I am standing in a crowd of thousands while a cool sprinkling of rain falls on my face, it's chilly but not that chilly. And even if it was, I don't think I'd care. I have a tall can of Korean beer in my hand and a stomach full of Korean food. But this isn't what I am thinking about at this moment because, at this moment, the thousands of people who have gathered around me and I are screaming. We are screaming because Yuya Masumoto, a professional Blade and Soul player from Japan who was favored at only 3% in his first semi-finals matchup, just eviscerated his opponent in one glorious combo. It's a classic underdog story, and even though I don't know Yuya Masumoto—I've never even seen him play until tonight—I'm immediately drawn to the idea of this single Japanese player carving a path to the top amid a competition dominated by the Korean team. And during that moment, when a crowd of thousands surged upward to celebrate this seemingly miraculous win (even though he'd go on to be knocked out minutes later), I glimpsed the potential for Blade and Soul to be a solid contribution to the rapidly expanding eSports scene. But getting to that point isn't going to be an easy fight.
As part of my trip to South Korea, where I spent tons of time with Blade and Soul, learning about NCsoft, and a brief demo of a new NCsoft game that will be making the jump to the West, the big focus was undoubtedly on the healthy eSports scene that Blade and Soul has carved out for itself since it launched in the East four years prior. Amid the flash and sizzle of the Busan Cinema Center, where thousands gathered to watch the best Blade and Soul players butt heads, there was little to distinguish Blade and Soul from fighting tournament greats like Street Fighter. And now, after four years of building momentum, that scene is about to crack wide open as western audiences are allowed to compete.
During the trip, NCsoft was able to confirm that next year's World Championships would include players from Europe and North America, alongside the already established competitors from South Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan. Right now, the westernized version of Blade and Soul is behind on content from the Korean version, the biggest difference affecting the competitive scene being the lack of classes available in North American and European versions. While Blade and Soul won't be caught up to the eastern version in terms of dungeon or story content for some time, the team working to localize and bring it west is determined to bring Blade and Soul up to par with the Korean version so that no region will have an edge against another.
Following the release of Blade and Soul in Europe and North America, players will have a pre-season period intended to allow the new audience to race through the content and level their characters. During this time, players can expect any of the classes that are lacking to be added to the game in time for the first competitive season to start. From there, each season will be one month long.
But the big question remains, while it's obvious that NCsoft has big plans to not only extend the reach of Blade and Soul to a new audience but also increase its scale, is it going to be worth playing? Perhaps more importantly: Is it going to be worth watching? And therein lies the big struggle that I feel Blade and Soul is going to have to conquer if it hopes to gain the presence necessary to sustain it against the devouring black holes of competitive gaming's DOTA 2's and Counter Strike: Go's.
Like any great eSport, Blade and Soul is a crucible where passionate players come to test their might against one another. There is an investment of time and energy that can be rewarded when you understand the subtext of drama and hardship that bleeds into the dance of characters onscreen—and in that respect, I think Blade and Soul is perfectly healthy. Even with the obvious language barrier between the players and myself, it was easy to identify heroes (like the teary eyed Yuya) and villains (like Jungho Yoon, who came across a little too cocky for my tastes). And there is no question that NCsoft has leveraged Blade and Soul into one of the most fantastic events I've attended this year. With musical performances from some of the country's biggest stars, an opening ceremony musical production that, while incredibly cheesy at times, managed to constantly drop my jaw, and everything else you'd need to convince you that Blade and Soul was already the biggest sport that side of the Pacific Ocean, the biggest hurdle to global success is going to be the game itself.
Because, at its heart, Blade and Soul is just another MMORPG. And like every MMORPG coming out these days, it seems to bank all of its success on borrowing the core structure of every MMO released since World of Warcraft while doing a few things differently in hopes of feeling fresh. While games like Star Wars: The Old Republic inject a quality of storytelling into their online worlds and others like The Elder Scrolls Online focus on the freedom of character growth, Blade and Soul's big selling point is the incredibly challenging and satisfying combat. While I'll be exploring that system from a player versus environment context in another article, that same system translates surprisingly well to competitive combat—at times looking more like a fighting game than an MMORPG. And that's really cool.
But that MMORPG lineage might also be the very thing that stops Blade and Souls momentum right in its tracks. While I cannot stress the importance that a competitive game plays well, I would also argue that a game needs to be every bit as amusing to watch in order to build a big scene. The truth is, all the complexity of a Street Fighter match exists in a space where even a player who has no knowledge of the game can quickly digest the symbolism on screen to understand what is happening. When a punch lands, health disappears. Yet Blade and Soul lacks this same sense of immediate consequence.
Watching professional matches, there was an extraordinary visual spectacle to get wrapped up in (the abilities and animations are gorgeous and excitingly kinetic), but I found it hard to interpret what was happening on screen—not just because each class brings their own skills to the match, but rather because understanding those moves and the damage they inflict felt impossible. Yuya's Destroyer would swing his axe with vicious energy, yet often I would see very little health disappear from his opponent's life bar. Sometimes a hit that didn't look very dangerous would likewise take a massive chunk of health away, other times attacks wouldn't deal damage at all. But without combat that is more readable, more grounded in a symbolism that we can easily interpret, I found myself watching the health bars rather than the action on screen. In most fighting games, the damage inflicted is representative of the intensity of the action on screen, so when a player unleashes a devastating combo, you don't need to know what that combo is in order to appreciate the world of hurt it inflicted. However, the time I've spent watching Blade and Soul matches, both at the Championships and on my own time, there feels like a distinct disconnect that makes the simple act of watching somewhat less rewarding because it is less intuitive—at least for a viewer without experience in the game.
The other big hurdle I expect might dampen this competitive scene is the fact that, like an MMORPG, building a new character is going to require invested countless dozens of hours into leveling them up through the core game. During PvP matches, gear is equalized so that no player has an inherent advantage over another, but skills that are unlocked through leveling are not. Meaning a max level character has more tactical advantages on hand than one who isn't, meaning players are going to spend a long time leveling up every class just to be proficient.
Where most competitive games give you access to everything you need right off the bat, understanding that the true barrier to greatness is skill, Blade and Soul has made the odd choice to include the extra arbitrary hurdle of time. I'm confident that very little learned while leveling up will translate into how you play in an arena match, just like how playing the computer in Street Fighter or Hearthstone is a woefully inadequate way of preparing for the real deal. So it seems odd why players who are already embarking on the journey to master a class must first push through the seemingly routine content of Blade and Soul's level grind—arguably its weakest aspect that I saw so far.
I could go on and on debating the pros and cons of Blade and Soul, but until it launches in North America and Europe, there is no telling. As much as my own personal observations lead me to feel a little skeptical of Blade and Soul becoming a mainstay of the competitive scene, a lot of what I've already witnessed of its success has me questioning whether or not those objections really matter. And, in a sense, all of it has to do with what NCsoft wants from Blade and Soul's impending western expansion. They've already built an impressive, yet small competitive scene around the game, and if their goal is to maintain the status quo, I see no reason why that won't be the case. But considering the ambition driving the company, I doubt that "status quo" is in their vocabulary. With combat that is fun to play but not as intuitive to watch and an unwillingness to abandon the elements that don't complement the competitive multiplayer, like the level grind, Blade and Soul has a long road to climb to the top..
Disclaimer: Travel and accommodations to South Korea were provided by NCsoft. They have not requested, nor were granted any oversight on the topics or opinions expressed in the coverage derived from this trip.