Where have all the map pools gone?
In 2013 WCS was rolled out across all three regions, forever changing the landscape of competitive StarCraft. Much of WCS's impact has been exhaustively discussed, but one area that is often overlooked is WCS's affect on the competitive map pool.
Before the advent of WCS, it was common for tournaments to supply their own map pool. This includes everything from variations of the current ladder map pool to entirely new and interesting maps that create a dynamic entirely different than the more standard maps that are typically found in the ladder map pool.
Tournaments allowed map makers to be creative, and to explore ideas that might not be appropriate on the ladder. MLG map pools frequently had island bases, the GSL would often force cross spawns on four player maps, and there was an omnipresent opportunity to create unique experiences for both players and viewers of the map. The WCS tournaments begin to embrace the ladder map pool, creating a standardized experience for competitors across the regions. WCS became the gold standard that other tournament organizers sought to follow, and as such we began to see unique maps disappearing from the play pool, being replaced by the standard map pool that players practice on.
That's not to say that non-ladder maps have disappear entirely from high level competition. Proleague is famous for its use of unique maps, and Totalbiscuit's Shoutcraft Clan Wars utilized interesting maps to create a unique show for viewers. Yet in terms of premiere individual leagues the last tournament that used a non-ladder map pool was Redbull Battle Grounds New York where Habitation Station and New Polaris Rhapsody were used, it is important to remember that Habitation Station was not a ladder map at this time, and there had yet to be a ladder map with a gold base in Heart of the Swarm.
Yet map variety for its own sake is obviously a less than desirable, so we must ask does the homogenous nature of the modern map pool result in anything lost for players or viewers? To begin to answer this question we have to answer another, what does having unique maps in tournaments do? When a tournament brings a new map with it, it does a lot of things, including giving players the opportunity to develop unique strategies that simply wouldn't work on a map that's had as much scrutiny as a ladder map. Using unique maps also encourages preparation for a specific tournament. Obviously the weekend marathon style of foreign tournaments prevents players from preparing for their specific matches, but that doesn't mean it's impossible for players to prepare specifically for a given tournament. Having unique maps will allow players that prepare heavily for a specific tournament to shine, which will create interesting story lines, and allow potential underdogs willing to focus on one tournament to perform better than larger names focusing on many different tournaments. ShoutCraft clan wars for example would often pit Korean teams against foreign ones, and the foreigners would do well, especially at the start. Interesting maps would allow for clever strategies to be devised, favoring preperation over raw mechanics.
Shoutcraft Clan wars often saw "weaker" teams winning
The addition of maps from sources other than the ladder pool also enables tournament organizers to introduce interesting dynamics that might not be desirable or appropriate in a ladder map. Two maps that introduce new mechanics are the previously mentioned New Polaris Rhapsody as well as GSTL Fruitland. New Polaris Rhapsody had certain areas of the map that would become flooded with lava at regular intervals, forcing players to adapt to an ever changing landscape. We saw interesting rushes develop from the unique dynamics caused by the hostile terrain. Fruitland also had a unique game changing mechanic, there were lemons that had 1000hp that could be destroyed and harvested for an immediate 500 mineral boost. This led to all kinds of strategies being developed around securing the lemon, and pressing the economic advantage that the citrusy fruit granted whoever managed to secure it. Some would argue that these dynamics are gimmicky, and don't belong in competitive play, and they have a point, obviously not every map should have a gimmicky mechanic inserted, but having a single unique map in a pool of seven or nine doesn't present any kind of insurmountable problem, and could allow a well prepared player to snipe a crucial win.
The standardization of the map pool has created another concerning issue, which is the homogenization of maps fielded in tournaments. By homogenization I'm referring to more than the individual maps themselves, we need to consider the fact that the maps mostly spring from Blizzard's own design team, or the Team Liquid map contest. Both of which seem to have a similar design philosophy favoring maps that allow to easily play into the macro game. Previously there was a back and forth, with some ladder maps making it into tournaments, and some tournament maps in turn entering the ladder. This back and forth allowed interesting maps like Habitation Station to enter the competitive map pool despite clearly being derived from a different design philosophy than the standard one that is at the core of most modern StarCraft II maps. Obviously we've seen a slight reversal in the trend with this most recent map pool, but as viewers and players there is something to gain by having tournaments bring their own maps.
Tournaments like ShoutCraft Clan Wars, RedBull Battlegrounds, and Proleague have all demonstrated that unique maps can lead to exciting games and brilliant new strategies. With the way that tournament map pools have become a carbon copy of the ladder map pool it seems that we've truly lost something here. I for one genuinely hope a tournament is able to step up and offer some of its own maps once again.
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