Song "HerO" Hyeon Deok and Team Liquid announced yesterday that HerO would not longer be a part of the Liquid organisation after almost five years together. Since late 2011, HerO was one of the most prominent members of a team that has been at the heart of StarCraft in the English-speaking world. What's important about this departure is that Liquid owner Victor Goossens indicated that his hand had been forced by the new rules for competitive StarCraft in 2016. It's a situation that illustrates the double-edged nature of region-locking for the sake of developing talent. In his statement about HerO's departure, Goossens said, "StarCraft is the game on which the legacy of our team is built. It's a game we all love and care about. I know that, and I'm very aware of it. However, the reality is that it is a difficult game to be involved with in this current climate. The recent WCS [World Championship Series] changes added complications that altered our ability to work things out with HerO."
Goossens is referring to the fact that Blizzard put forth a more restrictive form of region-locking this year. In the past, Korean players like HerO were able to compete in Europe and North America without having to be residents of those regions. But this past December, Blizzard announced a residency requirement for the 2016 season that disqualified a lot of Korean talent from international tournaments.
"In this new system, we would lose HerO's presence in DreamHacks and IEMs, and HerO would lose the ability to travel to big international events. It's what HerO has become known for the most, and it's one of the most important values of being on an international StarCraft team," Goossens explained. "Unfortunately, our two ends just could not meet in negotiations, and HerO decided that it was time to move on."
HerO after winning IEM Cologne 2014, by ESL. Source
It's a sad development for fans of the team and arguably its most famous StarCraft player. Reading HerO's message to fans is especially heart-breaking: "Honestly, I'm a bit afraid. People loved, cheered for, and remembered 'Team Liquid's HerO.' I worry if I can be as loved and supported without the 'Liquid'."
HerO's departure from Team Liquid highlights the damned-if-you-do nature of trying to create a healthy international ecosystem. This problem is clearest in StarCraft, where even middling Korean players tend to dominate their rivals from abroad, but you can also see it cropping up in League of Legends and Counter-Strike, where pronounced regional disparities make for uneven international competition.
After years of trying to create competitive space for players across Europe and the Americas, only to watch Korean players arrive to harvest most of that prize money, Blizzard took drastic steps this year by imposing a stringent residency requirement. In this, they are following Riot's example; three years ago, that company created regional LCS leagues to help promote local interest and excitement around League of Legends. Given how badly the pro StarCraft community outside of Korea was struggling, this was probably a wise move.
But it was always a move that would hurt players like HerO, and teams like Liquid. Most of HerO's success came outside Korea, where his strong performances often put him and Liquid in the spotlight. Now, like many players in his position, he's forced to compete in far more demanding Korean leagues, and Liquid can no longer have him representing the team abroad.
The obvious criticism of a region-locked system is that it creates a lot of "hothouse flower" esports competitors while reducing opportunities for more deserving players. It's why North American teams take a beating every year at the League of Legends world championship. Suddenly exposed to stronger competition from outside North America, they're revealed to be the best of teams of a very weak region. The same thing happens when non-Korean StarCraft players make an appearance at the BlizzCon finals.
There's a lot of truth to that complaint, but the alternative is having a sport that is dominated entirely by a single region, where the achievements of lesser teams and players are meaningless because their ultimate failure is assured. That's not an exciting story to watch, and it's an unbelievably discouraging reality for players outside the dominant region.
Everyone admired and respected HerO, one of StarCraft's most passionate competitors. For the sake of StarCraft, however, his international career had to be cut short.
Top photo: HerO at DreamHack Summer 2014, by Helena Kristiansson. Source