The longest active StarCraft competition has come to an end. KeSPA has announced that the StarCraft ProLeague, a Korean team-based league that started in 2003 with Brood War and ran for fourteen years, would discontinue operations effective immediately. This announcement was made simultaneous with the announcement that five top Korean SC2 teams would also disband effective immediately.
In announcing the closure of ProLeague, KeSPA Chairman Jun ByungHun said in a statement, “The drop in the number of ProLeague teams and players, difficulty securing league sponsors, and match fixing issues have made it challenging to maintain ProLeague.”
ByungHan also announced that five of ProLeague’s seven teams would disband as a result of the end of ProLeague, Korea’s only premier level team competition in StarCraft II. The teams ceasing operations include SK Telecom, KT Rolster, CJ Entus, Samsung Galaxy and MVP. The two remaining teams are Jin Air Green Wings, who have committed to keeping their team going despite ProLeague’s closure, and the Afreeca Freecs, who have not commented about the team’s future.
Commenting on the announcement, SC2 caster and owner of the disbanded Korean SC2 team Axiom, John “TotalBiscuit” Bain noted, “ProLeague was the only thing keeping those who didn’t qualify for GSL visible.” He also noted that “Korean viewership is not at all strong enough to give [Korean sponsor] a good return on investment.”
Axiom eSports was a Korea-based team but was sponsored by international sponsors and competed primarily in international tournaments, as did a large number of Korean teams and players. However, that changed in 2016 as Blizzard put a strong “region lock” on their StarCraft II World Championship Series which effectively segregated Korean players from the rest of the world with a couple of exceptions for Korean players with international visas. As such, the only prominent tournaments for Korean players and teams were two “seasons” of GSL and StarLeague along with the ProLeague. International players had nine high-profile tournaments as part of their WCS Circuit, three WCS “seasonal” championships and six tournaments held by organizers other than Blizzard.
While there are a number of small online tournaments that Koreans play in, such as Leifeng Cup, OlimoLeague and ShoutCraft Kings (admittedly, a very popular tournament with relatively high viewership), these pale in comparison to the number of similar tournaments that are available to professionals outside Korea. It would seem that it’s easier for teams and players to be financially viable outside of Korea because of the opportunities to win money in tournaments and be featured in tournament broadcasts.
The announcement comes just before Blizzard kicks off the 2016 World Championship Series Finals as part of BlizzCon. Six of the eight Korean players who qualified for the WCS Finals played for one of the now-disbanded teams. Dark, the top Korean seed, was a member of SK Telecom. Three members of KT Rolster (Zest, TY, and Stats) and two members of Samsung Galaxy (Solar and Dear) are also without teams just days ahead of the biggest SC2 tournament of the year.
In total, the disbandment means that 39 players are without teams at the moment. High-profile players not mentioned above include CJ Entus players herO (multi-time ESL IEM champion) and fan-favourite MC (the top earning player in SC2 history) along with StarCraft legends SK Telecom’s Innovation and KT Rolster’s Leenock.
What remains to be seen is the effect that the disbandment of ProLeague and these teams will have on the Korean SC2 eSports scene. As noted, there aren’t many tournaments for Korean pros to play in to earn money. Without teams subsidizing players with salaries or covering living expenses, the disbandment of ProLeague along with most premier teams in Korea will almost certainly force a massive change in the Korean SC2 ecosystem. It could mean that someone could step into the gap to organize more tournaments for Korean players or it could start an exodus from Korean SC2.
Blizzard has been struggling to find a way to grow the SC2 scene over the last couple of years. It’s lost market share and popularity in eSports with the rise of League of Legends, Dota 2 and CS:GO as the top games in eSports. This year’s tournament region lock was supposed to help the international competitive scene but seems to have done so at the expense of the health of the Korean scene. They wanted to promote international competition rather than allow Korean players to dominate the global scene. They’ve created a few popular international players such as Neeb and Nerchio but it seems that they forgot to help out Korean teams and players with a tournament scene there. Either allowing Koreans back into non-WCS tournaments or subsidizing small tournaments similar to Circuit Events are a good way to start.