Clash of the Titans: East vs. West

A look into the history of Eastern esports, and how it differs to that of the West. By Michael Oliver.

The globe is split down the middle when it comes to the perception of esports: one side classes professional esports players as celebrities, while the other has only just shifted from seeing them as basement dwellers. When these two entities clash at global tournaments it’s safe to say that the sparks fly; in some games the East dominates with an iron fist, whilst others have the West taking a strong stand. Then, in the middle, you have a playing field where both sides of the globe seem to be matched in skill, but take entirely different approaches to their gameplay — variety is, after all, the spice of life.

Korea & StarCraft

When asked about the difference between the East and West esports scenes, ex-Quake professional player and Diabotical dev James “2GD” Harding describes it perfectly: “Over in Asia, they take gaming so much more seriously.” He says, “just to give you an example: the Korean football team were playing in the world cup. To motivate the Korean football team to play better, they brought in StarCraft: Brood War professional gamers to their locker room before they played for them to meet what were their heroes.” To be a professional gamer in Asia is to be a celebrity, and it is classed as a higher level of sport in comparison to the conventional sports that the West is accustomed to. How did this happen? Well, there’s a key moment in history that can be accredited as the birth of Eastern esports as we know it.

It began with South Korea and the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Not only were people stuck at home due to unemployment, but there was a mass expansion of broadband internet networks in an attempt to combat the crisis. Stuck at home without a job and nothing but internet to play games — sounds familiar and a bit uncanny doesn’t it? Well, along with the opening of various internet/gaming cafes like the famous PC Bang, this kickstarted competitive gaming into the mainstream of South Korean entertainment. Who knows, maybe some new evolution of esports may come out of this year; history, after all, has a tendency of repeating itself.

Esports developed from a way to pass the time of unemployment to an established sport that was televised and watched country wide. The Korean e-Sports Association was founded in the early 2000s alongside StarCraft (1998) and Warcraft III (2002) becoming regularly televised events next to other sports. Blizzard (StarCraft’s developers) themselves were in awe at what the game had become in South Korea, with their chief operating officer Paul Sams responding to the attendance of 100,000 fans at the StarCraft 2004 pro league in Busan with: “that was the big dog — that really was when we knew, ‘Oh, my goodness, this has gone to an entirely different level.’”

As one would expect with the South Koreans being pivotal to the growth of Eastern and international esports, they dominated the global StarCraft scene. Year after year of international tournaments saw a South Korean victor, and for good reason. The West has only made moves in recent years to televise esports, yet the East has done so since the early 2000s. It was only in 2018 at the WCS Global Finals that a non-Korean player, Joona “Serral” Sotala, managed to win a StarCraft II international tournament, when the West finally managed to catch up to a point in esports that the Koreans surpassed almost two decades ago.

China & League

However, the popularity of esports in the East cannot be solely attributed to South Korea. China was one of the first countries to recognise esports as an official sport in 2003. Tang Wenyi, manager of team EHOME, states: “esports in China is already a sport that is recognized by the General Administration of Sport. It is the same as tennis, ping pong, chess. The only thing that it is not is an Olympic Sport.” You are as much of a celebrity in South Korea for being a professional gamer as you are in China. Games like Street Fighter and Warcraft III sat at the forefront of the Chinese competitive scene, paving the way for a new behemoth to overtake Chinese esports: the MOBA.

Through the advancement of online streaming websites, MOBAs like DotA 2 and League of Legends (2009) became the main esports of China. DotA 2 player and manager Tammy Tang commented: “in China, DotA is to the people there what StarCraft is to Korea. Its televised, the girls like their boyfriends to be DotA players… it’s like a real sport.” LoL in particular has also become dominated by the East, with every winner of the World Championships after 2011 being from one of Asia’s superstar regions. CGTN encapsulates the suffocation felt by EU teams in the League scene with the segment “G2 managed to beat the most hopeful Chinese team, Royal Never Give Up (RNG), only to find themselves being crushed by another, Invictus Gaming (IG).”

On the topic of European team G2, they were the “first European team to win a major international tournament since Fnatic won the first ever World Championship back in 2011” at the Mid-Season Invitational (MSI) in 2019. This was made even more spectacular as no Asian team made the finals, with G2 taking on NA’s Team Liquid in a battle to prove that, in the words of EUW caster, “the west [had] rose up to conquer champions”. However, even though the team was classed as NA, Team Liquid had Korean superstars Impact and CoreJJ. The topic of international players in NA teams was spoken about by colleague Branson Chan, so go check that out to find out more. For now, while China still sits upon the League of Legends throne, her rule may be coming to an end: only time will tell.

