Why Blizzard is rebuilding and repackaging a 19-year-old classic
At 2:30 AM on Saturday night, Blizzard Entertainment announced Starcraft: Remastered, a 4K remake of one of real time strategy's most iconic franchises. Despite promises of remastered graphics, revised audio and improved matchmaking, it's obvious that Starcraft: Remastered is gloriously authentic to the 1998 original, warts and all. As a result, there will inevitably be complaints from the uninitiated that Starcraft: Remastered is a missed opportunity – why not update the game to a more modern engine capable of three dimensional graphics, or use this chance to squash the original Starcraft's terrible unit pathing and quirky AI?
Do not listen to these idiots. On its release, Starcraft, along with its hugely popular expansion Brood War – an addition to the game largely responsible for its popularity as an esport – was, in fact, infuriatingly difficult. But this is exactly what made it so magical to so many. The technical limitations of Starcraft's engine were legion; new workers wouldn't rally to mineral patches, you were limited to selecting one building at a time, and could only control twelve units at once, meaning that managing any army of more than a dozen units was a serious undertaking. To get your forces, let alone your economy, to conform to your strategy was a minor miracle. In Starcraft, you fought the game as much as you fought your opponent (who, of course, was fighting the game for herself).
This is a good thing, especially in comparison to the frictionless sequel, 2010's Starcraft 2. Thanks to infinite unit selection and functional control groups, directing an army in Starcraft 2 is much simpler. Consequently, to trained eyes, it's a lot less impressive. One explanation for the decline of competitive Starcraft 2 in recent years (it was the king of esports a few years ago, but has dwindled of late) is that watching two players control easily-managed armies just wasn't as compelling as watching two Brood War pros force an unforgiving ruleset to carry out their wills.
If not the game itself, then, what exactly is Remastered remastering? The new version of the game exists, of course, because Blizzard thinks it will earn them money. But Blizzard is likely up to something far more subtle than just trying to get you to buy another Blizzard game that you probably already own. If you don't, they'll even be offering the original versions of the game – renamed Starcraft Anthology – for free alongside Remastered. The better, trickier answer has to do with esports and its infrastructure. It was no coincidence that Blizzard announced Starcraft: Remastered in conjunction with the finals of the Global Starcraft 2 League between Eo "soO" Yoon Su and Kim "Stats" Dae Yeob in Seoul, South Korea.
The special relationship between South Korea and Starcraft is an epic in three acts. When the Brood War expansion was released in late 1998, it unexpectedly swept through the PC bangs (a type of LAN gaming center – literally translated, it means "PC room") of Seoul, captivating players and quickly fostering a vibrant, and valuable, professional scene. Blizzard was largely caught unawares by the game's runaway success in South Korea, and as a result, profited very little from the game's burgeoning pro circuit because it didn't have a strong foundation to license tournaments and take a cut of the resulting advertising revenue. Starcraft 2, in addition to being a new game, was an attempt to do better, and the game's release was preceded by elaborate transpacific negotiations to ensure that Blizzard would also profit from Starcraft 2-the-esport.
When Blizzard finally released Starcraft 2 in 2010, they pushed for Brood War's biggest stars and leagues to transition to the company's newer (and, hopefully, more profitable) esport. Eventually, most players and leagues did switch to Starcraft 2, but their timing was unfortunate. Starting in 2012, even as esports as a whole soared in popularity across the globe, Starcraft 2 saw its market share erode to other games as a result of some poor design choices and larger structural problems with its professional scene. Though Starcraft 2's third expansion, Legacy of the Void (2015), alleviated some of these problems, it was too little too late. Classic leagues folded, legends retired, and calls of "dedgaem" echoed throughout once rowdy forums.
Meanwhile – and this is crucial – Brood War made something of a resurgence in the PC bangs of South Korea. As professional and amateur interest in Starcraft 2 and its competitive scene dissipated, more and more players returned to playing Brood War. Many of Starcraft's biggest names – Jaedong, Flash, Bisu – retired from their forgettable careers in Starcraft 2 and began playing the game that made them famous (and rich) once more. At first, they mostly streamed, but as viewership grew, a modest competitive circuit was reborn. By early 2015, on any given night in South Korea, you could find more people playing and watching Brood War – now 17 years-old – rather than Starcraft 2.
That Starcraft: Remastered, whose development began roughly 18 months ago, is being released now is not coincidence. Frankly, if Starcraft 2 had captured hearts the way that Brood War did, it's unlikely that the long-rumored Remastered would have ever seen the light of day. The original Starcraft is fast approaching its 20th anniversary, and while the quirks of the late Nineties technology it's built on do wonders for it as a competitive game, many of its other features haven't aged as well. Finding a match in Brood War isn't exactly hard, but it's not as effortless as it is in Starcraft 2. Starcraft: Remastered will provide all the benefits of the modern Battle.net system – including ladders, friends lists, cloud saves, and matchmaking.
This is good for players, of course, but it's also good for Blizzard. With Brood War games being played on through Battle.net on Blizzard's own servers, it's much easier for Blizzard to regulate and benefit from the game's competitive scene in ways they could not during Brood War's heyday in the mid 2000s. By enticing people to play on Battle.net, it's also far easier for Blizzard to resist software piracy (Starcraft is quite possibly the most pirated game in history), while also generating valuable data about play habits.
Most importantly, if Brood War's professional renaissance continues to blossom in South Korea and abroad, Blizzard will be well positioned to profit from it through licensing and revenue sharing. There is no guarantee that Brood War will return to the level of competition it saw in the mid to late 2000s when it was the greatest esport on earth. But if it does come even a little close, Blizzard will be better positioned to capitalize on it than ever before. "Remastering" Brood War, in other words, has almost nothing to do with the game itself. Whatever else it is, Starcraft: Remastered is an attempt to take ownership of Brood War's professional scene in a way that no one would have thought possible in 1997. With the massive – and massively risky – Overwatch League on the horizon, Blizzard has every reason to expand and perfect its approach to esports.