Disclaimer – This article is long and about Highlander, if you don’t like or watch Highlander then this isn’t for you to read.

 Hildreth – Yes ladies and gentlemen, well…mostly gentlemen, it’s that time again where Highlander pops up on this website, the game format being akin to the weather after the main news has been delivered, getting that little chunk of time at the end of the programme, although for a lot of people the weather is the most important part (plus the weather girls are more attractive than the newsreaders). I have started to write this commentary on the dawn of perhaps the greatest TF2 achievement of all time made by arguably the greatest, most dominant team of all time – I have put emphasis on the words ‘perhaps‘ and ‘arguably‘ to avoid comments comparing the merits of achievements. If you are however not aware, SouthKorea SNSD have come away with yet another title, winning the 3rd season of ETF2L Highlander Premiership division and taking a hefty sum of €1,035 divided by 9. This makes it their 3rd season and 6th tournament win undefeated, with only 3 map losses (plus a round loss on Gravelpit this season to May Contain Nuts) during the whole time, giving them an unbeatable 39-0 record in terms of matches (including default wins and bo3’s). It would be a 39-1 record if you included the showmatch between American champions   The Syndicate and SouthKorea SNSD, but that brings the topic to another area, an area that asks why no-one has been able to defeat SouthKorea SNSD, why the only teams that have touched them have been just sneaking rounds/maps off them occasionally over the course of nearly 3 years and why European Highlander is not an established scene like the North American scene who as of this season sees UGC boast 350 teams in their North American divisions whilst ETF2L has half the numbers. What has gone wrong with European Highlander? What has gone right with North American Highlander and why was the 2nd best team to challenge SouthKorea SNSD a group of high level 6’s players who rarely practised? For me, a person who has invested a lot of his personal time trying to create a scene in Europe, the frustration of the position of our scene today feels like to me I have wasted my efforts – we in Europe have perhaps the best infrastructure in terms of a league, a community with coverage and organizations to deliver the best TF2 experience in the world yet we have failed to do so – so why?

SNSD’s achievements

Before I look at how this happened, I would like to give you all some background on the success of SouthKorea SNSD and give my thoughts on why this is the case. Before I say anything though, it is only fair to say the absolute commitment, longevity and intuition of people playing for this amazing team is the biggest reason for their dominance. We can all make statements such as “if   Epsilon and  Crack Clan formed a Highlander team and took it seriously they could win” but until we actually see it, I cannot state otherwise. No team that plays scrims with American teams at 3.30am in order to improve themselves in a scene they already dominate can be called ‘slacking’, simply put they are a testament to all teams in perhaps every e-sport, they are unbeatable because they are the best and they want to stay the best so put the effort in.

Since winning the legendary ETF2L Highlander Community Challenge back in early 2010, SouthKorea SNSD have dominated every tournament they could be bothered to enter, winning the Community Fortress European bracket confirming their status of community heroes, defeating the stacked and experienced high level 6’s mix team of Angry German Kids. By this time of course, some members of the team were becoming established 6v6 players themselves, top names like  Tviq and  TheSucker were emerging and making their various talents known (I’m a particular fan of Fredrik’s “breathe through the nose” technique) but  for many they still represented the hearts of every community player who was not part of the 6v6 scene, showing the world the talent that has emerged from this strange new gamemode of TF2. Not much happened in European Highlander for SouthKorea SNSD after they snubbed the UGC European division due to them not having the motivation to play a long schedule on a new map each week, leaving them absent from tournaments for 9-10 months until the inaugural ETF2L Highlander season, which promised yet more shiny medals but after such a break, would SNSD really show the same dominance? With fresh changes to their team, taking on their buddy  Hat Beef and  Droso the team was able to keep their performance level and win the first season unbeaten. This was followed by the only One-Night cup they have entered being the Experimental Ordanance #1 cup where they risked their reputation to try strange new weird maps, although they didn’t have much trouble until they lost to their old rivals  Colony on Barnblitz before barely scraping through the next two maps and taking it,  it showed that SouthKorea SNSD were beatable, although the obvious weakness for them was the lack of a starter Demo after  Cyber’s departure. This problem was addressed quickly as superstar  Kaidus joined the fray, adding to the lure of Prize Money thanks to Mr X’s generous donations, they came out for the next two seasons on form, practicing hard and destroying all competition in another unbeaten exploit and with their 28/30 points and Grand Final win against  Parrot Gapers, it is their 6th trophy win and 5th ETF2L title making them simply unmatchable in Europe.

