The World of Tanks Grand Finals took over Warsaw, Poland this past weekend with a massively produced event designed to let Wargaming.net make a definitive statement about its eSports ambitions. I was on the scene for Military.com to check out the game and witness all the spectacle.
This was the game’s second international event and the eSports version of World of Tanks plays like a completely different game from the meticulous and strategic online game that made Wargaming’s name.
There are a lot of racing around, a lot of open-field brawling and very little of the considered, tactical maneuvering you’d expect from tank commander role-playing games. There was a lot of testosterone and players made thousands of maneuvers that would get you flunked out of war college. It was also awesome to experience in a way that could appeal to audience that doesn’t think it wants to watch other people playing video games.
Twelve teams participated in the finals. Hellraisers, a team from former USSR countries (with players from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine), knocked off defending champions Na’Vi (from Russia) in an exciting semifinal match before dismantling the upstart EL Gaming squad from China. Both North American teams eLevate and RuLette were knocked out in opening day matches and didn’t make Sunday’s elimination rounds.
Watch the quarterfinals match between Natus Vincere (Russia/CIS) and Virtus.PRO (EU).
If you’re trying to get your sport to go mainstream, it’s got to play well on TV and it’s got to appeal to viewers who have never played the game. The company’s international ambitions are clear: all the proceedings in the arena were conducted in English. Just like they do it on ESPN, each match had a play-by-play announcer and a color commentator and there was between-match analysis from a studio host, two analysts and a social media reporter. And there was an onstage event host from the UK, conducting proceedings in the carnival barker hype-style familiar to anyone who’s ever watched Premier League soccer.
Lots of folks struggled with their English (including some of the commentators) but everyone (well, everyone but the Chinese) made an effort to use the language onstage.
Speaking of ESPN, they launched their own coverage of eSports on Sunday with a tournament for the upcoming game Heroes of the Storm. ESPN Radio host Colin Cowherd was so freaked out that he said he'd quit the network if his bosses ever made him cover eSports.
Wargaming changed the World of Tanks eSports rules this year to create a much faster, more exciting game with attack/defense format. A match is played on two different maps, with each team playing two games as attacker and two as defender on each map. That’s potentially 8 matches, but the first team to take five games wins the match. If the two teams are tied 4-4 after the 8 matches, there’s a tiebreaker game on a new map. The finals worked the same way but a team had to get to seven wins instead of five to claim victory.
Too much of Day One played out like the SEC’s annual Cupcake Week, that break in the season when powerhouse teams fill out their schedule with a small-college opponent that guarantees a blowout game: it seemed like every match was 5-0 or 5-1. Both North American teams got hammered: we’re not yet playing this game at the skill level portrayed by the Russians.
There are 60 teams in Wargaming’s top-tier Gold league and over 300,000 players started the season in the gold, silver (semi-pro) and bronze leagues. The twelve teams in Warsaw were evenly drawn from the regions around the world: most of the Asian teams and none of the North American teams were a match for the best European and Russian squads and there were likely stronger teams from those regions that failed to qualify. But that’s true in any sport that uses regional selection: there are always athletes at the Olympics or World Cup events that just get blown off the field or out of the stadium.
Day Two featured some genuine upsets, some tighter matches and an overall higher level of play. All six of the favored Eastern European and Russian/CIS teams had made it through (Natus Vincere, Hellraisers and WP.SC6 from CIS and Schoolbus, Kazna Kru and Virtus Pro from the EU ) had all seen each other before. China's EL Gaming made its surprise blitz to the finals because it adopted a hyper-aggressive attack style, one that seemed blissfully unaware of all the traditional tank strategies that yield success in the original game. Still, they got exposed in the finals: Hellraisers were focused, prepared and able to humiliate their opponents 7-1.
The prime match of the day was the semifinal between Natus Vincere and Hellraisers. The defending champions looked ready to take control when their newest player (Angel_Killer) froze at a moment when he should have finished off Hellraisers halfway through the match. Hellraisers escaped, came back to win the game and all the momentum went their way for the rest of the match. It’s was the kind of turning point you see in a hard-fought NBA series, where one bad quarter can decide a seven-game series.
Just a few years ago, the World of Tanks pitch was all about authenticity: tanks that featured an obsessive attention to detail and tactics inspired by the actual tank battles from World War II. Gameplay in that era required an enormous amount of patience, a style that appealed to the game’s original core audience in Russia and Eastern Europe.
