MLG CEO on Korean crossover deal

Q&A: Sundance DiGiovanni talks about Major League Gaming's big deal with the Korean eSports Association and what it means for the future of competitive StarCraft II play.


Major League Gaming and Korea's largest competitive gaming entity, the Korean eSports Association (KeSPA), have announced an exclusive multi-year partnership that will attempt to bridge the Western and Korean eSports worlds more than ever before. The collaboration will see current KeSPA players such as Young Ho "Flash" Lee, Jae Dong "Jaedong" Lee, Taek Yong "Bisu" Kim, Byung Goo "Stork" Song, and others compete at MLG events. The partnership will begin at the MLG Spring Championships in Anaheim on Saturday, June 9 at 9 p.m. PDT in a Wings of Liberty exhibition tournament, with players selected from the top KeSPA teams.

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Expect to see KeSPA players in MLG soon.

OnGameNet (OGN) also released details on its SK Planet ProLeague Season 2, its debut StarCraft 2 event, which will also feature StarCraft: Brood War. Players must play both SC2 and BW, where the first three sets are Brood War, the next three sets are StarCraft 2, and the final Ace match is also StarCraft 2. Players can play BW and SC2 with different races, as Sung Eun "firebathero" Lee (Terran to Protoss) and Yoon Hwan "Calm" Kim (Zerg to Terran) already choosing to do so. The first matches start on May 20 with English commentary and streaming info to be announced, with the season ending August 26 and the playoffs starting on September 1.

GameSpot recently spoke with MLG CEO Sundance DiGiovanni regarding the partnership, and how it will affect things going forward.

GS: What made you go to KeSPA to make this all happen?

SD: There's been a lot of growth within the [competitive gaming] scene, not just MLG but all the organizations I think are seeing growth. Maybe some at a greater rate than others, but [it's] only in terms of opportunistic thinking and being able to expand when you're talking about a global presence. There are two or three things that are left right so this is one, China is one, but this one is really relevant because a lot of the history around one of our most popular games [StarCraft II] is locked up in South Korea with KeSPA. There are legendary players, there's a history there, but there's a certain way of doing things that we think has been lacking to a degree. People like yourself saying, "Yeah it's just a matter of time before they come over, things are going to change." And there's truth to that. So that barrier is now taken care of.

"They are a very serious organization in the way they operate, and that's gotten misinterpreted at times."--DiGiovanni, on KeSPA's reputation.

We're excited. Blizzard has been really supportive of this and they were eager to see it happen. It's crazy to think that the last time we were over there we were meeting with GomTV StarLeague (GSL) and now it's shifted to KeSPA, but we're very happy and I think one of the things we're also going to try do is to try and focus on winning some of the people who were the foreign players in the Western community, and the fans of all this, to understand a little more of the history of KeSPA. Because I think that it's misunderstood to a degree. I mean, they are a very serious organization in the way they operate, and that's gotten misinterpreted at times. There are other times when they've done things that have obviously not been as well received by the community as they may have liked, but that's shifted now, because it's global now. They own a very important part of this but we bring a very important part as well. It's a dynamic partnership in that regard. We're going to work on softening their image to the Western fans.

GS: So one of the biggest questions here regarding the new partnership is the announced exclusivity between yourselves and KeSPA and what this means going forward. What actions are we to see from this?

SD: What this means is that outside of Korea, we're the official partner for KeSPA. We're the tournament KeSPA players are allowed to play at the moment, by letter of the agreement. Our plan is to work with some of the partners that we have to bring those players there as well. I'm going to try my best to arrange something with DreamHack as we have a strong relationship with them. We're going to talk to the [Electronic Sports League's] Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) about working with them. Those are the two groups that I've been in contact with and have been thinking about. It could go deeper, but the point of this is that KeSPA takes this very seriously and they want to align with like-minded people.

They've made their choice and they've given us a bit of a directive in terms of how they want to handle it inside of Korea and we're gonna let them do that. We're happy to partner with them, we're happy to have broadcast outlet capabilities within South Korea for MLG content as well. We're going to go and run with it out here. With [GameSpot parent] CBS Interactive being a partner on the distribution side, we think we can do some pretty big things. The online commentary and everything else popped up of course around exclusivity, but without exclusivity there's no leverage. The point of leverage is that we need to be able to monetize this. If we get over-saturation with this next level, that's not going to be good for anybody. What we're doing is we're creating a partnership not for what exists today, but for what is going to exist next year, the year after that, and the year after that.

In terms of the exclusivity part of it, I don't say this to come off as disrespectful but in their eyes they are the only ones over there. It's Korea and it's KeSPA. That's it. I'm not gonna lie and tell you I was running in there hoping I was going to do a non-exclusive deal because what sense does that make? You saw what that got me last time. It got me Naniwa not getting what he had earned, and I'm not going to do that again. From an operator standpoint, you could grab anyone from the other organizations and they all would have said they'd sign an exclusive deal too.

GS: Are [European professional gaming organizations] DreamHack and IEM events you expect to approach? And is it going to be next year or possibly this year?

