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The State of the GSL

By Patrick 'chobopeon' Howell O'Neill
Jan 31, 2011 19:19


ImageAs the GSL approaches its fifth season, it has become a standard-bearer for e-sports. Will it be able to bring us to the promised land?

ImageAfter the GSL and OSL grand finals took place this past weekend, two pictures surfaced and captured the attention of Brood War and StarCraft 2 fans alike.

The first picture was of the crowd at the Bacchus OSL grand finals in Gwangju between Stork and Fantasy. The snapshot showed a packed arena, screaming fans doused in red light waving red flags and banging red noisemakers together. A red carpet led from the stage through the crowd and to the championship trophy waiting for the victor. The entire place looked as though it was on fire with zeal.

The picture shows one the most exciting and enviable events in e-sports: Brood War’s OSL grand finals. The OSL has history stretching back over a decade and has been the premiere championship in e-sports for most of that time. From a Western perspective, watching the OSL has been a glimpse into what e-sports might one day become here.
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The second picture was of the crowd at the GSL Code S grand finals at Jamsil Gymnasium in Seoul between MVP and MarineKing. This image was of a half empty arena and what seemed like a relatively lifeless crowd in a well lit place. If a picture is worth a thousand words, this photo told the story of a game struggling with attendance.

The stark contrast was quickly used to put forth the notion that the GSL was unexciting and empty while the OSL was packed to the brim and a thrilling experience.

These two photos have been hotly debated: Are GSL finals really so poorly attended compared to OSL finals? What does this mean for the future of both games? What does this mean about the popularity of both games? Are these photos even fair comparisons?

ImageIn fact, the two photos are, in all likelihood, not fair comparisons. When held up to video of both events, it starts to become apparent that the OSL photo was taken during the event while the GSL photo seemed to be taken before that had event kicked off. It is certain that the GSL’s attendance is higher than is depicted by the photo.

Brood War reigns in Korea

However, the same videos of these events reinforce an undeniable fact: the OSL is still more popular than the GSL in Korea. Brood War still trumps its little brother. The dimmed lights and carefully chosen camera angle in the GSL pregame ceremony could not hide the significant number of empty seats. The OSL’s cameras were just as carefully angled, highlighting the legion of fans cheering for Brood War’s ultimate prize.

Stephan Wimmer, an Austrian StarCraft fan, visited Korea during the opening season of GSL.
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“To me, StarCraft 2 wasn’t at all present in Korea,” said Wimmer. “I saw posters of international movies and [I saw] StarCraft 1 on television but in the public space, StarCraft 2 was invisible for me. No ads on TV, no ads in the streets.”

David Gimble Barret (known as GimbleB) spent eight weeks in Korea watching the GSL and attempting to play professionally.

“StarCraft 2 isn’t popular in Korea,” said Barret.

Regular season crowds at the GSL can range from under ten live audience members (not including GSL employees) to several dozen fans depending on who is playing.

The spectacle of the grand finals

The later matches attract a larger crowd. Eyewitnesses estimate that grand finals pull in thousands to watch the matches live.

Jinro, a season 3 and 4 semifinalist, described the season 3 finals positively.

Image“The crowd was pretty damn good as far as I could tell,” said the Swedish Terran. “No empty seats and going to the bathroom meant standing in line for ten minutes or something, unless you went during a game instead of in between. Oh yeah, of course [there were thousands in attendance].”

According to David Gimble Barret, the season 2 finals were similar.

“It was pretty incredible. The place wasn’t completely full but there were still thousands of people there,” said Barret. “It was the size of a big theater but more ring shaped and I remember there being loads of foreigners who came out to watch. Everyone was excited and cheering their lungs out and it went for the full seven games as well.”

Barret continues, “[Korean] people watch GSL and such but it wouldn’t surprise me if more foreigners watched it than Koreans.”

Commanding attention worldwide

ImageIn fact, the GSL’s greatest strength is by far its appeal overseas.

In two days, the GSL Code S finals between MVP and MarineKing have clocked in a very impressive 150,000 views from foreigners. That number is not counting those who viewed the event live and those who pirated it.

The first season’s grand finals have about half a million views to boast of. As of this writing, there are 53 GSL matches with over 100,00 views and a dozen more within imminent striking distance of six figures on GOMtv.net.

The recent OSL finals are available for free in English on YouTube and have accumulated about 8,000 views. Of course, this does not count those who viewed the event live.

