KeSPA, GOM Classic, and the Future
If you've been following the news, you'll know all about the recent KeSPA-GOM debacle. Here we offer a more in depth view of the situation and what it might come to signify for the community at large.
This has been a day long in the coming. Those who predicted KeSPA, GOM and Blizzard might once again be tangled in the messy affairs of the past were right. Even though there has been willingness from all sides to make things work, the entire venture may still fail, and recent events show us exactly why. However, what makes this such a delicate event, perhaps even a watershed moment, is not really a potential misunderstanding - an unfortunate misalignment of schedules, as has been claimed - but something that happened several years ago, when GOM were running a series of tournaments for Brood War.
There were two major Brood War individual leagues at the time: the MBCGame Starleague and the OnGameNet Starleague, organized and broadcasted by respective gaming channels MBCGame and OnGameNet, both of which were affiliated with KeSPA itself. In 2008 a third major tournament came along in the GOMTV Classic. The first two seasons of the GOM Classic went by without much issue, but problems arose in the third, when several teams withdrew their support, citing overwork and scheduling issues. This is simultaneous with Blizzard Entertainment directly sponsoring GOM’s Season 3. After Season 3, in spite of favorable reception, all KeSPA teams withdrew from the tournament, leaving GOM with no choice but to shut down the competition.
The exact goings on are unknown and likely to remain so, but we can take a pretty good guess. We know, for instance, that Blizzard and KeSPA had not solved their dispute over broadcasting rights. As far as the Koreans were concerned, this foreign company was muscling in on a business, industry and culture they had built from the ground up. From Blizzard’s point of view, they were they only taking what was rightfully - legally - theirs. No headway was made, and KeSPA continued operating in essentially the same way until a deal involving Starcraft 2 was finally struck in 2011.
Years before that happened, however, in 2008, Blizzard put their foot forward with GOM. GOM are a streaming service and a broadcasting channel in their own right, one with a larger following than, say, those interested in Starcraft. Critically, they were not, like MBCGame and OnGameNet, intimately involved with the Korean overlord. Moreover, they had a contract with Blizzard. This placed them in an awkward position, for which they paid the price later on. For one, they were not willing to comply with KeSPA in every way. Secondly, they were in a sense the legitimate representatives of Blizzard. Thirdly, they were successful, which meant that a third, insubordinate tournament might draw viewers away from MBCGame and OnGameNet. They were competition, and not just in the field of Brood War, but in the upcoming Starcraft 2 market as well.
Officially KeSPA didn’t do anything. Its teams simply withdrew, but given the context we’ve built up so far we can hazard a guess and say that KeSPA asked, bullied, persuaded or ordered its teams to abandon GOM Classic. In doing so it didn’t just starve an upstart, it destroyed a competitor and reasserted control of its monopoly, in much the same way large companies suffocate small and middle sized enterprises. By all intents and purposes this was a punitive action, but it was more than just a slap across the wrist. It was KeSPA shrugging off this other, running them into ground, because they could, because this would-be partner was not convenient, because they were met with non-compliance. Whatever KeSPA were looking for was a blatant act of extortion, and what followed the debacle proved that it was. GOM Classic became history, closing in 2009, the players lost a major tournament, and the viewers enjoyed less entertainment. KeSPA’s image itself should have suffered; instead business continued as usual, and the management was appeased. Journalists and viewers alike ate it up.
There was something else about GOM that pulled it apart from KeSPA: their focus on the international viewership. Arguably the first Korean organization to seriously market their product towards a foreign audience, they enlisted the likes of Tasteless and SuperDanielMan for their casting talents, showing not just remarkable foresight (Starcraft 2 was just around the corner) but a distinct vision for the future, which was lacking in a locally centered market. Although GOM Classic failed, this ideal remained, and when GSL came into being in 2010, it included an invitation for all foreign players, special seeding, and even a “foreign team” practice house.
