Starcraft 2 in every school: Blizzard's eSports director interviewed

Blizzard's Starcraft 2 world championship series is one of the biggest eSports tournaments around, offering up prize money of $250,000 in a grand final due to take place in Shanghai in November 2012. The man behind it is Ilja Rotelli, Blizzard's Director of Global Community & eSports.

We sat down with Rotelli at the European finals of the World Championship Series in Stockholm to find out his plans for making eSports more accessible, balancing pro and amateur play, what the community might not be expecting once Heart of the Swarm hits, and why he wants to put Starcraft in every school.

Firstly, could you introduce yourself and explain to the PC Gamer readers what it is that you do?

I'm Ilja Rotelli. My formal title at Blizzard is Director of Global Community & eSports and as the title describes, I'm responsible for two areas of our company -- one of them is managing the team that manages our community for World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2, Diablo and so forth, and the second is that I run the team that designs eSports programmes for the company.

Can you give me more detail on the eSports side? What does Blizzard do for eSports?

Well, we do a number of things. At the base level, we license the rights for Starcraft 2 to eSports organisations so they have the legal rights to go out and organise the amazing tournaments that they put together.

But, more interestingly, what we also do is look at the ways Blizzard should step into the ecosystem of eSports and help develop the industry. The World Championship Series is one of the examples of the stuff that my team and I design on a daily basis.

How long does it take to plan an event like the European WOrld Championship Series finals?

The event itself is mostly a joint effort between our friends at Dreamhack and the European team here, and took many months of co-ordination. We started talking about this event back in Janaury this year, but putting the whole vision together for the 35 events globally that are being rolled out in 2012 - that took many months of last year.

So you're running 35 events this year? That's a lot.

Yep, they're not completely done yet, obviously, there's a few more coming - but the total vision is 29 nationals, 5 continental championships and then the grand final in Shanghai.

How do you work out where you put the events? How did you choose Stockholm for the European finals, for example?

As far as the nationals are concerned, we went by the size of the Starcraft 2 playing community that every nation had. For the continental finals, we worked with our partners to figure out where they had the biggest chance of bringing a lot of people, and where there's a tradition for eSports already. Obviously Sweden with Dreamhack has a long pedigree and DNA around eSports.

So basically we worked with our best partners in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia to work out where to put the finals.

Which players are you excited about seeing at the European finals this weekend?

[Laughs] I can't say - I love them all. It's like picking one of your children.

I'm not asking you to pick a favourite!

I will go as far as saying that I always prefer the underdogs. What I think the World Championship is all about is giving a chance to nations and players that otherwise wouldn't see the spotlight in the eSports space. As such, I love it when someone that you weren't expecting shows up and plays a great game, and gets into the finals - so that's what I'm hoping to see this weekend.

Absolutely - the best bits of eSports are when amazing things happen - when the plucky underdog comes from behind to win. Do you have any favourite stories of that?

I don't know if you followed what happened in the North American final, but Scarlett - the national champion of Canada [beating HuK, Ostojiy, Drewbie and DdoRo flawlessly in the winners bracket, and eventually defeating Ostojiy again in the final] - ended up winning the N America continental championship [demolishing Theognis, Mustik, HuK and Insur through the winners bracket, and then beating ViBE in the final], and I thought that was an amazing story - that was exactly what the world championship series is about.

Let's talk a bit about eSports within Europe. Obviously, it's huge in Korea, but it's taking a bit more time to grow in places like Europe. What is Blizzard doing to make games like Starcraft more accessible for newcomers to follow?

We're hoping that the world championship series is a starting point for a long road that Blizzard needs to get into. The World Championship Series has been designed to provide a very simple infrastructure that is fairly easy to pick up on - you have a national championship - you have your national champion that will compete at a continental level and then a global final. It's as easy as it can be as a narrative for a newcomer to the viewership of SC2 to pick up on and follow. For example, I see the French flag, I'm French, so I understand exactly who I'm supposed to support.

There's a lot more that Blizzard needs to be doing to get to a place in which Starcraft 2 is truly a participatory sport. One in which people feel like there's a place in which they can compete at - either at a local level, or a regional, national, continental level, or even if you want to become a pro player. We want to provide a path for players to get there.

While I don't necessarily have anything to announce or talk about, I can tell you that Blizzard is going to be developing programmes that go as grass-roots as it's possible to get - both from a participatory and from a viewership perspective.

