Blizzard chief operating officer
By Kim Tong-hyung
Blizzard Entertainment is bracing for a bruising legal fight with Korean cable television stations over the broadcasting rights for professional video game tournaments based on its immensely popular StarCraft franchise, according to a senior company executive.
In a lengthy news conference in Seoul Thursday, Paul Sams, Blizzard’s chief operating officer, lashed out at cable channels MBC Game and OnGameNet for televising StarCraft tournaments without the company’s consent.
The U.S.-based games giant, which boasts a broad lineup of strategy games that also include the World of Warcraft series, sued both cable channels last month. A lawsuit against the Korea e-Sports Players Association (KeSPA), which has been managing the tournaments broadcasted on the channels, is also being considered, Sams said.
``It’s unfortunate that the e-sports industry in Korea is lagging behind other industries in recognition of intellectual property (IP) rights and the basic principles related to them. Korea is the only region in the world where we have had to resort to litigation to protect our IP rights,’’ Sams told Korean journalists at the Park Hyatt Seoul in Samseongdong. He added that Blizzard hasn’t decided whether to consider filing a preliminary injunction against the StarCraft broadcasts.
Sams blasted the arguments that StarCraft and other games used in professional tournaments should be regarded as part of the public domain. Such views originate from KeSPA, which claims that Blizzard collecting license fees for StarCraft tournaments would be equivalent to Adidas levying costs on its balls used in football matches.
``StarCraft is not a public domain offering, as Blizzard has invested significant money and resources to create the StarCraft game and the overall StarCraft universe,’’ he said.
``Classifying StarCraft and other e-sports as part of the public domain deprives developers such as Blizzard of their IP rights. There will be no incentive to do what Blizzard had done to balance the games for competition, which is a more difficult task than creating a normal game.’’
StarCraft is a military science-fiction game that has permanently reshaped Korean leisure habits and spawned a massive market for computer gaming since its debut in 1998.
Blizzard sold more than 5 million copies of the first StarCraft game in Korea alone, which accounted for half of its global sales, and is currently enjoying a bright start to the sequel StarCraft II that was released this summer.
StarCraft is also credited for the emergence of professional gaming, which is practically a national sport here, hooking millions of television viewers to watch professional players battling in packed arenas.
The emergence of electronic sports (e-sports) led to a tight partnership between Blizzard and KeSPA, but the relationship began deteriorating in 2007, when KeSPA sold the broadcasting rights to local broadcasters without Blizzard’s consent.
After months of circular negotiation, Blizzard cut ties with KeSPA in May and instead inked a partnership with online video firm Gretech-GomTV, which was granted exclusive rights to operate and broadcast StarCraft tournaments and also negotiate television deals.
Although Blizzard had allowed MBC Game and OnGameNet to broadcast KeSPA-arranged StarCraft leagues until August, which marked the end of the previous season, this didn’t prevent the channels from broadcasting new tournaments since then.
Gretech-GomTV has currently been offering cable television firms 12-month contracts that demand broadcasting fees of 100 million won (about $86,800) per league and other conditions. This will amount to around 700 billion won in annual payments for the cable television firms, which operate about three StarCraft leagues per season in both individual and team competition.
Sams dismissed the idea that Blizzard has been using e-sports to drive up revenue, and added that the company’s revenue from Korea, despite the immense popularity of its games here, contributed only five percent of its worldwide sales over the past three years.
``Back in 2007, KeSPA sold the broadcast rights for 1.7 billion won to cover three years, despite the fact that we never granted them the broadcast rights to sell, and they do not have the rights today. The yearly broadcasting fees were five times more than what Gom TV is asking for today, so I think it’s hypocritical for MBC Game and OGN (OnGameNet) to complain about the proposal,’’ Sams said.