Interview With ESLs Carmac
Alex "AGar" Gardner recently sat down with Michal "Carmac" Blicharz of the ESL's Intel Extreme Masters series for an interview about ESL's involvement with StarCraft 2, his feelings on StarCraft 2 itself, and the situation in Korea as well.
The ESL Intel Extreme Masters is arguably the most competitive and prestigious gaming tournament outside of Korea, with large prize pools being offered and gamers across the globe enduring through countless trials and qualifiers for a shot at saying they are the Intel Extreme Masters champion. Now in its fifth season, the IEM is going strong, aided by the addition this season of StarCraft 2, Blizzard's new RTS powerhouse and eSport hopeful. The man behind the ESL, Michal "Carmac" Blicharz, is a well-known figure in esports, and has been running one of the most successful leagues in the world for over a year and a half now, with an incredible amount of success.
Recently, I got the chance to sit down with Blicharz and talk to him about the IEM's inclusion of StarCraft 2 this season, how he feels about the game as a whole, and what his opinion is on subjects like the situation in Korea and the balance issue.
Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Could you start by introducing yourself and what you do with ESL for our readers?
The pleasure is all mine. My name is Michal Blicharz and you can find me on top of the Bronze ladder beating Gold level players in SC II as "Carmac". I am in charge of the Intel Extreme Masters, one of the world's most prestigious gaming leagues.
I was previously a an esports journalist for the GGL and SK Gaming and was relatively well-known for that.
Thanks. ESL announced prior to beta launching that they would be supporting StarCraft 2 from the get-go, and you have yet to disappoint, starting things off strong with having StarCraft 2 at the Global Challenge event at Gamescom and putting StarCraft 2 in the Intel Extreme Masters Season V, along with several of the ESL Pro Series picking it up, with a lot of participation globally. Did you as an organization see StarCraft 2 seeing this much success right off the bat, and how much do you think ESL fueled that success?
We're all gamers in ESL (sadly the CEO is a total DotA junkie), so I would lie if we didn't know what was coming. It wasn't really that hard to predict - a successful esports title needs great gameplay and a gazillion people playing it. StarCraft II was bound to have that.
How much did we fuel the success? It's hard to say - we need a game like StarCraft II as much as the game needs tournament organisers like us for it to be an esport. We can certainly take credit for being the first to prove the game works as an esport with an audience larger than its hardcore player base. We had a fantastic response at Gamescom from all types of people and we broke several records for ESL TV.
That's great news to hear for StarCraft 2 fans. Given the current balance issues with the game, has there ever been a time where you might have thought that you jumped the gun on including StarCraft 2 so early?
We all played beta as well and kept an eye on the styles of very high level players, so we can't also say that we jumped the gun on the game "so early."
I think it's only because of the extremely high standards that we hold Blizzard to that we talk about balance issues in this game. Most other games would be branded perfect with the balance SC II had in the beta stages.
You will keep finding imbalances in the game after every patch, but those will always even themselves out. Something's always going to be overpowered until a player comes out and squashes it with a new style. If those are the problems for me to deal with with every new game, then I'll take them with a banana grin on my face.
How do you feel about how the way things are going for the IEM right now, with the finals of the American championships in a few weeks and European championships into the second qualifier rounds?
I think we are in quite a good state. I'm very excited for New York City to see how the Comic Con crowd responds to StarCraft II and the other games we show there. I always say that running an esports event is as easy as turning on the lights at the stadium and letting people in. We need to build our stadium from scratch every time, but barring circumsstances beyond our control I think we've got everything perfectly covered.
In Europe, IEM for StarCraft 2 has seemed to face no major competition in terms of offline events, while in North America, MLG also picked up StarCraft 2 for their pro circuit. Personally do you think one scenario is better than the other in terms of StarCraft 2 as a long-term esport?
I personally prefer more events. As long as the players are not bound to ridiculous restrictions barring them from competing in whichever event they want to play in, it's a better situation. For the following reasons:
1) Competition leads to improvement and innovation.