With Starcraft 2’s release there was the question of new tournaments and perhaps new organizations. Blizzard reached out to KeSPA once again, with few results, and, again, it was GOM who got the rights. As new teams were formed and the GSL developed, however, we still couldn’t help but look at the Brood War pros whom we knew must one day leave their game behind. With Brood War destined to decline, the end of an age was at hand.
Somehow Starcraft 2’s arrival was in the nick of time, when streaming services and widespread gaming created not only a culture but an infrastructure for a new level of competition and a new way to experience and participate in it. That wasn’t all: initiating potential fans was as easy as a youtube link, and the game’s expert design made it a terrific viewing experience even for those who never played the game. Blizzard marketed Wings of Liberty in expert fashion, shoutcasters made it more approachable, tournament organizers made it spectacular, other media helped make it a community event. The fans loved it. We presume they still do.
GSL’s continuing success is the product of this complex relationship, but that is a simple and obvious statement. What GOM really accomplished was creating a foreign market for Korean players - viewer wise and team wise. ESF players readily participate in foreign tournaments and regularly seek recruitment from foreign teams for the opportunities they provide. We must never underestimate the value of a large and varied tournament scene. The panorama we now enjoy, that of a slew of international events, large and small, is a vibrant picture. We encounter new great players all the time, creating an atmosphere that is both dynamic and surprising. If the only platform for self-assertion were Code A, we would be poor eSports citizens indeed. GSL may be the most prestigious tournament on the planet, but it is a very poor trampoline for the aspiring. One does not, after all, break into gymnastics at the Olympics.
But this is all irrelevant for KeSPA. For virtually all of their history, they owned their market, and it shows. If the western level of competition once again dropped, and the vine slowly withered, they would be content to let the dying die while cultivating their own backyard. They’ve nothing to lose in Korea, since they own it all, and the problem is, that’s fine with them. This is why GOM and the ESF are so important. They have the head start, they laid groundwork, and they’re willing to give us what we want. But KeSPA still have all the leveraging power, they have all the stars - the big ones - and they know it. Pulling them from the GSL with any excuse, whether genuine or pretext, still makes a point, and is a chilling reminder of what happened to GOM Classic.
It’s not surprising that ESF responded in the same way. The big guy on the playground won’t share his lunch money but still expects you to chip in. The players are the resources here, and as long as KeSPA can have both organizations’ star power there is no need for them to surrender viewers to GOM. In a conciliatory gesture, KeSPA’s players were pledged for GSL Season 5, but then again until a few days ago we similarly expected them to participate in Season 4. Now there is no participation, and the relationship becomes a little more frayed.
Even so, it may be the case that KeSPA is discovering they have less leverage than they might expect. MBCGame became MBC Music in February 2012, leaving the OSL as their remaining individual league. The hype their players accumulated may start to dwindle as they face up to the veterans, and the potential foreign viewers may be less than impressed with the names Flash, Jaedong and Bisu. Indeed, they may not even ring a bell.
This might appall the Brood War enthusiast, but the truth is the end goal for any eSports brand is to make them an insignificant minority. The larger public has never seen or played or Brood War, but they may yet practice Wings of Liberty. They come in fresh, with only what they see to guide them. It might sadden some people that it won’t be Flash, but Husky, to draw these new souls in. This is what ultimately may spur KeSPA to cooperation. What happens once its teams have established themselves as well known brands in the west, however, will be an entirely different discussion.
Like governments, eSports associations also have their own constituencies. As long as their viewers follow meekly along with their plans, they’ll be reduced to a consumer-provider relationship in which they have no say. Organizations like NASL and casters such as Tastosis frequently stress the importance of sponsors. Most importantly, they stress feedback and the very real effect it can have. This has lead some viewers to become more aware of their role in this transaction, so much so that the “concerned viewer” has become even somewhat of a joke. Yet it may come to this. As KeSPA becomes more involved with Starcraft 2, there may be a time when we, the viewers, may have to say enough.