It’s the first day of pool play at the Major League Gaming Spring Championship in Anaheim. Soon after the opening ceremony, a crowd roars as one team of League of Legends players eliminates its opposition in a complex, coordinated strike.
Hundreds of fans at the Anaheim Convention Center in California – and, no doubt, the several hundred thousand watching at home – rise to their feet as Team SoloMid massacres Team MRN and moves one step closer to claiming a prize of US$40,000.
The League of Legends Championship is taking place to our right, in a comparatively small, sectioned-off area, and the sudden cacophony causes the heads of some thousands to momentarily swivel away from the main stage, where two professional StarCraft II gamers sit in soundproof booths beneath three massive screens.
The broadcast – going out live across America on CBS – pans the crowd and picks out a fan only a few rows behind where we are in the media section. He’s holding up a tablet displaying a quickmeme. On it, legendary StarCraft player “Flash” looks unimpressed, and white block text reads, “Oh, you make 100K playing LoL? That’s cute.”
It’s an exciting time for fans of League of Legends. Riot Games’ debut title has a gargantuan following and is currently enjoying huge momentum, but it can’t yet hold a candle to Blizzard’s StarCraft games. After several false starts over the past decade, the promise of eSports is finally being met. It’s about to tip into the mainstream, and StarCraft II is its poster child.
The prize pools are often huge and only getting larger, international players earn salaries and secure sponsorship deals that would make most local sports stars’ eyes water, and by the end of the weekend, 4.7 million internet viewers will have tuned in to watch the Spring Championship live.
StarCraft II spent five years in development. Unlike most games, it wasn’t expressly designed to provide between five to 15 hours of entertainment for a single player, and its multiplayer was never intended to be a fun addition that extended the game’s relevance by one or two years at the most.
Instead, StarCraft II was designed to be a game with simple, clearly defined and finely balanced rules, but one played at such speed that at any given moment the advantage can shift. It was designed to be a game that anyone could try their hand at, but one that requires incredible skill and dexterity to master at the highest levels. Most importantly, it was designed to be a game that spectators would so enjoy watching, they’d be willing to travel for hours to see it played live by professionals.
In that regard, Blizzard didn’t so much spend five years creating a sci-fi videogame, it spent five years creating what Game Director Dustin Browder half-jokingly refers to as "Basketball 2".
Creating an expansion to something that has become more than a leisure activity shouldn’t be embarked upon lightly. One needs only look at the mercifully short existence of the mutant Cricket Max to understand that tampering with an established formula can be catastrophic. Soon, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm will introduce a range of new unit types into the multiplayer game, and in the hours before MLG kicked off, Blizzard unveiled these units to the attendant press.
“One of the things that’s exciting about MLG is that it’s a place for us to get feedback,” begins Browder. “It’s an opportunity to connect with fans, see them play the [upcoming] game, hear what they’re doing and learn a lot more about what we’re trying to create.”
Everything shown at Anaheim is work in progress. While some of the new units have art and animations, others are placeholders, and none of the abilities or statistics for any of the units are finalised.
“This is stuff that we hope works out, we hope is cool. But we don’t know for sure that any of this stuff is going to work,” continues Browder.
Much of what is shown certainly ticks the “cool” box, but if initial fan feedback as to the power of these unit abilities is anything to go by, few of the units will launch as they currently appear.
“What we’ve generally done in the past is try for ‘epic and overpowered’ to start with,” Alex Dabiri, lead software engineer, tells Gameplanet. “Then we tune back just enough so that you still get the epic, but it’s no longer overpowered.”
The goal for all the new units to be introduced in Heart of the Swarm’s multiplayer is to bolster the respective weaknesses each of the game’s three competing races (the human Terrans, the highly advanced alien Protoss, and the xenomorphic alien Zerg) in early-, mid-, and late-game play that can currently require finicky strategies to overcome: