Starcraft II: The making of an e-sport

GDC 2011: Blizzard lead designer Dustin Browder discusses design decisions for the popular RTS that were made on behalf of professional gaming.


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Who was there: Released in 1998, the original Starcraft seemed to only grow in popularity in the decade leading up to Starcraft II's debut in 2010. The game's adoption by the e-sports community primarily fueled this popularity, and in a session titled "The Game Design of Starcraft II: Designing an E-Sport," Blizzard's Dustin Browder laid out the ways in which Starcraft II was designed from the beginning for competitive gaming.

Even Tychus' big personality was a product of making Starcraft II e-sports friendly.
Even Tychus' big personality was a product of making Starcraft II e-sports friendly.

What he talked about: Browder began his session by emphasizing that Starcraft II's development was heavily impacted by Blizzard's decision to cater to the e-sport community. For example, he said, e-sports answers such as questions as "Why do we only have a handful of units?" or "Why go with a comic book storyline?" or even the continued support of a Zergling rush, (which he called "famously the most imbalanced thing ever in video games").

Going back to when Starcraft II development began in 2005, Browder said he was a recently hired senior designer at Blizzard, and one of the first things they did was look at the competition. They noticed that Dawn of War had more than 60 units and four sides, and that Supreme Commander had more than 100 units and four sides.

However, Blizzard decided that it would be best if Starcraft II only had 45 units and three sides, which Browder thought was ridiculous, considering it was less content than the studio's competitors. As his thinking went, units offered more choice, and more choice offered more gameplay, and more gameplay equals more fun. However, they told him not to worry, as Starcraft II was being designed for the e-sport community.

His initial reaction, he said, was e-sport? That weird thing in Korea? A) Who cares about e-sports? and B) How is that fun? As to the question of who cares, Browder emphasized that the e-sport community is incredibly passionate, just as much as traditional sports communities. Further, the community is actually quite large, with some e-sports leagues estimating global figures to be in the millions.

So what are some of the key elements for designing an e-sports game? The first is, obviously, that it has to be watchable, which Browder said is just as important as playability.

OK then, so what goes into making watchability? Browder said that one of the most important things is that it has to be clear. Clarity, he said, is the reason why artists hate e-sports. He showed concept art of a the mighty ultralisk, with a to-scale Protoss zealot in the corner of the picture the size of the behemoth's toenail. However, in the game, the ultralisk has to be tiny because players need to be able to see clearly what's happening onscreen.

Clarity also hits special effects. While the graphic artists could, for example, create lightning effects that light up the screen, for the sake of watchability, the electrotechnics must be contained to only the units being affected by them.

Moving to simplicity, he said, this is the area that designers hate because of the limitations on their work. First, there can't be too many units because it would leave the professional gamers guessing too much. Part of the fun, he said, is building counters to the opponent's strategy, in addition to anticipating which counter will be needed. He also likened unit limits to football and the limited number of positions and roles on the field.

Browder noted that despite the unit limitations, Starcraft II still incorporates significant choice and complexity. These choices are come by the way units move and fight, as well as their stats, area-of-effect capabilities, and upgrades. For instance, Banelings are the effective counter to marines. However, if the marines have the stim upgrade, then they can easily defeat the Banelings. This is true until the Banelings get their own upgrades, which flips the relationship again.

Skill is the next component of the equation, and Browder said this facet is why new players hate e-sports. In the real-time strategy genre, micromanagement has become synonymous with a dirty word, but Blizzard believes it should be embraced because of the skill differentiation it affords. He also noted that micromanagement is incredibly entertaining to watch and instills a large degree of drama into battles, as well as degrees of success.

One example here is the force field ability of Protoss Sentries. At is basic level, the force field can be used to block a ramp up to a base. A more advanced use would be to erect several to form a wall around an attacking or defending force on an open battlefield. An even more advanced strategy would be to cut an enemy's army in half with several well-placed force fields.

