StarCraft is reportedly dead, though for a corpse the exact time and cause of death are proving difficult to pin down. It’s possible that the StarCraft: Brood War match-fixing scandal of 2010 killed the pioneering real time strategy game a few months before the sequel was even released, but by then it may have already been doomed. Maybe when golden age Brood War legends like Flash and Jaedong captured their first titles they were already playing a dead game. If it did survive the transition to StarCraft II, it was only to be snuffed out by the popularity of MOBAs like League of Legends soon thereafter. Or, it persisted as late as 2016, when in the wake of more criminal convictions and falling numbers, the team-based KeSPA staple Proleague ran its final season and most of its squads disbanded.
Regardless, it was certainly dead before this year when a player named Sasha Hostyn bulldozed through an IEM bracket in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and shocked the tens of thousands of people who were inexplicably still watching. Hostyn, better known to fans as “Scarlett,” is a twenty-four-year-old StarCraft II pro. Except for a short retirement to try her hand at Dota 2, this is how she’s made a living her entire adult life. She’s so good at her job that watching her work from a first person view is literally nauseating, her screen smash-cutting from hot-keyed hatcheries to groups of scampering zerglings and back at a speed most humans can barely process. For six years she’d shown flashes of brilliance, beating some of the world’s best, but had never won a premier tournament until February. That’s when she overwhelmed the all-time leader in StarCraft II prize money, a very much alive but visibly shook Kim “sOs” Yoo Jin, and finally become a champion.
While Hostyn has, understandably, demurred from attention focused on anything other than her play, several pieces of context around her accomplishments are important.
The first is that she’s Canadian. The sketchy racial and nationalistic politics of StarCraft could fill a thesis, but for two decades the heart of the competitive scene and the lion’s share of its best players have been found in South Korea. Players from the rest of the world are referred to casually as “foreigners,” and with rare exceptions the international talent pool is regarded as junior varsity. Hostyn is only the second player born outside of Korea to win a major StarCraft II event held there. Due to a collaboration between Intel Extreme Masters and the International Olympic Committee—which depending on how many levels of cynicism you are on was either a showcase for the future of esports, or an empty branding exercise between corporate cartels—she hoisted the trophy with a maple leaf flag emblazoned on her shoulder.
The second is that she is a woman. Like most esports and much of the video game industry, competitive StarCraft is not particularly diverse. There are many reasons for this, they are all awful, and they have led to a game that is dominated by young men. The barriers for women to become world-class competitors are daunting; the environment they face once they get there—as evidenced by the death threats against Overwatch League’s first female player, Kim “Geguri” Se-yeon, and the entirety of the Twitch chat function—is just as bad.
To say that Hostyn is the game’s most successful woman would belie the fact that she has virtually no peers. So far this year, 137 players are listed in Blizzard’s Starcraft II World Championship Series standings. To the best of my knowledge, 136 of them are men. A handful of other women have competed on the fringes of the game’s highest level, like Seo “ToSsGirL” Ji Soo in Brood War and Kim “Aphrodite” Ga Young in StarCraft II, but Scarlett is on a completely different tier. The statistical ranking database Aligulac has her at 17th in world, and they’ve recently placed her as high as 11th. She’s now the only woman to win a major tournament in any version of the game, and long before her IEM victory, Guinness World Records had already crowned her the highest earning woman in any esport.
Now she’s on the precipice of her most impressive accomplishment yet. On March 9th, Hostyn is playing in the round of eight of the Global Starcraft League. The GSL is StarCraft II’s most prestigious tournament; Scarlett is the only woman to ever qualify and a win would make her the first non-Korean in the semifinals since 2011*.
In some sense, it’s perfectly reasonable to pronounce StarCraft dead. The number of people playing, watching, and financing the professional circuit are a fraction of what they were in the glory days. Numbers from the peak of Brood War are hard to come by, but none of the top 25 StarCraft II streams on the tracking site Fuzic came after 2015. It was once the biggest competitive game in the world, and such a phenomenon in Korea that it spawned entire broadcast networks and arguably the blueprint for esports as they now exist. The boom was so huge that for a time South Korea maintained an Air Force ACE team in Proleague so that pros could keep playing during their mandatory military service. That time is past, though, and when once star and now ancient twenty-nine-year-old Mun “MMA” Seong Won enlisted for his compulsory 22-months, the younger recruits weaned on Overwatch “weren’t that familiar with StarCraft II” and “had to look [him] up on the internet.”