CEO Victor Kislyi says that the Wargaming.net League rule changes were fueled by conversations with the game’s best Russian players. They wanted the faster, more aggressive gameplay and the new league style has so far fueled massive growth in Western Europe. Shooting skill is a much bigger component of the new game: players can’t hang out and hide in the forest or behind a building and wait for the other team to screw up.
Competitive online gaming is on the verge: Over 100,000 people attended the Intel Extreme Masters World Championship in Katowice, Poland this past March and over 5 million views on YouTube and that was for the generally incomprehensible (to non-players) game League of Legends. The tweaks Wargaming has made to World of Tanks makes it easier to understand: you’re trying to either capture a base or blow up your opponents. Once you get the hang of it, the matches are easy to follow.
Here’s how fast World of Tanks has grown. Wargaming.net had fewer than 100 employees in 1989. World of Tanks launched in 2010 and now the company has over 4000 employees and 16 offices around the globe. The game has 110 million registered players worldwide (a number of active participants that’s almost equal to the number of record-setting passive viewers of the 2015 Super Bowl).
Kislyi founded the company and still runs the show. He’s careful to describe his creation as a platform, one that can be used to run different games based on the same core elements. Those impressive numbers represent just the PC gamers. There are now Xbox 360 and iOS versions of the game (25 million players combined on those much newer games) with an Xbox One downloadable title coming later this year.
It’s obvious the he still loves the original game but he’s been flexible (and smart) enough to take feedback from players and his own developers to allow the concept to breathe and grow. He compares Wargaming to LEGO: ten years ago you had to decide you wanted to do LEGO and then go track down a set. The toy company has recently partnered with other properties like Star Wars and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to create more exposure and now they’re making their own movies. The LEGO cubes haven't changed but they’re now a platform that can be used to create any number of experiences. Wargaming has already launched World of Warplanes and is gearing up for an open beta for the World of Warships soon, so the firm’s well positioned to continue to dominate war games based on real gear (as opposed to the ever more unrealistic weapons coming out of the CoD design studios).
Kislyi describes the model as “free to win.” Not only can players sign up and play for free, they can’t buy their way to victory like most “free to play” games you know from your smartphone. Wargaming makes its money by selling custom vehicles and modifications: players are so into the game that the model has proved to be incredibly successful, so lucrative that the company has funded and released over 50 updates to the game since 2010.
Wargaming has committed a lot of money to eSports, over $26 million so far. This season, over $2.5 million was paid to players (with $850K paid to the top three teams) and that doesn’t include any money the teams earn from endorsements or merchandise sales. It’s not NBA money yet, but it’s a whole lot more than anyone ever made from professional Putt Putt golf.
It’s early days for video games as sporting events and there’s a lot of experimentation going on. Even if it’s not specifically World of Tanks that breaks through, a few hours around the event makes the whole thing feel inevitable. Here’s the prediction from Kislyi: eSports will be a 465 million within two years (up from $104 million in 2014) with an audience of 145 million. 45-year-old guys who grew up on the Dallas Cowboys won’t want to hear this, but come back in 50 years and future generations will almost certainly have chosen to follow the sport that doesn’t leave its players with traumatic brain injuries.
Live competitions for League of Legends are already filling arenas but that game (and World of Warcraft) feel like they have a built-in ceiling: they’re mostly incomprehensible to anyone who’s not already a player. If the NFL or NBA had to create more players to grow their audiences, they would have peaked and washed out years ago. A weekend with World of Tanks felt a lot like World Cup soccer: after a couple of matches to get oriented, it’s easy to follow and all the drama and storylines absolutely make sense.
Of course, Americans only care about soccer for six weeks once every four years and then go back to ignoring the world’s most popular sport. The leagues behind eSports can create giant cultural phenomena (and huge businesses) without ever cracking the North American market. I think they’re going to figure it out, though. There’s a real sense that these guys are willing to iterate quickly. Last year’s event was different from this year’s event and they’ll most certainly tweak the rules again as they figure out exactly what game they’re inventing.
If you’re into historically accurate attempts to recreate real tank battles, Original Recipe World of Tanks is still there and still getting updated. Kids attracted by the fast-paced team version they’re playing in the Wargaming League (and the potential pro careers that might develop) can help build a new sport (okay, eSport) from the ground up.