Lastly, he said the uncertainty component that fuels watchability is one thing that everyone hates. However, uncertainty creates a good deal of excitement because anything can change without a moment's notice. Taking the example of a Zergling rush, Browder said that he's made games where they tried to delay the fast action, but it just ends up slowing the game down and taking longer for things to get interesting.

All of these decisions have a ripple effect through the rest of the game, he said. For instance, because units such as the Protoss mothership must necessarily be small in-game, they create intensive cutscenes for the single-player story mode featuring these units. That way, when players see them in a real scenario, they'll have an idea in their mind's eye of what they're actually looking at.

The same goes for character development in the game. Because units are the equivalent of ants in-game, they use the story mode to give important characters, such as Tychus, larger-than-life personalities. That way, when they are seen on a map, Blizzard hopes players will have more of a connection with that unit and will care if that unit lives or dies.

Quote: "Let's build this crazy thing."--Dustin Browder, on his initial reaction to building a game designed for e-sports.

Takeaway: Starcraft II stands out from other RTS games due to its emphasis on competitive gaming, where watchability is as important to gameplay. Watchability necessitates a number of design choices that are easily observable in the game, including a clear playfield and limited number of units. Also, whereas many games seek to combine the haves and have-nots when it comes to player skill, Blizzard embraces those differences to ultimately create a more exciting and dramatic experience.

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Avatar image for KlnP1987

e-sports is cool and I dont understand y people hav such a problem with it, I mean COD is practically an e-sport in its own rite with truly massive followings in multiplayer. While I agree in the skill difference of the whole micro thing, it will alienate lots of new players who look at the Monumental task of becoming a "Master", along with the time it takes to get there. Meaning it will solidify its core competitive base but may not win over as many new converts tho

Avatar image for Gorge09

I will be brief the game is amazing and it has a very good campaign. But the hole e-sport thing is just a bunch of crap.

Avatar image for DitchyJ

Its cool that games like starcraft are in sports (as such)..but I generally only enjoyed starcraft (both) on a mild level (single player story mainly). Its taken very seriouslly for what it is as well, and generally I enjoy RTS games like company of heros, Sudden strike series, men of war, world in conflict, kursk etc. Its simple and encourages mass unit production quickly to rush the enemy with many clicks a minute...which people will argue is the best thing about it... but it wasnt for me. It doesnt mean I dont like it or hate on it btw, so fanboys put down your crucifix's. As mentioned, its good to see it successful. Keep smiling

Avatar image for anthonycg

So I guess these guys will be payed in rediculously large sums of money to do mundane tasks as well. They just get a cool "e" in front.

Avatar image for lazycomplife


Avatar image for simon1812

#1 SC2 is an awesome game, the only thing ruining is that fixation with trying to make it an e-sport. #2 along with the never ending quest for balance between 3 different factions, there is not way the game will please everybody blizzard's mistake is thinking they can,and to that add the contain yet to be released (HotS and LotV) which once released will stir the players yet again in an outcry demanding more balance from Blizzard. I found few things wrong with SC2 when it was released, yet I enjoy the game, now a lot of thing seems to be wrong with the game after so many patches it is going to be more almost 2 months since I last played online,I just keep coming back for the campaign, wish the missions arrangement had more branching and the campaign overall was longer.

Avatar image for Gelugon_baat

I would say to all those of you who are lambasting Starcraft II that the main reason you are doing so is very, very likely this: Starcraft II is associated with Activision. I personally know why this should be the case with you. This reason, and this reason alone, is why I have yet to play Starcraft II at all. You can say all kinds of things about Starcraft II and find every reason/excuse to criticize it, but if you just re-examine whatever you have said and written about Starcraft II, you are very likely going to notice at least one statement about Starcraft "being ruined" by Activision. That said, to those of you who like Starcraft II anyway, I commend you for being able to overcome any apprehension to Activision (if you had any in the first place at all) to still play this game. I can't.

Avatar image for SouL-Tak3R

People like to compete, and some of these games take a lot of thinking and strategy so I see nothing wrong with this.