Still, the truth is that the corny fairy tale logic of The Princess Bride was right. “There’s a big difference between Mostly Dead and All Dead.” And if our friend here is dead, it’s only mostly.
The original StarCraft turns twenty this month. The professional Brood War scene has long since dried up, with most of its stars retired or transitioning to Starcraft II, but people play nonetheless. Leagues like ASL persist, and while the competitors are older and a few actions-per-minute slower, the level remains unthinkably high and fans are still tuning in. Even before last year when Blizzard released a Remastered edition with updated graphics and modern quality of life improvements, players were fighting archaic network protocols and brick monitor resolutions to challenge each other in a game they love too much to quit.
StarCraft II is in its seventh year of professional competition. Many of the scene’s smaller tournaments have evaporated and all but a few of the major teams have folded, but the WCS and other major events are going strong. The players continue to be underpaid and there’s little scaffolding for up and coming prospects, but a contingent of the best in the world pay their bills full time by being impossibly good at one of the hardest games ever conceived. Blizzard Entertainment, who you may remember from such obscure releases as World of Warcraft, Hearthstone, and Overwatch, is a machine that prints money. StarCraft isn’t a money-making juggernaut like the other titles, but their extreme financial success means that the game can be, at worst, a loss leader for Blizzard.
In the fervor following a ubiquitous release or the momentum of the most recent craze, it’s easy to forget that video games rest on precarious foundations. Some of the defensiveness surrounding “niche” pursuits comes from a place of fear. Losing the joy of something you’re emotionally invested in is a genuine threat.
Consoles iterate and become obsolete, hardware evolves and leaves the previous generation in a pile of basement dust. Metagames grow stale and people move on to new diversions. Entire games, even commercial studio projects in the age of the internet, can vaporize. Ubisoft’s well-received Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game was released in 2010 and is already more-or-less unobtainable. Titles that are dependent on developer supported servers can have the rug pulled out at any time, a fate met recently by Demon’s Souls. Competitive games thrive on the support of communities and tournament organizers. Even brand new entries in successful series are at risk of being excommunicated, as is already the case for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite. And independent of the size of the stage, you can’t compete in multiplayer games if there’s no one else to play with.
There will not always be a Global StarCraft League or a Blizzard-backed World Championship Series. Like Proleague and the Brood War mainstays MSL and OSL before them, they will eventually close their doors. Ladders will empty out or shut down entirely, and it will be a sad day when they do. In the meantime, it seems like a waste not to enjoy what remains. That might yet be a lot. If we’ve learned anything from the logistical gymnastics organizers endure to promote Smash tournaments or players setting new Super Mario Bros. records 32 years later, it’s that “dead game” is all relative.
Sasha Hostyn might never be the best StarCraft II player in the world. After her victory in PyeongChang, she was knocked out of the subsequent IEM in Katowice, Poland, without making it out of the qualifying bracket. She’s not going to transform into an unstoppable marvel or single-handedly fix the gender disparity in esports. She won’t generate the 80+ million unique viewers of one League of Legends match—last year’s WCS Global Finals peaked in the neighborhood of 100,000. Scarlett will not throw StarCraft up on her shoulders and rescue it. But on any given night, she can beat anyone that has ever played.
In the calendar year she’s taken matches off of Katowice winner and reigning World Champion Lee “Rogue” Byung Ryul, greatest of all time candidate Lee “INnoVation” Shin Hyung, and the consensus top talent outside of Korea, Finland’s Joona “Serral” Sotala. On Friday when she tries to make GSL history, it will be against one of the best zergs of any era, Eo “soO” Yun Su. For what it’s worth, in January Scarlett beat him, too. Whether she can do it again or not is less important than the fact that we still get a chance to watch her try. Scarlett’s not here to save the game, anyway; StarCraft is already dead.