Admittedly, the free OSL videos have not benefited from a four year hype campaign from Blizzard as the GSL did and the OSL makes little to no attempt to reach out to Western fans. In fact, the OSL’s reach to the West is severely limited. That truth has long hamstrung its potential outside of the country.

The GSL has capitalized on Brood War’s long standing and hard earned reputation as the world’s premiere e-sport, on Korea’s reputation as the mecca of e-sport and on Blizzard’s reputation as a reliable creator of great games. Even with a subscription-based business model for foreign viewers (the Koreans watch the GSL for free, supported by ads) and despite a live stream which has been of deeply questionable quality at times but has vastly improved overall, the GSL has quickly become the most important e-sports tournaments in the world bar none.

ImageOne step at a time

There are still many miles to go for the GSL.

Stephan Wimmer met Artosis and Tasteless during the first season of GSL and described them as noticeably nervous about the league’s future.

“I can imagine the future seemed a bit uncertain back then,” said Wimmer.

Since then, the quality of the tournament has come a long way. I spoke with Jinro about the state of the GSL.

“I’m pretty confident in the GSL long term, yeah,” said Jinro. “Their biggest hurdle to success is really just getting all the KeSPA/Blizzard stuff out of the way or so it would seem to me. But I’m confident that this is a problem that can’t go on forever and I’m sure GSL will be going strong still when it finally does resolve itself.”

When asked what the GSL was doing correctly, Jinro had no trouble at all listing good moves by the league.

Image“[They’ve been doing well] catering to non-Koreans! Obviously in this regard they are doing far more than OGN or MBC ever did,” said the Swede. “[Also, there is a] willingness to change and improve. I don’t know if this was something that came about due to criticism or internal analysis but after the first three seasons, two complaints I had were the lack of a group stage and that best of seven is really too much for the semifinals, both of which were changed last season. They also reintroduced the map veto which is great. In addition, the news that new maps are being introduced is about the best thing they could have done.”

The introduction of new maps for the GSTL (the Korean team league taking place this February) addresses long standing complaints about the stagnant map pool, the imbalance it brought and the short, shallow games it promoted.

A lack of new maps was one of Warcraft 3’s biggest problems while Brood War has had a steady supply of professionally made new maps for a decade, promoting a shifting and deep game which has kept fans engaged and enthralled for years.

While it seems to have taken the GSL a half year to realize the need for the injection of new maps, the fact that they have finally taken to the idea is a hugely positive sign. If the league can keep a steady flow of high quality, new maps coming, the game’s lifespan will be extended considerably and the quality of play will increase to be sure.

The tournament still has issues to address.

“[Some bad things still exist]. The current group stage system seems a lot more complicated than necessary,” said Jinro, “I think having a regular round robin would be a lot more fun for both players and fans. I wish they didn’t have quite as many games in quite as short a time, a little more preparation time in between games would be desirable for me even though it would lead to each league taking up a longer time.”

ImagePassing the torch and fanning the flames

While the GSL has miles to go before it can rest, the tournament has already become the standard-bearer for e-sports around the world. It’s playing an integral role in raising the profile of StarCraft in the West, something fans have been hoping and waiting for since time immemorial.

One of the biggest reasons for the great storm of hype which surrounded StarCraft 2 for the past four years since its announcement has been its vast e-sports potential. Those of us who have played for years wondered if this was the game which would take us to the promised land. Those who hadn’t been involved in e-sports heard of StarCraft 2, heard of what a phenomenon Brood War had become and became excited themselves, waiting for what great things the sequel could deliver.

In the fifth season of GSL, more foreigners will compete in the GSL than ever before. Jinro, Idra, Huk, Haypro, Ret, Moonglade and Loner will play. The GSL is poised to bring more non-Korean attention to the league than ever before.

The game has already touched millions. The competitive scene is expanding and has stayed solid. In 2011, a year hyped widely as the time when e-sports may grow in the West into the phenomenon long hoped for, the StarCraft 2 scene is leading the way. The GSL is without question the most important tournament for the most important game in e-sports.

The state of the GSL is strong. The state of e-sports is stronger still.

No one should take this progress as a cue to grow complacent. To realize e-sport’s potential, it will take hard work and play to see professional gaming grow into something greater still.

Photo credit: sportsseoul.com, Stephan Wimmer
Artosis was not able to respond for comment in time for this article.


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