One of the things that has exploded nationally both in North America and Europe is a phenomenon called Barcraft that I'm sure you're familiar with. We've been watching the community organise itself around going into public places and watching the games by themselves.

We feel that has provided an amazing entry point for somebody that has never been exposed to eSports to either accidentally - walking into a bar where 200 people are cheering at a tv - or because a friend brought you there and exposed you to eSports for the first time. So in short, I think it's a very exciting time for eSports, and for its growth, and for newcomers to be exposed to it.

Next question. If you had completely unlimited resources…

I do! I work at Blizzard!

Well, more unlimited than that… and it was your mission to make SC2 the biggest game in the entire world, how would you go about doing that?

Oh wow. Um. I would put Starcraft 2 in every school in the world. I think that it is an amazing… I'm into gaming because I believe in the power that games have to develop critical thinking and the ability for people to interact with each other in a way that is both enjoyable and teaches you stuff about yourself, about other people, and about resource management - about interactions that are extremely complex to solve. So honestly, if I could put SC2 in every school in the world, that would be how I'd do it.

Every school in the world right now is playing soccer, they're playing football, or baseball, or whatever your local country does. I see no reason why they shouldn't be playing Starcraft 2 as well.

Heart of the Swarm is coming, and the beta is out now. What do you think the biggest effects of the expansion on the pro community are going to be? Is there anything that you think that might happen that the community might not be expecting?

Well, changes always bring some level of surprise, and I guess we'll find out by ourselves once we launch Heart of the Swarm, what the impact on eSports is going to be. Certainly we're bringing more complexity to the game, we're bringing an additional layer of richness to the strategies that you can adapt.

Plus, I've always thought that there are two types of gamers, fundamentally, in the world. There's the gamer that's capable of picking up a new game pretty quickly, and they're going to be winning with this game very fast, because they embrace change - they're very good with shifting perspectives. Then these people get bored and move along, because they need change, they crave change all the time, and that leaves the people that are very good at mastering a game - they don't like change all that much but once they get into the game that they love, the curve goes up - they're going to be the ones that eventually own the space.

So I think that for a while, as soon as we launch Heart of the Swarm, the first type of gamer will be excelling. So there's going to be a bit of a shift of hierarchy in the ecosystem. But I think that in the long run, the ones that are capable of putting all their dedication into, and are more enamoured with, learning every aspect of the game are going to be the ones that are eventually going to be the winners.

How tricky is it to balance both of those types of players with the more casual competitive player within the same game? How do you make it fun for all of those people?

I don't know if I have a smart answer to that. More than anything else, I do think that Starcraft 2 is by itself an eminently accessible game. I do think that you can enjoy it with your friends in a social setting as well as in a high-stakes, very intense competition, and I feel that Blizzard could be doing a little more to put the spotlight on the first aspect, on the more casual… I hate the word casual… the more social and fun aspect of the competition.

We're thinking about it. We're trying to work out eSports programmes that would develop more grass-roots, and focus less on competition and more on "let's get together and play" kind of aspects of the game. But again, not much to announce yet.

So without announcing anything, what are some of the ways that could be accomplished?

Well, there are regional differences - so for example it'd be easier in Asia than in Europe, because Asia still has the amazing phenomenon of the internet cafes that are an eminently social exercise - it's something that you do with your friends when you're 15. You spend the afternoon with a bunch of friends playing games in an internet cafe. So developing a programme that incentives that behaviour, and rewards players for gathering - say, one day a week every week in an IGR - is the kind of stuff that I think Blizzard should be thinking about and developing.

In the west, in Europe and in America, I think the colleges are a great space in which we could be doing more - creating clubs and supporting existing clubs is something that I would like for Blizzard, one day, to start working on.

Finally, I presume you play Starcraft yourself. Who do you play as?

I play Zerg.

What's your best moment ever been in a competitive game? Your crowning moment of glory?

The few times I've won. Those are my best moments. *laughs*

Actually, the part that I love the most about SC2 is that I have a 17-year-old brother, and I'm originally from Italy, and my brother lives in Italy and loves SC2. So for me, the ability to play remotely with my brother, 2v2, is my connection to this brother that I didn't get to see growing up over the last ten years because I live in the US. So I really manage to connect to him at a level that I wouldn't otherwise be able to because of Starcraft 2.

Thanks for your time!