The best Medic/Pyro/Engineer ever, the best team ever, okay?

 

North American Highlander

But it is in Europe where SouthKorea SNSD’s fortunes remain untouched, for as some of you are aware, the North American scene has a gigantic Highlander following, with as I mentioned earlier 350 teams signed up to their only league, UGC for their latest 9th season of Highlander. With ETF2L having 168 teams sign up for Season 3, twice the numbers exist in the NA 9v9 scene, but it isn’t only that – the numbers have consistently grown in UGC whilst in ETF2L numbers have shrunk from 900 in the HCC (Though half of these account for non-EU teams) to over 300 signups to Season 1, to 280 to Season 2 and more than 100 less this season with the grand number being 168. Some of this can be put down to American teams realizing the disadvantages of participating in a Euro-centric league but it does not account for the many dozens of European teams that have disappeared from Highlander. So as the American scene grew and grew with more fresh talent emerging along with the lure of 9v9 for established 6v6 professionals like  Ruwin Vhalin and  Blaze to stamp their mark on the scene, the European scene has stagnated and no real new teams from the days of the HCC have emerged to compete with SouthKorea SNSD with exception of the likes of  Parrot Gapers, a group of high level 6v6 players who were outplayed convincingly in the final on Sunday.

Here is the thing about  Parrot Gapers, they don’t take the 9v9 gamemode as seriously as some teams do and their practise schedule is very light in comparison. Now in UGC last season, a team named  Gorgeous Gamers bore a striking resemblance to the Gapers, coming in with a mix of high-invite talent and not practising and yet they lost to the established teams who came through the ranks at UGC. Meanwhile  Parrot Gapers managed to overwhelm their opposition and come 2nd, offering themselves as the next best in Europe and did it by barely making an effort beyond turning up to matches with a slightly different roster each time.

So why is it that in North America; with a population 3 times less than the whole of Europe – is Highlander more popular, more established, has on average a higher skill level and is a lot more competitive? To look at this we only need to go back to the dawn of the re-rise in popularity from Highlander back in late 2009 to early 2010 where the ETF2L HCC generated the biggest influx of new competitive TF2 players the game had ever seen, it could be fair to say a whole generation of competitive TF2 players have come from that era, some better than others (Ahem,  Mr Dahlberg aka the “best medic in Highlander” – sorry  Hat). As at least 100-200 teams existed that were not just playing for a medal, the UGC Highlander league took the initiative to re-shape their old Highlander league (which in it’s previous season saw less than 20 signups) and give the new found 9v9 lover a home to play with. Meanwhile in Europe, ETF2L had neglected the opportunity to take advantage of this massive number of new players registered on it’s website, instead continuing to focus on 6v6. For the big winners; teams like SNSD, Colony, May Contain Nuts the prospect of a 16 week season on a new map every week was too much for them after a grueling 6 month tournament, so they snubbed UGC league and their two continental brackets and instead focused on the only other organization (again American) Community Fortress who were willing to accommodate both a separate EU and NA bracket as well as allow all skill levels to sign up, answering the two biggest criticism’s from the ETF2L HCC as some of you may remember, it was for Communities only bar one ‘Buddy’ who was allowed to off-class to either Pyro, Heavy, Spy or Sniper plus the fact in the latter rounds all surviving American teams were required to play on a European server.

Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity ever in TF2 from a league perspective was back then, when ETF2L decided not to commit resources to running a Highlander league, leaving Europeans having to seek alternative methods of playing Highlander and in the case of the best teams, not play at all for the best part of a year and in some cases, longer.

 

The original poster for the ETF2L Highlander Community Challenge – It changed competitive TF2.

