Earlier this spring, a significant chunk of the whos-who of professional gaming gathered in Katowice, Poland for the first annual Global Esports Forum. Timed to coincide with Intel Extreme Masters Katowice, one of the largest gaming tournaments of the year, the Forum was a celebration of all that esports have achieved over the last eight years.
Until recently, esports executives liked to describe the industry as the “wild wild west,” a metaphor meant as a compliment, a warning, and an offer: if you want to invest here, hire a guide. In 2018, as esports consolidates around a dwindling number of companies, colonialism might be the more apt analogy. Esports isn’t nearly as lawless as it used to be, but it is a whole lot richer. Wealth has transfigured those roughneck guides into viceroys, now dressed in the same clothes as the investors whose attention they now command. The men and women who spoke at the Forum—higher-ups from companies like ESL, Intel, Team Liquid, and the other victors of the scramble for cyberspace—now command vast empires arcing across virtual and physical lands, and their intended message could hardly be clearer: esports has arrived.
As the day wore on and attention spans waned, an analyst from the market intelligence firm Newzoo presented the company’s annual report (available, here, for $7,500), which takes on the unenviable task of estimating the gross value of a messy industry. Armed with plenty of cheerful graphs, he guided the audience—mostly journalists and would-be investors—through the same story of growth told by any metric you could think of. Finally, one bleary-eyed hedge fund suit, clearly skeptical of and a bit exasperated by yet another pitch for esports with no downsides, mustered up the question that no one else had dared to ask.
If you’re an esports fan today, there’s a decent chance that your interest in competitive gaming began with Activision-Blizzard’s legendary strategy franchise, “StarCraft.” But it’s also, I’m sorry to say, likely that you haven’t touched the game in years.
When “StarCraft II” was released in 2010, it signaled to audiences across the world that a new era of esports had arrived. Designed with professional play in mind and timed to coincide with the rise of livestreaming, “StarCraft II”-the-esport was an instant hit. For a period of time in the early 2010s, “StarCraft II” it was the most-watched game in the world, a sign that esports might actually take root outside of South Korea, where the game was, more-or-less, a national sport.
Then everything fell apart. After two years of growth, “StarCraft II’s” viewer- and player-base began to contract, then went into freefall. And while “StarCraft” is not the only would-be esport to “fail” – most do, in fact – it is, as of now, perhaps the only game to be humbled to the degree it has, tumbling from lofty heights and coming to rest in the humble margins of esports. By the end of 2013, “StarCraft II” had, for many, become a painful reminder of what was, or what could have been. Esports, by and large, moved on to new games with brighter futures.
But just how far “StarCraft II” has fallen—and who or what is to blame—is more of an open question than many give it credit for. And if you’re still a fan of “StarCraft II” in 2018, it also happens to be a matter of pride. When I wrote, for the first time in years, about StarCraft for Rolling Stone in February, I suggested, in passing, that the game’s decline had “left behind a ruin.” Fans on the “StarCraft II” subreddit disagreed with my interpretation, feeling that I’d succumbed to a fatalist, “dead game” mentality that has haunted “StarCraft” for years.