2) The more tournaments for the players, the more pro gamers we will see, the higher level of play we will see.
3) It doesn't matter to me where players raised their profiles - it makes my league more interesting with more high profile attendees.
4) Being the only one is not the same as being the number one.
That's an awesome outlook from a spectator's perspective. StarCraft 2 itself has seemed to be a huge boost for foreign esports as a whole, bringing in a lot of new talent and revitalizing some old names who had fallen by the wayside. Do you see this lasting a long time and how big can this boost be, do you think?
This depends on the number of "foreign" tournaments that will make competitive gaming on a high level sustainable. If we build an infrastructure which will allow that, then it will last for a long time. Another random element here is whether StarCraft II settles in Korea or not as well SC:BW. We can expect it, but it's too early to bet all your money on it.
You mentioned earlier that we are holding the balance of the game to a higher standard because Blizzard made the game. With all of the talk about how imbalanced the game is right now, do you think that this is hurting the progress of the game at all, or are things moving along fine despite the lingering distraction?
Things really do balance themselves out as long as the underlying gameplay was designed with the right philosophy. Players will always strive to abuse gameplay, so as long as sophisticated ways to win are more effective than simple ones, we're good. As long as the game is not broken, the rest will really find its balance. Fruit Dealer.
How do you feel Blizzard did with patch 1.1, and the subsequent minor patch 1.1.1? Do you feel they did too little, too much or just enough?
Man, I'm a Bronze player about to advance to Silver or Gold and StarCraft II is the first RTS game I play versus people. I'm really not the right guy to answer this question! ; -)
Haha fair enough. Since you mentioned you are playing StarCraft 2 yourself - how are you enjoying the game, and what race are you playing?
I played Protoss for a month, then played the campaign for two weeks and I'm tempted to see if Terran could work for me. I've always been a very positional player in Unreal Tournament, so there's a good chance T might suit me.
You'll have to keep us updated on your progress. Outside of ESL, what is your favorite tournament to follow so far, and how much are you enjoying the other tournaments?
I have to say it's quite sad that in my current job I don't have quite enough time to play games or follow events. I do love GSL and Tastosis. They're a strangely enjoyable borderline homoerotic mutual adoration society. I follow most major events in Quake Live as well as StarCraft II when I can. And for the really major events I watch Counter-Strike as well.
That definitely is sad, but I can understand where you come from. Changing gears a bit, the split of servers has facilitated some problems for a large number of tournament organizers and players. How many issues have you faced with this yourself?
It's not really a major issue for us, since ESL at the core is based on a bottom-up regional system. Up to a continental level we are perfectly fine for obvious reasons and for intercontinental events we will have live events. But I am not sure what to think about partitioning the world like this.
I don't want to buy another copy of StarCraft II just to be able to play one friend that happens to live in New York City.
It certainly makes Battle.net much easier to handle for Blizzard, otherwise they wouldn't have done it this way, methinks.
Do you think Blizzard will give in and allow cross-realm play eventually, or do you think they will stand fast on this particular issue?
I honestly do not have enough facts at my disposal to make an educated guess in this matter. Maybe it's a good thing they keep it partitioned? I haven't given it enough thought.
We'll just have to wait and see then. To try and get away from the negative, what is your favorite aspect about the game so far?
That shit can get blown up so fast.
Very nice. It's been no secret that you've been at least somewhat following the GSL, and it seems to ring clear that you're a Fruitdealer fan. How well do you see him doing in the upcoming finals?
I hope he wins of course. Terran is the least exciting race to watch for me. Call me a newb, but I always loved spectacular or exciting abilities used creatively - and T does not have that many of those. Force fields, storms, lurkers in BW, banelings. The only thing Terran has that raises the pulse is the nuke.