Coverage

I still hold on to the rather ‘spectacular’ claim to TF2 fame that is being part of the first ever Highlander cast, back in January of 2010, casting for TF2TV alongside  Sheridyn with  Comedian on the stream. For those who don’t remember or weren’t around, coverage for TF2TV was mostly focused on quantity opposed to quality, this being due to the actual lack of casting organizations that existed in Europe, hugging the phrase “any coverage is better than none”. For Highlander, it was simply a case of giving this new gamemode a voice, some coverage and indeed, a chance for 18 people to have a good time and hear their names called out by other nerds in front of a couple hundred people (some bigger games saw over a thousand spectators) and for me, it was a chance to be mocked for my voice and acquire the nickname – “The cast whisperer”. After the CommFT tournament, Europe went a good few months without any sort of coverage as the UGC league was snubbed, this time more by me than actually any casting organization, as my role in TF2TV was defined as the Highlander man, who focused on HL coverage and with my true European interest in Highlander being based around the best of the best like SouthKorea SNSD Colony and  May Contain Nuts, I took no interest in promoting the young European Highlander scene, mainly because it didn’t interest me as a player. From this point of view, it seems selfish but from a wider point of view and looking back it speaks volumes on how the Highlander scene in Europe left itself without a voice for coverage, with me being the only person really willing to make an effort to bring casts and coverage in the competitive scene.

To compare this, I will jump back to the UGC and North American bandwagon where upon the formation of UGC season 3 saw more coverage begin, starting with post produced VODs but by the end of the season and thanks mostly to the work of  Dashner and  Parable, eXtelevision began a regular casting schedule, using the Monday night default date as a time to begin weekly and consistent scheduling of Highlander games. Since Season 4,  Dashner and  Parable’s role in eXtv died down as they pursued other interests but this never stopped eXtv’s coverage as more people stepped up to bring the community casting coverage.  Mikal and  Hexagrams were the next notable people that ran a regular show but they were also joined regularly by the likes of  eXtine Salamancer,  Duder and  Moose and even now as more of those names have stepped down their role as a caster / streamer, eXtv’s Highlander coverage continues to flourish with  Kip Sud bringing consistency along with more and more experienced TF2 players like  Mr Slin,  Mustardoverlord and  Pudding Cup lending their voices to a rapidly developing and emerging scene. Just last week big name caster  Djc lended his voice to the cause, along with a string of popular Youtube channels and streams, there is plenty of places for the average Highlander loving yank to sink their teeth into and spend seemingly hours of their time just watching / listening and learning.

VanillaTV is of course widely known as the major casting organization in Europe and despite recent criticisms, they have on the whole covered the competitive 6v6 scene really well. For Highlander, it is a different scenario, not that they haven’t ever given Highlander the time of day, even above 6v6 – I still remember a time they casted a 9v9 match above a 6v6 match, so they are certainly well-spread with their coverage. No, the only problem I have found with VTV is the consistency of regular casting and that isn’t down to them as an organization entirely, it is down to the fact I am the only person there who regularly casts the format, alongside perhaps Comedian although his casting endeavors have quietened in recent seasons. Remembering that eXtv have consistently had different volunteers step up into the role of bringing the Highlander coverage, Europe have had just me, alone…for two years and only until recently where I have stepped down in my role, we have seen the difference. Two games were casted during the regular season 3 schedule, one of which was arranged via me and the other being an ABC Tuesday production where they had no high level 6v6 match to cover, there was coverage of the playoffs just about as they managed to put together a cast with the new voice of European Highlander,  HeavyisGPS and  Skully to cast the 1000 euro playoff final between SNSD and Parrot Gapers, a fairly one sided game where history was made and the last and largest sum of donated money was presented to the Korean Pop Queens. Yet the coverage and build up was light, no previous playoff games were live casted, although some have been picked up by Youtube contributors like Kip and HiGPS but on the whole it is almost like the Highlander finals floated by like a hot air balloon on the horizon as you watch the sunset. VanillaTV do not have any consistency for casting Highlander at all and that stems down to a big communication problem within the organization and the lack of volunteers in the 9v9 community, not to mention influential people just not caring.

The final of the ETF2L Highlander Season 3 Premiership playoff was covered but no Youtube VOD exists, Tviq uploaded his POV though.