Avatar image for Mantiskilla007

LOL e-sports? You kiddin me? Different strokes for different folks I guess. I'll stick to watching/playing real sports and keep games to a hobby/activity.

Avatar image for Bigamo

Starcraft is past... All praise the emperor! Dow2: Retribution >>>>> Starcraft :D Thanks god i am free from ACTIVISION/BLIZZARD!

Avatar image for 2chase

A lot of over generalizing and narrow minded thinking in these comments. I think every SC game to date has been epic.

Avatar image for DAFTArticuno

Played the game and i can sit here and say the greatness of this game farrr out-weighs the over-hype on it.

Avatar image for lakers808

of course this game was way over-hyped, and what did we get? only over-heated cpu's and gpu's..............

Avatar image for koominseo

sc II is the greastest pc strategy game ever after brood war. Millions of people watch gomtv n watch the pro gamers. So can't say people were let down. But I guess not every1 can agree.

Avatar image for Dynamo11

Starcraft II: The making of an epic letdown

Avatar image for jacyp

Starcraft II: The making of an e-sport or Starcraft II: The making of an overhyped fraud.

Avatar image for flammable_zeus

"As his thinking went, units offered more choice, and more choice offered more gameplay, and more gameplay equals more fun. However, they told him not to worry, as Starcraft II was being designed for maximum profit from future expansions/DLC." Fixed.

Avatar image for madsnakehhh

@GameFan1983 You clearly don't even have a tiny clue about how popular is StarCraft 2, is not only about sales, it's about the whole community behind it, the leagues, the tournaments, the thousands of people who watch this matches on youtube, GomTv, etc, the incredible popular pro gamers, but yeah, don't believe me, so let's see what game is people playing in the future, i'll give you a hint, is StarCraft 2.

Avatar image for Snookums053

I bought SC2 and dont play it. I will not buy the addons unless they drastically change the game play or add alot of new units. I feel like i waited 12 years to play the exact same game as the first one. Now this article is saying that they did this for all the koreans who like consider this game a sport. Watchablity lol that is so fing stupid iam sorry. I watch replays to get better not because Ii get some kind of sick enjoyment out of watching a korean grand master play.

Avatar image for acasero44

Blizzard fans were so butthurt when i said this game sucks. Therefore i sold it since they claim how it will retain its $60 dollar value. Guess what? $34 in ebay for my plat battlenet account....... Same Wow engine, same Wow servers with sc2 framework on them which is why almost any game above 6 players lags. Warcraft 3 was better on battlenet 1.0 engine. Goodbye blizzard i bought it for 40 btw so enjoy the 6 dollar profit lmao

Avatar image for kreisler

It's not so much of DoW > SC, but I'm really rooting for Relic because I really don't know what innovations else they've got in their head and will bring to the table with DoW3 or CoH2 and that anticipation feeling is great cause so far they have been doing good with innovations.

Avatar image for kreisler

Forgive me if my comments did imply DoW was better than SC. But what I was trying to put out is, at least for me, I didn't wait 12 years to get something of the same. Maybe becuase of my expectations with Blizzard; i had expected to do more for such a huge title. They have become groundbreaking with some titles, like WoW, and even had innovations from WC2 to WC3, with the introduction of heroes system and stuff, and that only took them like +/-6 years. But the same thing for 12 years, just because of e-sports? I really don't know what to expect of them if they are thinking of creating SC 3 in like what 2024 (another 12 years after the complete release of all the SC2 expansions). And the other part that bugs me was if the whole thing was supreme and accepted, i really don't see the reason why for Blizzard to now appear and make comments like this. It really looks, at least from my opinion, they SC2 isn't everything gold and fully accepetd and they have to take a stand to defend it. Like said, they never had to do it for SC cause there wasn't really anything like it back then, but now, they may be feeling some of the heat. Sounds to me SC got too big and they didn't want to stir things and screw the magic formula and maybe got a little too afraid to do anything new about it, so pretty much left things as it. So my worry for SC3. Hahaa, but that's a loooooong way more to go.