This is what I love about StarCraft compared to a game like Warcraft 3. The gameplay translates itself very well into visual cues. You can easily guess what the spells do in SC even if you don't know the game, there's usually a clear front line that moves and signifies a player's advantage. As I've mentioned: shit gets blown up within an instant. And in Warcraft 3 unless you really know the game well, there's one army chasing the other army around the bush in the middle of the map for no apparent reason and the guy that TP'ed home after a battle is winning half of the time.
But yeah, Fruit Dealer for the win. He's done more than enough super cool stuff to get my support and undying loyalty as a fan.
Glad to see someone else enjoys the cool stuff. As for the next GSL, how do you think the likes of Nada, Julyzerg and the myriad of other former pro-gamers coming over from Brood War doing? Do you think any of the non-Koreans over there have much of a chance anymore?
The plateau of skill from which the BW pros are starting is obviously much higher than that of any "foreigner". But that, in theory, is the only difference. If you put in the same amount of time into getting good, why wouldn't you reach the same level of skill? Obviously you need the time, the conditions and the right motivation. But Korean or not, if it's all there, what's stopping you?
But the "White Dudes" will have a seriously hard time, no doubt.
Very true. You had mentioned you expect it earlier, but how likely do you think it is that StarCraft 2 will be as successful as Brood War was in Korea?
Without taking sides in the conflict, I think Blizzard and KeSPA are both playing with fire. I don't see a major reason why StarCraft II wouldn't take off in Korea, but the Blizzard vs. KeSPA war is certainly not helping. Without KeSPA, the esports infrastructure (the teams, the media, the sponsorships, the fans) takes major steps back. So StarCraft II needs to build a totally new legacy as opposed to continuing that of Brood War.
I wouldn't exclude any scenario at this point, especially that I don't know how solid the money is behind GSL and how on earth it can be sustainable. I sure hope they last, though.
Being that the negotiations between Blizzard and KeSPA often keep going sour and are volatile at best, what do you think the odds of a split similar to the CounterStrike community occurring, and how bad would this be for a growing scene?
It is difficult to say. If some really big names from BroodWar switch to StarCraft II it should be enough to give the new game a ton of popularity. I think many stars that no longer have the capacity to win the Starleagues in BW will definitely see themselves capable of winning good money in GSL. This will definitely be a boost for GSL.
I see no reason why the games wouldn't coexist next to each other. The development in Korea is certainly an exciting one to follow.
Like you said, any scenario is definitely possible. You said earlier that even though there is no reason with the right conditions and motivations that non-Koreans can't compete, that the "white guys" will have it tough. Do you see a skill gap forming between Koreans and non-Koreans as time progresses or do you think that the new game and the fresh start will motivate more non-Koreans to strive to keep pace and practice harder than they might have with Brood War?
As I said, it depends on the circumstances in Europe and America. Will they have enough tournaments to play in and sponsorships to feed them? It mostly comes down to the amount of playing time. One thing that also needs to be mentioned is that White Dudes that go to Korea also need to cross a MAJOR cultural gap. That alone is a task in itself.
Korea will obviously be ahead of Europe and America for some time, but "we" should produce some healthy enough pro gamers of our own too!
Indeed, and I, for one, look forward to seeing them rise out of the woodwork. One last question - give us your best educated, or uneducated, guess on where StarCraft 2 will be as an esport a year from it's retail release. Do you see it still thriving, or do you see it falling the way of many new games and just being pushed aside by the next "big thing" that the game companies try and push?
Its popularity won't diminish for sure. As an esport it's well on the rise and getting more and more exciting. I would like to see a brave man that will stand up today and bet $1,000 that a player he names will win the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in March.
You also have to remember that there will be two more installments of StarCraft II coming out and that will certainly increase the game's longevity. The communities of esports games, unless they hit the mainstream, will only gradually diminish as time passes since the game's release. So for esports three StarCraft II's could not be better.
The two installments will definitely boost the longevity. Also, I am not that brave man, in case you were wondering, heh. However, thanks a lot for the interview, any final words or shoutouts?
Yes. I love the Plott brothers. I wish I could clone them.
Haha don't we all. Thanks again!