can now earn salaries to make most eyes pop free of their sockets, and the release of StarCraft II was widely credited with rapidly growing the popularity of gaming as a job, rather than just a hobby. However, in 2015, most young pros are playing MOBAs. In the wake of the meteoric rise of LoL and Dota, StarCraft has been left in the dust. A quick Google trends query shows just how much the mighty has fallen. (Check out the graph here.) The game was even briefly dropped from the Major League Gaming circuit, one of the biggest pro-gaming leagues in the world. So what has happened to StarCraft, former eSports giant and once called "Korea's national sport"?
It's not dead, so let's get that out of the way first. StarCraft II was reinstated to the MLG schedule shortly after it disappeared, and for the past few years the prize pool for its Global Finals has been $250,000. Not a sum to be sniffed at. But when you compare this to the $2,130,000 prize pool at the 2014 League of Legends World Finals, and the frankly ludicrous prize pool of over $18 million for The International 2015, the premier Dota 2 competition on the circuit, you can see why an aspiring pro-gamer would be drawn to the MOBA end of the gaming spectrum. Even Smite, a relatively new MOBA with a much smaller following than the two giants, had a $2.6 million prize pool at its 2015 world championships.
The big MOBAs buck the trend of games losing popularity after release. Remember when Titanfall was huge? Feels like forever ago. StarCraft II has certainly gone downhill since it came out, but it's still clinging on. Rather than substantial swings in popularity though, it appears to be simply plateauing in appeal: well loved by its fans, but a forgotten, albeit fond, memory for everyone else. Back in 2010, I was watching StarCraft videos every day, checking out live streams and reading up on pro strategies. When I wasn't consuming it on the Internet, I was playing it. The game was well presented at tournaments, with the commentators – known as shoutcasters in the eSports scene – being well informed and generally pretty engaging. But the game's not grown since then.
Blizzard hasn't exactly gone wrong with StarCraft's (re)presentation; it's just that League's Riot Games and Dota makers Valve have done so much more towards pushing their products to the masses. Most competitive eSports are hard to learn, but when you combine StarCraft's difficulty with the amount of money you have to spend to even start the game, you have a high barrier to entry. League of Legends is inscrutable to an outsider, but the game is free. You can try it out, and if you don't like it, no harm done. To get up to date with StarCraft II you'll have to buy 2013 expansion pack Heart of the Swarm, and that'll set you back the best part of 20 dollars stateside, or a tenner in the UK. The next expansion, Legacy of the Void, comes out in November (2015), and you'll have to fork over another £30 for that. There's single-player content is included in the price, but for those only interested in multiplayer matches, these expenses represent a big ask, especially of younger players without full-time income, when there are free-to-play alternatives on the market.
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Blizzard may well have shot itself in the foot by having too many games active at the same time. Not only has the summer-released Heroes of the Storm, another Blizzard product, stolen the previous StarCraft expansion's acronym – which may seem trivial, but when hashtags can be used to measure popularity it means a lot – but it has also taken the free-to-play route. Blizzard is certainly trying to emulate the success of the other MOBAs with HotS (despite it being dubbed a "Hero Brawler" instead), and while it is doing well, it isn't coming close to what Dota and LoL are achieving. Another Blizzard game, Hearthstone, is also free to play, and has a lower skill barrier to entry, so it has become hugely popular – more so to play than to watch, as being a collectible card game it's hardly the most explosive of sights, and there's plenty of luck involved too. StarCraft II saw a brief spike in popularity when Heart of the Swarm was released, but since then Blizzard has been all about Hearthstone and HotS.
Another factor in StarCraft's fall from dominance could be beyond Blizzard's control, though. Gaming's seen a slow decline in popularity of the RTS genre across the past decade – beyond freemium mobile games like Clash of Clans, at least. Today, gamers seem more interested in immediate action than pondering and planning their next move in time-consuming detail. Instead of barking orders to vast armies, we're controlling just a single hero, whether they're wielding an assault rifle in Call of Duty or a bow and arrow in League of Legends. RTS players have naturally migrated over to MOBAs – the battleground of Dota began as a mod for World of Warcraft III, and its design is based on StarCraft's "Aeon of Strife" stage.
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The opening cinematic to 'StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void'
And it's easy to see, from a spectator's perspective, why MOBAs have grown as RTS games have shrunk from high-profile play. Admittedly, at first glance a newcomer won't have any idea what's going on; but when you start to understand these games and break them down, it's easy to filter out the extraneous stuff in any MOBA and focus on what matters. It's five on five, which is a lot easier to understand than watching dozens of units at a time going at it. The team game aspect is part of it, too. No matter what MOBA you're playing, it's always better with friends. You can play as a team in StarCraft, but it's only balanced for one-on-one competitive play.
It's also easier to see the individual skill of each player in a MOBA. StarCraft II players can have incredible reactions, hugely strategic brains, and deliver a high number of actions per minute, but this doesn't necessarily come across when watching a match. Unless you really know what you're looking for, it can all look like a bit of a mess in large battles. What you might not see on screen is that one player controlling their base at the same time as launching an offensive. In League of Legends, one thing is always the focal point: this guy hopped over a wall, blasted another player in the face, and then fired a shot halfway across the map to finish off another enemy. If you missed something, you're treated to a replay. Impressive though it may be, you won't be seeing any replays of StarCraft players switching workers to a different piece of ore while fighting off Zerg on the other side of the map.
Legacy of the Void will see interest in the RTS genre rise again when it comes out, but for it to be anything more than a short-lived spike something drastic has to happen. And that something might not even exist at all. Tennis isn't a bad sport, but it won't ever overtake football as Britain's favourite. Likewise, StarCraft isn't buried by a long shot, but will it reach the top again? Not anytime soon.
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