The world’s longest running esports league is ending. Today, KeSPA announced that it was “discontinuing” the league, and ceasing support for five teams. A report in FOMOS named the teams it would no longer operate: KT Rolster, SK Telecom T1, CJ Entus, Samsung Galaxy and MVP.
It’s unclear at this point what the fate of the players on these teams will be, given that Proleague play was the main impetus behind the large infrastructure set up to support them. So far, mainly SKT players have spoken out: MyuNgSiK and Sorry have retired, while soO tweeted what appears to be a goodbye to SKT.
Meanwhile, Jin Air, one of the teams not mentioned in the KeSPA announcement, has committed to maintaining its support for its currently signed players. Jin Air houses some of the world’s best players, including two-time world champion sOs, Maru and Rogue. The other unmentioned team is the league's newest, the Afreeca Freecs.
But the shakeup of the team environment is likely to leave dozens of players in the lurch, many of them world class stars like Zest, Stats and TY from KT Rolster; INnoVation, Dark and Classic from SKT; Dear and Solar on Samsung; and herO, MC, GuMiho and Ryung from CJ and MVP.
Worse, its departure could leave some players who could otherwise have excelled without a venue to display their skills and find domestic success in Korea. With GSL and SSL moving to two seasons rather than three this year, the loss of one of the only other top-tier venues for StarCraft's best to display their skills will certainly be felt.
All in all, it’s the end of an era for Korean StarCraft in particular and StarCraft esports in general. Proleague, as one of the few constants in a rapidly changing competitive StarCraft system, has provided the backdrop for some of the most significant moments in SC2’s history. From the meta innovations pioneered to snipe the Bo1 format, to the drama and sheer unpredictability of the all-kill.
The memorable moments are too many to mention, and each of us will have our own personal highlight reel from the league. Those who saw it will always remember sOs’ reverse all-kill of KT Rolster in 2015’s playoffs. One of my favourite plays of all-time is Rogue’s Baneling drops against herO just a week later. Looking back earlier, the final fight between FanTaSy and TY on Newkirk Precint, or Bisu’s ridiculous basetrade against Shine in 2013 were among the many standout moments.
Proleague was also the nexus for some of the biggest transfers, power-shifts and storylines we’ve ever seen. From PartinG’s antagonistic departure from SKT, Maru’s transfer from Prime to Jin Air, Life’s signing to KT Rolster and the Prime match-fixing scandal. We have seen SKT dominate in unprecedented fashion in 2015, and seen many teams collapse under the pressure. Each of these moments has helped enrich the narratives and memories that have shaped StarCraft esports.
Proleague was a place where sheer StarCraft genius was often on display, as the high level of competition encouraged innovation (INnoVation also did well, with a 61-33 record) and dynamism. It has also been home to some of the most controversial moments in SC2 history, like MarineKing’s embarrassing loss to ByuL on Expedition Lost.
Proleague was even a major attraction for the foreign scene, though it has always been aimed primarily at a Korean audience. Wings of Liberty veterans should look fondly back on the EG-Team Liquid alliance in the 2012-2013 Proleague which, though largely filled out by Koreans, helped solidify Stephano as the greatest foreigner of all time, not to mention his unforgettable “glhf” incident in his very first match. Beyond this, all of us have come to appreciate seeing StarCraft played at its highest level, in one of the world’s most unique formats.
We have seen all that in Proleague, and that’s just in the past few years.
Proleague has been one of the most important parts of StarCraft 2, but its history extends far beyond that. Before KeSPA had fully transitioned to StarCraft 2, it helped organized the 2011-2012 hybrid Proleague. The league was meant to help Brood War pros transition to the game’s sequel, and so fans were treated to a wacky format in which regular matches were composed on two best of threes — one in Brood War, one in Wings of Liberty.
And even before that, Proleague was a staple of Brood War. Led by the greats like Bisu, Stork and Flash, teams fought it out in much the same style as we have seen in StarCraft 2. In this way, Proleague has acted as one of the great threads that have run between different StarCraft iterations. Teams like SKT, Samsung and KT have provided continuity, and fostered some of the greatest players in every version of the game. Where other teams leagues — GSTL, Acer TeamStory Cup, among others — have come and gone, Proleague has always been a pillar of the scene.
To say that the end of Proleague will be an enormous loss, then, is an understatement. Beyond providing a brilliant mechanism for the creation of rivalries, narratives, and fostering new talent, Proleague has been an integral part of the health of the Korean scene. Players who either miss out on the individual leagues, or are not suited for that kind of tournament, were able to rely on Proleague for exposure and practice. And there were lots of players like that. Flash (though he didn't need the exposure) never reached a GSL quarterfinals, but was one of the best Proleague players in SC2.
With Proleague gone, only GSL and SSL, the two Korean Premier leagues, remain open for the best of the best in StarCraft. Since the leagues are only offering two seasons each this year (down from three each in 2015), players had to do well in the qualifiers and early rounds, or face half a year with little competitive play. The only opportunity for them was Proleague. Maru was just one of many to face this challenge in 2016: his best result was a GSL Ro16 appearance.
Anxiety about the health of the Korean scene and its teams, which has increased markedly this year due to the two-season format, the lack of global events and the popularity of Overwatch in Korea, will no doubt continue to grow in the near future.
KeSPA’s statement allows for some hope that the KeSPA Cup tournament will step in to fill the gap. Yet we’ve heard similar language from the organizers in the past few years, and yet have only four tournaments in three years to show for it. Whether KeSPA and Blizzard will commit to filling the gap left by Proleague, therefore, remains to be seen.
In the foreign scene, where teams have far less interaction, it’s sometimes hard to understand how seriously teams are taken in Korea, and by extension how important Proleague was. But like any other sport, teams have been the focus of some of the most important narratives, the highest drama, and the fantastic lows of StarCraft 2. Proleague was where all that drama and hype, all the elation of victory and the despondence of defeat, all the anticipation of a new season and the tension of the final matches played out. It was where the world’s greats proved themselves capable, or not.
It will be sorely missed.
Christian Paas-Lang is an esports journalist from Toronto mourning the loss of one of SC2's great institutions. You can follow him on Twitter.