ETF2L’s choices

In Europe, the story is so different. The league itself was never going to happen in the first place, so I was told as for a long time it was believed that ETF2L could not bring a league as it lacked the resources at the time, and it did but it was only after Ashkan – one of the single greatest community contributors we’ve ever had – persuaded the ETF2L Head admin of the time, Crasp that it was logistically possible to be done just with some new admins, thus I was recruited alongside a few other people to bring the first season of ETF2L Highlander, preparation beginning as early as June 2011 for a season which ended December time of that year. This decision coming a mere 18 months after UGC began their revamping of Highlander certainly left the European scene trialing in terms of an active scene, for me looking back n I cannot help but criticise why such a decision took so long to happen, why ETF2L as an organization didn’t do this sooner when UGC was rebuilding itself as a dying league with only a small 6v6 competition being held before 9v9 re-popularized itself. This is the TF2 equivalent of the UK developing what many see as the first computer in the world during World War Two, the Colossus and then destroying it after the war, hindering British computing development for some time. Historians can debate the facts but I cannot ignore such poor judgement at a time where Highlander is the most widely played gamemode currently in this game and why it took so long to see the potential which was obvious when 900 teams signed up for a tournament in which 90% were new players.

Even though in late 2011 ETF2L Highlander started up again, coverage didn’t exactly emulate the NA scene as again, I teamed up with the legend that is Comedian this time at VanillaTV to bring coverage and the first season was for the most part, a huge success although we could still set ourselves targets of more casts, more coverage and generate more interest. Then something amazing happened, a man I know who prefers to remain anonymous donated money towards Highlander, in total he perhaps gave the best part of £10,000 to ETF2L with the majority asked to go towards the promotion of the gamemode. I was excited, exhilarated, enthusiastic and highly motivated to make this work, use this money to generate hype and influx new players into the scene at all level. The two things we really needed was an interesting league structure and regular coverage but these two factors were hindered by ETF2L’s second big decision, one I still disagree with even though many do not, that is to not run a Highlander season simultaneously with 6v6. The decision to run Highlander as a separate entity has done nothing to bridge the gap in the communities, develop the game format and keep a consistent schedule of 9v9 games. The current outlook for ETF2L’s next two seasons, presuming the calender stays the same sees only 2 Highlander seasons a year with another possibility of the Nations Cup being run. Season 4 is due to run March-May and we can only assume Season 5 will mirror this autumn/winter season from late October to December with playoffs ending in January 2014. That is for the vast majority of players, 12 weeks of Highlander per year, compared to roughly 30 weeks for the three 6v6 seasons or 36 weeks total accumulated for UGC. It is almost like the admins at ETF2L believe Highlander is only a part-time gamemode for some people and that 6v6 should be the primary focus so if you do happen to enjoy Highlander in Europe, UGC is the place to play regularly as ETF2L, despite being better equipped to deal with two competitive scenes will not accommodate you for most of the year.

Where do we go from here?

 

As I started the article with a metaphorical SNSD tribute that only the team itself (plus hardcore mascots like Belial) would enjoy. Their dominance has only been the trigger for me to write this article, the fact that they are dominant is more down to their skill and dedication but certain factors cannot be ignored about the state of European Highlander. Currently ETF2L has 2 active Highlander admins, plus Emb taking up head admins duty whilst being ultimately in charge of the running of the league. The signups are down 50%, the coverage is virtually non-existent and swept under the carpet, the EU HL scene is fairly cut off and distant from the 6v6 community, the main coverage hubs in Europe primarily focus on 6v6. Meanwhile there is no really accepted place primarily focused on EU Highlander, no UGC League or place for them on ETF2L, one semi-active open pickup channel on IRC, no community mumble server like FB or Djedi and the overall skill level between dedicated Highlander players isn’t to a high enough standard to realistically compete with the best – or the American equivalents. It is a dying scene and it’s still young – “good riddance” some might say but it would be a great loss to TF2’s long term stability if we as a community, those who care about Highlander and those in a position of influence who do not, if we don’t get our act together and begin to contribute in a way that has seen a hundred new teams form a season in North America, new public players finding a TF2 hero who’s main class is Engineer, regular casts and popular youtube channels built solely around covering the 9v9 game.

If you ever wanted a TL:DR, read this statement – We need more volunteers in this league, more coverage, better infrastructure and a place for 9v9 players to go and feel like a community – then maybe, maybe one day we’ll have a big enough scene with a high enough skill level that SNSD actually lose to Colony.