Blizzard turned twenty years old today but we got the best present of all: an eSports focused interview with StarCraft 2 Game Director Dustin Browder and the Manager of Blizzard's eSports Department Joong Kim. Blizzard's not even old enough to drink, but the company has made a strong enough impact over the last twenty years to leave an everlasting effect on the world of eSports. Starting way back when with WarCraft 2, and evolving to the insanely popular StarCraft 2 franchise, the door is now wide open and Blizzard seems to think StarCraft 2 eSports has a huge future.
G4: How would you discuss your impact on the history of e-sports?
Dustin: I think we're just excited to be a part of it. Esports has been played in a variety of different games over the years but our fans really took to StarCraft and Brood War, and really took off with that and showed us, and I think many people out there in the world, what eSports could truly be. It's just been absolutely exciting to watch what the fans have done with our products and all of the amazing amount of effort they put in, in order to make it work. And then for us, having seen that happen in Brood War, and then again in WarCraft 3, we just put as much effort as we could into making StarCraft 2 a platform that could hopefully be a very successful eSport which would sort of capture the imagination of fans and broadcasters around the world.
Check out the full interview after the break.
Dustin: On the software side, our whole game, in many ways, is basically built around how important it is for us as an eSport. The whole game is designed bottom up as an eSport. We're also doing a number of things; obviously as the service continues on Battle.net we want to try to get people to share more replays, be able to see more professional level games, and we recently introduced the Master's League. We're also going to be introducing the Grand Master's League to call out visibility to the high end players that maybe aren't competing professionally yet but are almost good enough to be able to do so, so we can all see who the top 200 players are, in any given region around the world.
We're working on new leaderboards, and new call outs for the low end shoutcaster. For the guy that doesn't have an entire production department at his back, to create graphics for him, to show who the players are in a game and in order to show what's going on in the actual game. So we've got what we call our sort of Madden style; stats popping up on the screen, graphically pleasing, so it's easier for the little guy to learn how to be a shoutcaster, to put his stuff up on YouTube and be able to show it off to other fans.
Joong: On the community side, we want to make sure that everybody and anybody who wants to run a StarCraft 2 tournament can run one. And we will help promote them and bring awareness to their sites. We talk to a lot of fansites around the globe who are interested in running tournaments on the smallest scale to the largest scale. From a mom and pop tournament to the Global Starcraft League (GSL) in Korea. We support tournament organizations and tournament play of all levels.
Why do you think SC2 hasn't been as big of a hit here in the U.S. as it has been in Korea?
Joong: I think it's actually pretty popular in the U.S. Like the Major League Gaming runs StarCraft 2 tournaments here, and there are a bunch of small tournament organizers in the U.S., over a hundred of them. What we try to do is help bring awareness to their tournaments by either putting them on our website or telling them where to go to find the tournament organizer's page so they can participate in them.
Do you plan on running SC2 events similar to those run in WarCraft 3 via Battle.net?
Joong: It's something that we've been exploring. Once we have an idea of how everything is going to work, we're looking along the lines of doing something like that. It's definitely in our interest to make sure that people who play competitively participate in tournaments, on all levels, and I think it's very exciting for players to play.
Dustin: Yeah, it'd be totally fun to do and it's something that we're definitely looking at doing down the road. We don't have an ETA for anybody yet on when it will happen, but it certainly would be a lot of fun.
How often are new maps going to be released if you decide to use the new maps in the current ladder season?
Dustin: We don't know. We'd like to do it a lot more than we have, that's for sure. We are planning to have a bunch of new maps up on the public test realm (PTR) now that shows you some of the stuff we'd like to be doing.
What I’d like to do ultimately is have new ones every season. We haven’t had a season roll yet, we're running a little late on the season roll. We wanted to do those about every three to four months. I'd love to change maybe not all of the ladder pool, but a big chunk of the ladder pool for 1v1 and 2v2 and to a lesser extent for 3v3 and 4v4 just because those maps are harder for us to make. But I’d love to roll those maps every three to four months. Enough significant changes to feel like it’s a new season; that it feels like a fresh start with new challenges to face.
Is the PTR proving useful? How can the community contribute more?
Dustin: It's hugely useful for us. At a very basic level, the minimum it provides for us is it gets us to test our own stuff in a live environment on the actual hardware. So that's huge for us. Now, with the community, they're often able to find bugs and problems faster and more effectively than we have been able to do just because of the volume of material we're dealing with.
But beyond that, actual qualitative feedback is something that has been hugely beneficial for us and continues to do so. I would say if people want to participate in the PTR, please do. Login, play, give us your feedback on the forums. I receive weekly reports from our community team about what's going on on the forums from all over the world, so it's a huge, huge benefit for us. Anybody that wants to jump on just needs to know that you have to write a good post for us. Make it clear, well written, and punctuated. These things will help you get heard. And we are listening and we do want to know what the community thinks of the stuff we're putting up. It is, at the end of the day, why we put it up.
Can you give us any Heart of the Swarm info? How's it going to affect multiplayer?
Dustin: It's gonna be awesome! (laughs) We don't know for sure yet. We're still looking at a lot of different things we could do with the game design. Obviously we're very sensitive to the needs of eSports, and very excited about what the community is doing and we want to continue to support it. We feel like the pressure of eSports not only creates a great eSports environment, but makes for a really great game for everybody. Even people that aren't necessarily playing eSports.
It really forces us to focus on balance, on control, on clarity on the battlefield, all the things that make for a really competitive game. Even if the game was never really watched, all those values are really great for us so we're going to keep trying to focus on those values, and we're definitely going to be looking to improve the game and take the game wherever we can.