Avatar image for fredwv

that's nice. now how bout a Diablo 3 release date?

Avatar image for JCASHUFL

@Ultramarinus Your comments are too inflammatory to even warrant a response. Wow.

Avatar image for JCASHUFL

I don't know how people fail to grasp this concept - more isn't necessarily better in RTS. Think about it like this, how many units are in a chess game? Chess has been around for centuries, and it's still exactly the same. Starcraft 2 isn't revolutionary from the first one because the first one was such a balanced and perfect game. Other RTS don't hold a candle to it in terms of competitive gameplay, besides WC3.

Avatar image for drokmore

My hats off, its better to be skilled at a lesser amount of units, then just make a game with more and more different kind of units.

Avatar image for fusionhunter

Not that tactical? What are you smoking.

Avatar image for leii

@Jawehawk-DK It just shows how little you know about Starcraft. High level Starecraft players are not far from a grandmaster at games like Chess and Go. The difference is Starcraft requires both strategical and tactical thinking while their body is carrying out the perfect execution of controlling units, build orders etc. A chess analogy is a pretty bad one but Starcraft would be like Chess if each player had 10 turns a second. Micro/tactics are things that are short term. They by themselves can be very simple, tactics are things like positioning, kiting, drops. Strategy is long term, it is things like build orders and map knowledge, when to expand, when and what units to get and much more.

Avatar image for Jawehawk-DK

For crying out loud, sitting on your arse and playing video games isn't s sport! Sure it's all good fun. But it can in no way be considered a sport. And to all you people worshipping SC2. While I difinately wouldn't call it a bad game, it's not that tactical. The depth simply isn't there. Microing is left aside for the sake of huge armies. Fact is that victory goes to the person who controls the biggest army.

Avatar image for coaltango

they still have to patch it up. I cant seem to play an offline versus game. i get an error unable to download please try later also all the maps are gone someone here knows how to fix this please help me

Avatar image for BenderUnit22

Starcraft 2 is a brilliant game, extremely fun to watch and play, incredible strategic depth and demanding pace. The way is built though, it doesn't do a terribly good job of making the e-sports aspect work very well. There's not even an in-game clan section, you can't attach clan tags to your name (only be requesting a name change), no tournament organizer in-game, etc. Chatrooms go a long way, but I wish a lot more of the organization and socialization could be done from within the game.

Avatar image for magpiex

@alittletoohappy: Never claimed it to be a perfect analogy but for the purpose of showing that staying true to its own concept works even in what appears to be just superficial polishing it's an okay one. Expecting a major change to what has been proven working is non-sense. Thus you are not going to work on 'improving' it but on the presentation side, the replayability, the mechanics and content generation and exactly that has been done. The game has been designed for tournament and competitive online play from the get-go. In that sense it is a major improvement to the original Broodwar. Remember original Broodwar did not have the ability to save replays (a major feature which Age of Empires showed up with) so in that sense I believe Blizzard will also be working in the same way on the current shortcomings.

Avatar image for FstrthnU

Well I have to say that World in Conflict felt very intimate with its minimal unit usage (typically around 6-8 units). That's on the extreme side, but it shows that sometimes reducing scale can really be for the better. Not that we should all head down to the squad and platoon level, I'm just saying that small isn't necessarily bad. World in Conflict suffers from some of the problems davehammer69 mentioned, but on a much lesser scale. After all, combat is expected to be random. Clean uniformity may be nice for the e-sporters and whatnot, but it's random chance that makes games really fun

Avatar image for davehammer69

Agree totally, more isn't always good I loved Company of Heroes, it's an epic game and has an interesting take on resource management. Which sounds great on paper but once you start playing the game more competitively, the sheer randomness of the game's mechanics really becomes a pain in the neck, especially when it act again you. Like that P47 strafe can sometimes annihilate multiple full hp squads in one go and sometimes it merely pins them with minimum damage. Tank shells and AT guns, totally random as well; they can miss like 3 consecutive point blank shots and sometimes they can bust a vehicle's engine a full screen away. That's where SC2 shine IMO, everything is so clear and concise. A hit is a hit, 10 points of damage will kill something with 100hp in 10 hits. 1 point of armour will reduce damage taken by 1. Everything is transparent you know exactly whats going on. Things are well balance, nothing seem too cheese (maybe voidray in numbers). I can imagine myself still playing SC2 in years to come