SD: [I] plan on heading to DreamHack Winter with a bunch of our new Korean friends from KeSPA. I don't see why not, I reached out to [DreamHack CEO] Robert Ohlén already,and will be trying to talk to him sometime this week. IEM there's deeper stuff we're talking about with them, just trying to line things up time-wise. In terms of a timeline, I don't see why we would need to wait until next year to at least kick things off. Are the [Brood War pros] going to compete in tournaments this year? I doubt it. But can they make appearances and play show matches? I don't see why not. I have to check with Blizzard, I have to check with KeSPA, and make sure everything works with everyone. I'm also not going to walk a bunch of players in and have someone incur a bunch of costs and unreasonable demands so I have to make sure we do something that makes sense. Being a tournament operator I know that every time we add something new to the event there are logistics and there is cost. There's only a certain amount of hours in a day, I don't want this to get lopsided. The other thing that is really important is that, these players, I want them to go out and have this experience that the GSL players had when they came to the states last year to our events. The hype crowds, the high energy. They've got their Korean version of that but the international version is a bit different.

GS: You mentioned over-saturation as something to look out for. Do you believe there's too much eSports or StarCraft content right now?

"The problem right now is that we've got all these different events, no tie-in with each other, no continuation, different rosters of players for each."--DiGiovanni

SD: There are some things we can learn from KeSPA and there are some things we learned from GSL. There's a structure and system for this that can work really well. The problem right now is that we've got all these different events, no tie-in with each other, no continuation, different rosters of players for each. There are challenges we have to get through. It's no secret for a long time we've been trying to figure out the fixed location thing and we're doing it here in New York City for now. The plan is to have a global organization that runs a unified league with meaningful matches happening in multiple locations. So if I could have matches that are happening in South Korea, matches that are happening North America, Europe, South America, that at the end of the day, week, month, they relate somehow, that's going to be great for everyone. Some people now go, "Oh, this event's player pool isn't as great as the last one, I'm just going to tune in on Sunday." You kind of have to borrow from traditional sports a little more I think to get to the right place, in terms of a scale and growth perspective.

GS: Earlier you talked about the players not playing in the official tournaments along with the show matches in Anaheim, California. Is this based upon their own decisions due to lack of practice time, or is there something more?

SD: These guys are in spring training right now while everyone else is in the regular season. They're not going to be caught up in a lot of ways and although some of them have been playing the game for a while, I think what we want to do is make sure they're eased into it. We had talked about them playing in the open in Anaheim, and what we decided was that, let's not rush it, we have two more events this year, let's see how things go. Let them go through the first season in Korea and see what happens with that and how comfortable they are. Try and set them up with some of the folks who are out there as current GSL Code A/Code S-level players, and see how they feel. The players are ready to go. The teams are making sure not to rush with their guys out; they want to do this properly, take their time, so it's going to be a bit more ceremonious than what the community wants in terms of the timing and such but we're halfway through the year. I think we'll start to see stuff shake free by the next event, but I can't promise anything because the players and teams need to think they're ready.

GS: If the Brood War players want to sign up to play in Anaheim, could they?

SD: Absolutely. We'll have some spots open for them if they'd like to. I guess we haven't announced who's coming yet.

GS: Players such as Flash, Jaedong, Bisu, and Stork have been hinted, are any of those guys coming?

SD: The plan is have KeSPA fully represented in Anaheim, with each team represented. That's as much as I can give you.

GS: Will we be seeing foreign players who compete at MLG events over in KeSPA?

SD: I can't put a timeline on it, but yes eventually you will. No details at the moment, but you will see foreigners playing in KeSPA's flavor of StarCraft in Korea. One of the other things we haven't talked about is now I have to talk to some of the Western teams. I have to say, "Hey, you know I have an opportunity here, how do you want to come together on it." This week I hope to have the chance to get to talk to some of the guys from each of the teams and try to come up with something stable, that works, we'll plug you into it. If we can't, I'll make the introduction but you're on your own. I can broker a lot of this stuff, but only if there's stability. If you rewind and look at the history of this in Brood War, when they started bringing the foreign players over, a lot of the guys we're familiar with today like IdrA and Tyler were over there training with KeSPA players, and they got their name out and established themselves through that process.

GS: What happened with GomTV?

SD: You know, we grew really quickly and started making some money, wanted to do more, and the players came back saying nice things about us, and it's like…competition? Partnership? It's like, you're not gonna do it the way we want to so they went out and got a new partner, which is great, and I hope it continues to work. But I can't worry about that, we've got Anaheim coming up here in a couple weeks and they made this behind-the-scenes announcement that Up & Down matches would be at the same time. Well, all of the players chose us. I think that should tell you something.

GS: How about the current Korean SC2 players who cant play in KeSPA yet?

SD: I think they're probably waiting to hear what's going to happen. Luckily we're going to have a bunch of them here this weekend at the MLG Spring Arena 2 to talk to them. We have people on the ground in South Korea who work for us, relaying messages from the team houses. My goal is to help with this transition. I don't want any of these guys to get knocked off. I've grown to like a lot of these guys as I've gotten to know them. You know what? I'd love to see Nestea and Flash face-off in a meaningful match, I think that'd be ****ing awesome. I think it'd be great. I'm going to try and make it happen sooner rather than later. Now, of course there are certain political components, and I don't know if you'll see that in South Korea anytime soon, but I think you could probably see it at our next event after Anaheim at the MLG Summer Championships or the fourth event later in the year.

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