NA & Quake:

In terms of Western esports, I’ve already gone into detail of the rise of the holy trinity of genres that gives a brief outline of its origins, so go give that a quick read to get up to speed (shameless plug). Coming off of the popularity of Quake, shooters became the foundation of Western esports moving into the 2000s. QuakeCon has been ongoing from 1996 and still maintains the title of largest LAN tournament in NA, and Counter Strike has been prominent in both NA and Europe alongside the sociable youngest child of FPS from id Software.

Quake III: Arena (1999) was an iteration of the game that was solely multiplayer focused. Whilst QuakeCon drove the competitive scene of the original game, Quake III: Arena saw the appearance of independent leagues and titles across the globe. Between 2000 and 2010, the game saw multiple $100,000 tournaments, and is recorded to have given out $1,137,832 in total prize pool from recognized tournaments. In these tournaments, no Eastern player is recorded to have taken the title; even though the game was a success in South Korea with the Quake World Cyber Games and WCG Challenge being held there.

The competitive scene moved into the release of Quake Live, which served as a free to play, updated version of Arena in 2010. Throughout the game’s lifespan, a select number of players became recurring victors in almost every tournament: CYpheR from Belarus, Evil and Agent from France, and Rapha from the US. Throughout all of these tournaments, there were only European and NA victors, which is a theme that has continued with the current iteration of the franchise, Quake Champions.

Europe & CS:

If id software is the father of Quake, then they are also the great grandfather of Counter-Strike. Before there was CS, there was Half-Life; a game made by Valve Softworks using their source engine: a heavily modified version of the Quake II engine made by John Carmack at id Software. Half-Life (1998) was the first single-player FPS to have a heavy focus on narrative as opposed to pure action, and the dialling down of action was carried over by the modding community when the first iteration of Counter-Strike (1999) was made using the same source engine. CS focused on a tactical round-based format; instead of flying around the map on a rocket firing pogo stick, players had an objective to attack or defend as part of a 5-player team. Whilst accuracy was still a key part of play, strategy and teamwork took the place of twitch aim and skilled movement that everyone was so used to with arena shooters.

Similar to Quake, CS was very much an NA title. Minh Le and Jess Cliffe were the two main developers behind the mod, with the former studying in Vancouver, Canada and latter in Virginia, US. However, even though it came from NA, the professional scene appeared most prominently in Europe. It wasn’t long before the scene grew, with tournaments being held all over the globe. The first major tournament was held in Dallas, Texas at the 2001 Cyberathlete Professional League Winter Championship, an NA esport event that held different game events. Yet, at the event Swedish team Ninjas in Pyjamas took the trophy, boasting a prize pool of $150,000. In the following years CS grew to take over Western esports, and even moved into South Korea with their World Cyber Games hosting tournaments. It is claimed that 2002–2007 was the game’s golden age, before getting picked up by Valve themselves to make CS: Source (2004) and then CS:GO (2012).

In the East, CS has a strong scene within the region that has grown in recent years. Tournaments like the CS:GO Asia Championships and eXTREMESLAND CS:GO Asia help give Asian teams like Tyloo and Vici Gaming a global audience. But in a global context, the West still dominates the scene; proven during the 2019 Asia Championships held in Shanghai where European team Mousesports took the trophy.

There are various reasons why Western titles like Quake and Counter-Strike didn’t achieve the break through into the Asian scene in the same way that StarCraft did: graphic violence and no language localisation were contributing factors, but mainly the genres of RTS and MOBA being so ingrained into Asian esports culture made it impossible for another like FPS to scratch the surface.

Conclusion & DotA 2

The original DotA was popular all over the globe as a mod of Warcraft III, and Valve kickstarted the sequel by hosting The International in 2011. It had a whopping $1,600,000 prize pool that attracted the best teams from all over the world and showcased the level of skill of each region. DotA 2 is a game that allows for almost any strategy to work if the players are coordinated enough, and each region uses this element to be creative in their unique approaches to the game. Between the first and seventh International in 2017, the winner alternated between an Eastern and Western team, with a 4–3 score. Each year, The International represents a place where all barriers of nationality are forgotten, and all people are connected through their skill and passion for the game. Through the Asian publisher Perfect World, Valve were able to develop DotA 2 for both a Western and Eastern audience to keep a global connection between players.

With each region having their specialised titles, DotA 2 acts as a level playing field for each region. I find it beneficial to have a look at as many esport scenes as possible, rather than the one you’re interested in. DotA remains as the esport I most enjoy watching, even though I love watching most of them. The freedom to be creative in strategies and composition, instead of being defined by a specific meta of strong heroes each patch, allows for each team to bring in their own unique style. The simple fact that anyone can win each year’s International keeps the scene fresh, which is a feeling I believe every esport strives to produce in their fans.

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