When it comes to watching live competition, this past weekend was about as good as it gets for me. My two “sports” of choice are tennis and StarCraft, and both had major tournaments going on this weekend. For tennis it was the Miami Masters tournament, and for StarCraft it was MLG Columbus. I had streams for both events playing on my computer simultaneously for most of the weekend, and it was pretty awesome to be able to see the likes of Roger Federer and Chris “HuK” Loranger do what they do best side by side.
The side by side viewing also highlighted the similarities and differences between the two. The biggest similarity, by far, is the fact that both are individual, one-on-one competitions. They both harbor that gladiatorial nature, which is something I really enjoy. It brings out the personalities of the players, and highlights the types of matchups that are often lost in team competition. Another big similarity is that both are at least as mental as they are physical. For StarCraft this is obvious, and tennis is just as much so. I really appreciate this aspect, as it makes both competitions feel very complete to me. Finally, both are very fast. Things generally happen quickly in them, and the smallest misstep can often spell the difference between victory and defeat. This brings a lot of excitement and tension to matches, which makes both playing and watching them exciting; there’s rarely a dull moment. I can’t think of many (if any) other competitions of any kind that share all three of these aspects, which goes a long way towards describing why they are my two sports of choice, for both playing and viewing.
What really stood out to me as I watched this weekend, however, is the biggest difference between tennis and StarCraft: the way they are run at a professional level. While I love playing and watching both on a match by match basis, professional tennis is just better run, and by a good margin. That makes sense to a degree; tennis has been around much longer, and has had plenty of time to work out a lot of its kinks. That doesn’t mean that StarCraft couldn’t learn some of the lessons already learned by tennis. They’re so similar in the fundamental ways described above that professional StarCraft could be run like tennis in almost every way, and in most cases I think that would be for the better. Here are three major things that I think StarCraft could take from tennis that would make it better as a professional sport.
1. Official World Rankings
Tennis junkies debated amongst themselves for decades who the best players in the world were before finally instating an official, performance based rankings system in 1973. Now we never have to wonder; right now we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that Novak Djokovic is the best tennis player in the world, Rafael Nadal is number 2, Roger Federer is number 3, and so on. This is a fantastic way to establish a pecking order, and give extra meaning to results in tennis. For example, going into this week’s Miami Masters event, there was a chance that Federer could overtake Nadal as the number 2 ranked player in the world. How does that not make the result of the tournament more interesting in the grand scheme of things? Having an official world ranking not only answers the question of “Who’s the best?”, but it also adds context to the larger narrative of the sport as the players play tournaments from week to week.
StarCraft has no official ranking at the moment, which makes it impossible to say with any clarity who the best player in the world is. Sure, you could argue that MarineKing’s win at MLG Columbus puts him on top. But what if, say, DRG comes out and steals the show at the next GSL? What if Stephano wins the next IPL? Would MarineKing still be the best then? Without an official ranking, our perception of the best players changes drastically from one event to the next. Each event stands on its own, its result rendered meaningless once the next event starts. An official rankings system would not only establish a true StarCraft hierarchy, but also give each result more weight in the larger narrative of the game.
The tennis calendar isn’t perfect, but what tennis gets right is that during the regular season there is a tennis tournament almost every single week, and with rare exception each tournament lasts exactly one week. Better yet, each tournament falls into one of four tiers of prestige, clearly defining what the biggest, most significant events are. This gives a steady flow of tournaments to follow: every week professional tennis is being played somewhere, and every Sunday a champion is crowned. And since the bigger tournaments are clearly defined, you know which tournaments you expect to see the big dogs show up at. The likes of Nadal and Federer may not bother to show up at San Jose in February, but come July you can bet they’ll all be on the grass at Wimbledon. It’s a simple, clear way to highlight what tournaments matter most, while still providing high quality competition almost every week of the year.
StarCraft, on the other hand, has a haphazard calendar. Some tournaments like the GSL take months to complete, while others like MLG happen in a single weekend. More confusing still, these tournaments often don’t happen at regular intervals, and there’s no real distinction on what the “biggest” tournaments are. Does winning a GSL have more significance than winning an IPL? It’s a mess to try and follow or make sense of these tournaments in the grand scheme of things, furthering the notion that each one is an event unto itself. If StarCraft could establish a more sensible calendar and tournament hierarchy, it would create a more meaningful sequence of events, and lend each result more weight in the bigger picture of the sport.
3. Tournament Format
The format for a tennis tournament is the simplest, purest kind there is: single elimination knockout tournament. This format is used at virtually every single tennis tournament, and it makes perfect sense for a one-on-one sport such as this. All of a sudden, every match matters; one off day and you are done. Upsets now become a big deal (which is always exciting), and you know by the end of the tournament that the champion is the only person who beat everyone in his path. Tennis further supplements this by having players play at most one match a day, and having matches be long enough to guarantee that the better player on the day wins the match. It’s all designed to create the fairest possible playing field, and do as much as possible to ensure that the better player wins.
StarCraft tournament formats are a mess, with qualifying rounds, round robin play and double elimination losers brackets all combining in the most obtuse ways possible. Trying to make sense of it all takes a monumental effort, and even worse is that individual matches are often really short. A best of three series in StarCraft hardly guarantees that the better player on the day comes out on top. Furthermore, many tournaments have players playing multiple times a day, which can not only lead to fatigue, but also eliminates important preparation time. This makes it extremely unlikely that we’re always seeing players at their best. If StarCraft tournaments were single elimination, one match a day, and every match was long (think best of seven or more), that would be an easily digestible format that would simultaneously guarantee that the best players advance from one round to the next.
I admit, there are a lot of factors holding StarCraft back from adopting tennis’ structure right now. Tennis itself took a long time to get there, and these kinds of things are often guided by money more than anything else. I’m not even sure the StarCraft audience is large enough to support the year-round structure that tennis has. Perhaps even more unlikely, a large number of bodies would have to come together and agree on a lot of different things to make any changes. Blizzard, tournament organizers, sponsors, players, and even fans; there are a lot of people with different contributions to the sport, and who knows if they could all agree on anything more unified than the haphazard collection of self contained tournaments that we have right now.
It might be wishful thinking, but that doesn’t mean I can’t indeed wish for more. A world where StarCraft is run more like tennis at a professional level is highly exciting to me, and would have me watching it week in, week out, rather than watching the occasional game here and there. It would give greater meaning to each tournaments’ results, and create a larger narrative defining the sport and its history. Tennis has laid the framework, and my fingers are crossed that StarCraft can one day make use of it.