Avatar image for alittletoohappy

@magpiex Yes, people still complain about Monopoly being the same awful game it's always been. That aside, the difference between Chess and Starcraft is that no one can get away with making a Chess II, making no major changes, and making the pieces prettier. Not that that's necessarily the case with Starcraft, but your analogy's kind of broken.

Avatar image for magpiex

Starcraft II has the same base concept as Starcraft I had. Yes. But why would that be a bad thing? Does anyone complain about Monopoly being basically the same game still? What about Chess or Poker? A good game concept doesn't have to do itself away if it does not lose any kind of attractors. Innovation doesn't always have to revolve around the concept only, there is room for addressing past shortcomings and additions on technical or mechanical sides in general. There are games which exist to keep a concept going, to culture it, in order to present a proof for its persistence and longevity. Anyone who does indeed want to expand the concept a bit usually does keep a certain concept in its core which in reverse leads to instant association with the source concept which would be in our case those criticized games - Starcraft, Diablo or well Chess. They will always remain the same, be recalled for what they are and serve as cornerstone concepts for other games trying to compete. Also I am pretty sure making money with something which stays to its true self could be more justified than making money with rip-offs or things which turn out failures. As long as nobody regrets buying those games it's all fine. I still regret - up today - the buy of MoO3.

Avatar image for llong187

@Ultramarinus You think I'm trying to silence you? Are you off your meds? I was just correcting your false assumptions. Anyway i'm off to button smash my little heart out at my SC 2 shrine where I will sacrifice a Korean to the starcraft gods. National Geographic will be covering it. Be sure to check it out! ;-)

Avatar image for oUNKNOWNo

@Ultramarinus I'm sorry, but if you hate SC2 so much, why do you keep coming back to comment? Don't you have any better thing to do than come back and hate more? Once is enough, dude. We get it. You hate SC2.

Avatar image for n1kos77

@funkmugumbo "Without base building RTS games feel no more strategic than Battlefield 2 or Bad Company 2." Yes at 15 march i'll buy shogun 2 total war. Do you know it? cool FPS...

Avatar image for so_hai

Watch-ability? I can do that without buying or playing the game. Seems redundant.

Avatar image for parrot_of_adun

And that would be great if they ever had even a single other concern. I mean, it's a great game, but their choice was between their original fanbase and the e-sports community, and they chose e-sports.

Avatar image for llong187

@Ultramarinus Calling people fanboys because they disagree with you is pretty sad. So by your logic anybody who enjoys SC2 and likes the fact that the game play mechanics didn't change much is a fanboy? Then you say SC2 is a simple game? A SIMPLE GAME? If it's such a simple game to you, why not play it and make some money in tournaments. Yeah, I think we all know why you don't. "And I don't see Starcraft 2 reaching to anyone else except those who already played the old game and loved it." The above quote from you couldn't be anymore wrong. It actually shows how ignorant you are towards SC2. Head over to and see how many new people joined the community since SC2 release. Want proof, read the first paragraph in this post: << LINK REMOVED >> It's to bad too, you could have signed up for that tourney and showed these fanboys what a simple pathetic dated game they play and took that money.

Avatar image for Frame_Dragger

What a joke...

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[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

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Avatar image for megakick

dow stripped the need to build additional pylons its now all war. different game and less filling. more for fun imo. blizzard needs to do sumthing new and stop repackaging old ip in new wrappers and selling it for 60 dollars.

Avatar image for deactivated-5b42d09d9ff3e

Well written. If you're a noob in SC II, then get ready to get your ass kicked. Even in the Practice League opponents can be tough.