Z33K's Plan for 2012

Written by PhilPhoenix
Feb 02 2012, 10:06 AM EST

alt text

2011 was an excellent year for esports. Organizations of every shape and size were able to carve out niches and provide high-quality services to keep the wheels of the esports engine turning. Z33K was one such website; started in 2010, it became a staple for tournament organizers creating StarCraft II events. By 2011 it had expanded its tools and was allowing anyone to create, organize, and run a tournament from start to finish for free. 2011 has built a strong foundation for esports as a movement, and SC2 especially. But Z33K isn’t finished; 2012 is going to bring new breadth and depth to their efforts, giving esports fans more tools than ever to create their own competitive events.

Statistically Speaking

Most pro players now over a year’s worth of tournaments, leagues, and showmatches under their belt. That’s hundreds of games played in every matchup against a wide variety of opponents from every corner of the world. The idea of corralling these numbers and combining them into a single resource that can be used for meaningful statistical analysis is enticing, if somewhat daunting. No one person could hope to do it alone, so Z33K hopes to get the community to pool its efforts and get the job done.

I spoke with Z33K’s lead develop, Lane “Lux” LaRue, about his thoughts and goals for their upcoming project, and he had this to say about the value of statistics in esports:

Although all SC2 games are played online, I have always thought the available player stats are just pathetic compared to offline games like Football or Baseball. The first release of the Z33K ranking API will provide a JSON or XML REST API including hundreds of thousands of matches, replays, and tournament championships from the Z33K database. Z33K requires a valid Battle.net account to play in a tournament, and since we have already correlated most of the Battle.net accounts with the sc2ranks.com API, which provides a full ladder history, then we plan to include the sc2ranks ID in all of our results (assuming sc2ranks is okay with this).

[Tracking statistics] benefits casters, because they can provide a lot more detailed information about the context of the match and the players. It benefits Z33K because we want to calculate ELO and other ranking of our players. The StarCraft community ought to be a leader in leveraging open ranking data to further the competitive gaming scene. Z33K will do what it can to help in this regard.”

Beyond the Korprulu Sector

StarCraft II may be the most visibly popular esport at the moment, but 2011 introduced other games to the scene which are developing strong followings in their own right. Right now the communities for games like League of Legends and Heroes of Newerth aren’t as organized as the SC2 community, meaning they stand to benefit even more from the set of tournament management tools provided by Z33K. As time goes on, each game will have its features fine-tuned to suit their needs. When discussing the changes, Lux was excited to describe the potential:

We have a ton of custom features for SC2, and in the near future we’re adding unique tools, extended support, and premier events for LoL, HoN, Dota 2, and other games. We allow people to create tournaments for a bunch of other games that are not officially supported, and if the game is not in the system, you can just add it.

Splitting the website up based on the game allows us to dig deep into each game and provide features that make sense. The specifics will depend a lot on the game, and not everything is guaranteed to succeed. As Z33K begins supporting other games without a 1v1 focus, we may find that in some games a league system makes more sense than a tournament. Would leagues replace the dominant competitive format in SC2? No, but the framework we built allows us to take that league system and bring the best parts back to SC2.

It’s important to understand that competitive gaming takes place in a man-made ecosystem. I realize a lot of people may not care about extending support to other games, just as some find the Z33K daily tournaments for Platinum and BSG players without prizes uninteresting. For me, the forward progress does not come exclusively from money or the highest echelon of players. The top tier will always be important parts of the system, but I believe the direction we collectively take should be strong enough to reach right out and touch everyone, including the amateur competitive gamers, viewers looking for something new, and a host of other sub-cultures in the gaming space.

There’s still unlimited potential for all the different games involved in esports to grow and find their place in this growing industry, and with Z33K’s tournament organization equally available for every game, everyone has a chance to create their own events and make their mark on the scene.

Z33K and Esports

Lux is optimistic about the potential of esports in 2012. But as the movement continues to grow, challenges from the outside will become more prominent.

One of the big challenges for the scene is how to make gaming accessible for a more mainstream audience. That is tough any industry, but especially so in a game like StarCraft II which is not built around a strong in-game social component. It is even more difficult for competitive communities that are exclusive by definition. I would consider free streaming from providers like justin.tv and own3d.tv as technology breakthroughs for engaging people in new ways. And yet a number of large event organizers have opted to put all high quality streams behind a pay wall. The profit motive is fine, but when there are not any free matches, at least something to show my friends, it can be another deterrent.

The challenge to break into the mainstream isn’t just about creating effective business models that balance profit and accessibility. The more we grow, the more important it becomes to appeal to the uninitiated.

My friend Jason, formerly DJ Swank, just about nailed it: “In order to be mainstream there must be something for you to do, something for your girlfriend, and something for your girlfriend’s friend.” I don’t know that very many people in the competitive gaming community are really thinking in these terms, asking the hard questions, and driving openness. This stuff is not easy. I think a few things are changing though. Today in StarCraft II, and increasingly in other games, there are all kinds of streamed events, blogs, shows, coaching programs, BarCrafts, replays, tournaments, and an assortment of other stuff. Collectively, all that stuff (including the fact you are even reading this) amounts to game-related activities that go way beyond just playing the game, and that has opened things up for a lot of people. Another reason is money – at some point the mainstream problem becomes valuable enough to justify developing new solutions.

2012 and Beyond

As new features begin to appear on Z33K, the site will have to keep an increasing number of juggling balls floating in the air while running and maintaining the site. But even as Z33K’s tools become accessible to a wider esports audience, their team is always focused on fine-tuning the existing experience.

We want to make it very easy for players to compete. For starters, we plan to visually redesign and polish the entire site. We will be pushing for a lot of other improvements too, including a new notification system, a better sharing system, better tournament recommendations, HTML5 live chat and private messaging, better team management tools, improved stream embedding and categorization, and many others.

We also want to build free robust tools for event organizers. We hope to add a bit more interactivity to the groups and continue to develop useful tools, which may take some of the following forms: team and group blogs, group forums, better integration of streams and VODs, a ban system, private groups, an overhaul of the group point-ranking system, a rule-based tournament seeding system, and better ways for groups to link to their external events occurring outside of Z33K.

Z33K has already provided a great service to the SC2 community and in the coming year they will be extending this boon to the rest of the esports world as well. As esports continues to grow, so too will everyone’s desire to play a role. Not everyone can be a pro gamer, but with the tools being crafted and honed by Z33K, anyone can participate in the competitive scene to the fullest extent possible.