Labor of Love: The Revival of Professional Brood War

By Cameron Gilbert, Web Content Developer for Evil Geniuses

StarCraft: Brood War is a special game.

Played professionally for nearly 15 years now, no game has contributed as much to building the concept of “eSports” as the original StarCraft. Even half a decade after its popularity peaked around 2006, Brood War was still filling stadiums in Korea and played in PC cafes all across the country. In 2010, it was rattled by a major matchfixing scandal and a series of lawsuits, and then StarCraft II was released. The two games were run side-by-side for a time, but in 2012 Blizzard, KeSPA, and OGN reconciled their differences to fully adopt the new game. Brood War players were forced to switch or retire, and many opted for the latter, choosing to move on with their lives rather than force themselves to start fresh in a game other than the one they loved.

In August of 2012, the final Brood War Starleague Final took place. Preceded by a Legends Match between BoxeR and YellOw, rivals since the beginning of the sport itself, the Starleague Final games themselves weren’t anything special. But the emotion in the room didn’t change. The commentators were moved to tears mid-broadcast out of sheer love for the game, and fans watched bitterly as they realized this might just be the last professional Brood War match they ever witnessed. The Starleague’s tagline was “Not the end. New beginning,” pointing toward the adoption of StarCraft II. This tagline ultimately took on a very different significance.

The rise of streaming completely changed the way we consume eSports content. No longer beholden to broadcasters or organizations, anyone could now easily stream any kind of content they wanted and find an audience. Instead of, which dominates the West, the Korean community uses a site called Afreeca, and broadcasters there are called “BJs” (broadcast jockeys). One of them, named Hyo Jin “Sonic” Hwang, had been working in Brood War production with OGN since 2006. After returning from his military service in 2008, Sonic started his own online shopping mall for shoes. When his venture proved successful, he used the profits to start his own online Brood War league on Afreeca for amateurs and retired pros, called the Sonic Starleague (SSL), in 2009.

After the switch to StarCraft II, many former pros who weren’t happy with the new game started streaming Brood War as BJs, and found a new place to compete in the SSL. “It was a shame that the careers of highly skilled Brood War pro gamers had ended and they were forced to play SC2,” Sonic told Daily eSports, “Many of the players were unable to adapt to the new game and retired one by one, which was also sad to see. So I decided to raise the scale of my competition.”

The 9th Sonic Starleague, held at the start of 2014, featured legendary pro-gamers like Bisu and ZerO, some of professional Brood War’s best commentators in Lee Seung Won and Kim Carry, a $16,000 prize pool, and an offline finals. And he organized all this while still running his online mall. “Any time I organized a Brood War competition, I could sense that there were still many fans in love with the game. Living the uneasy double life, I felt rewarded for all the work I put in.” It ultimately paid off, as after SSL9’s success, OGN approached Sonic to bring the 10th SSL back to television. He had done the impossible. A game, retired by its own developer, was brought back to life through sheer passion.

That 10th league is going on right now and the Round of 16 is currently underway. The matches are televised and held at the same studio Brood War has been played at for years. It’s full of both former professional players and brand new blood, eager to make a name for themselves in this new era and get a slice of the $45,000 prize pool.

The incredible nature of the story is enough to get me to watch, but the games themselves are as entertaining as ever. The level of play might not be as good as it was at Brood War’s peak when everyone was practicing 10 hours a day, but the things that made Brood War an amazing game to watch are still there. The unbelievable multitasking demand, the way air units dance back and forth in battle, the freedom to design battle plans tailored to your own style and the map in question, and to be frank, the complete absence of death balls make Brood War a joy to spectate. The graphics may be dated, but don’t let that deter you. If you give it a chance, you just might understand why everyone fought so hard to keep this game alive. There’s really nothing else like it.

You can find Sonic’s stream here on Afreeca or a Twitch re-stream here. For more info on the Korean Brood War scene and upcoming match details, check out Team Liquid’s Brood War forum.

Quotes from Sonic came from TL user Stratos’ translation of a DailyEsports interview.

Follow Cameron on Twitter @shirokaisen