But you can imagine we do have some challenges ahead of us. We don't want to just add another three units to the game for this expansion, three units to the game for the next expansion. That would be a very bloated game for us at that point and the chances that some of those units would be duplicates of other units that already exist in the game in one form or another would be extremely high. So we're looking at the different solutions. We don't know for sure yet, but there will definitely be fixes and changes and various improvements to the multiplayer experience.
Is there any chance that we're going to see a similar league to GSL here in the US from Blizzard? Or more Blizzard sponsored tournaments in general?
Joong: We're going to continue to support GOMTV through awareness since we share the same interest in promoting eSports. As far as the rest of the world, Blizzard will be running its own StarCraft 2 tournament this year and we will run that in all of the regions we support. And we will continue to support other tournaments too like the MLG here and every other tournament organizer in the US.
How have all these tournaments affected the growth of SC?
Dustin: It's absolutely the single most driving factor in almost every decision we make. Because eSports is some of the best players stressing our game to the utmost of their ability, and because it needs to be something that is enjoyable to watch in a live venue by potentially thousands of people at once, it really puts an enormous amount of pressure on us to get control right, to get clarity right, to get balance right, and to provide ways for players to differentiate their skill level. That’s one of the most important values that eSports puts on us. It actually has ripple effects that go all the way to the solo campaign. So it is absolutely one of the most dominant design values that has helped create and drive how StarCraft is built.
A lot of Koreans are benching their Zerg players in the Global StarCraft Team League (GSTL) right now in favor of Protoss and Terran. Do you think the new maps will help balance Zerg? Are there plans to balance Zerg anytime soon?
Dustin: We get a lot of feedback all the time about race balance. We've had private discussions with a number of pros who tell us the balance is almost perfect 50/50 across all three races. At the same time, we're not seeing a lot of strong Zerg players like we did in some of the earlier seasons. So, we're not entirely sure at this point whether there's a balance problem with Zerg or we're just not seeing the strong players choosing that race.
Now, we are planning on some fixes for Terran (read: nerfs) in the near future which may have a pretty significant impact on the relationship with Zerg. But I haven't had a chance to really study those maps enough to really know if it's going to "fix" Zerg. I'd have to agree that they're broken first before I would know, but I guess I don't know what the impact of the new maps are going to be yet. We'll just have to wait and see. From what I've gathered, and what I've seen, they are going with more macro heavy maps which will obviously tend to favor Zerg strategies. In the beta we found with macro heavy maps that Zerg was just way overpowered and unstoppable. But that was the beta, what, six months ago?
Things have changed so much since then, both in terms of the balance but, more importantly, in terms of community and how they've learned to play. When those maps are so powerful, Terran was not nearly as dominant as it is now. The drops weren't as effective, people didn't know how to use the units nearly as well as they do now, so it's kind of hard to say but we'll just have to wait and see.
The reality is, is that the tournament results have often flopped around and gone in unexpected ways without us making any fixes. We've seen unexpected wins all the time So there's usually a dominant race or a perception of a dominant race there or a perception of a weak race but sometimes the players will surprise us so we'll just have to wait and see what happens with this one. It could very easily have an impact and that's obviously cool and fun to watch them do that stuff. It's pretty neat to see people tinkering with the balance and map pool. It's always very exciting.
How do you see eSports moving ahead in the future with all of these changes you plan to make?
Dustin: We hope it gets bigger! We think eSports is a really fun and exciting way to experience video games. It's something that was invented for us by our fans. We knew there was Quake eSports and stuff like this before we had it for our games, but our fans really showed us what it could be and really showed the world what it could be and we're really geeked up about it. I think it's really fun.
I watch the GSL in the morning while I work out and it's just an absolute blast. So we just hope that it continues to grow and, our belief is, certainly my belief is, that all you need to do is to get it in front of people and they will enjoy it. It speaks for itself. We just need to get it in front of people. Gamers specifically, and they'll have a great, great time with it. I've actually seen non-gamers really get geeked up actually in many cases by a variety of eSports. So we're just hopeful that with StarCraft out there, and our other products coming out, that it just gives us more and more exposure. And the more exposure it gets, we think we, hope, the bigger it gets.
How would you say is the best way to increase eSports exposure?
Dustin: Well one of the things we're always encouraging people to do is try to get great matches with people that you have some enthusiasm for. It's always exciting to see matches with people that you know who they are, or you have a history with, but it can also be matches with people you know. We've seen matches done by our fans like Harvard vs. Yale. When there's sort of a natural rivalry between the players already it just makes the matches that much more exciting to watch.
It's also really important to get quality shoutcasters. Guys who can explain the game not only to the pros but also to the new users as well. And one of the things that is natural for our community is to really focus on the hardcore, really focus on the guys who already know the game very well. But I definitely encourage you to get matches out there where you're talking over and describing the matches in a way that really anybody can understand. We think that will greatly increase people's attachment and understanding to the experience and greatly increase the exposure.
Have there been steps made to continue World of Warcraft arena as an eSport?
Joong: We do plan on having a WoW tournament this year. We will continue to make improvements on the observer and the camera, and hopefully make it easier for the organizations that we do partner with to run tournaments.
Do you think that WoW is going to fade out in the eSports scene now that MLG isn't focusing on it anymore?
Joong: MLG does plan on offering World of Warcraft stuff. Due to the technical difficulties we have with World of WarCraft we just haven't had a chance to plan their WoW season out with them just yet.
And there you have it. I think that Blizzard has the absolute best interest for eSports, and will continue to monitor SC2 and WoW, and watch for ways to help then grow in the eSports sphere. What do you think about Blizzard's eSports philosophies?