Wargaming, World of Tanks and Taiwan: a look at eSports in Asia

Source: abc.net.au, Author: Alex Walker

It might have one of the largest and most demographically interesting communities in Australia’s virtual landscape, but beyond the military enthusiasts, legions of older gamers and fans of Wargaming’s accommodating free-to-play model, World of Tanks is grossly misunderstood.

The misunderstanding has been particularly virulent in Australia’s competitive gaming environment, a scene with a penchant for myopia and tone deafness towards change, even for its own good. This is despite World of Tanks’ impressive figures: peaks of 1 million concurrent players in Russia, 200,000 in Europe, another 150,000 in China, 6,000 in Korea and, in Australia, 16,000 players.

How could a game with such a following, a developer funding tournaments worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a demographic of competitive gamers so diametrically opposed to so many of the fundamentals strewn throughout professional gaming, be so absent from the fabric of Australian eSports?

I put the same question to Wargaming. Their response was to put me on a plane: to Taiwan.

The easiest way to digest World of Tanks, both the game itself and the size and scope of the community, is through raw numbers. As of August last year, there were more than 100 million registered World of Tanks accounts. The Russian server alone hits peaks of around 1 million concurrent players, while the Chinese server sees highs of around 250,000 concurrent players. The Asian server has a peak of around 22,000 concurrent players, with around 16,000 of those hailing from Australia, Wargaming says.

It’s not the largest player base but the average revenue per user is the most impressive, with every tank commander spending US$4.51 with the Cyprian-headquartered developer, according to analysts SuperData. League of Legends, in comparison, only generates US$1.32 on average per user, despite having significantly more active players.

That revenue entitles Wargaming to lavish largesse on tournaments all around the world, mainly through the mechanism of their Wargaming.net league. Take the Asia-Pacific regional finals in Taiwan, a three team event where the most fearsome of the triumvirate, South Korea’s reigning two-time champions, ARETE, were already qualified for the finals in Warsaw, Poland.

Despite holding a tournament housing a mere three teams, only two of which were truly aspiring for greater heights, nearly US$90,000 was still on offer over the course of the weekend. That’s the kind of amount Australians can only dream of: despite the immense rise of League of Legends, the resurgence of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the promises of international competition available in DOTA 2 and StarCraft 2, Australians have never held the keys to a six-figure prize pool.

It’s not so much a matter of size as it is location. Taiwan is home to 23.3 million people, but the small island acts as a wonderful gateway into China, without the cultural or entrepreneurial restrictions that often play havoc with business planning. (The PlayStation 4, for instance, launched in China barely a fortnight ago, but only six games were approved by the state censors. The Xbox One managed to get 10 games approved, by comparison.)

It also helps that Taiwan lacks Australia’s stigma towards gaming. The largest billboards are adorned with bright, eye-catching ads for free-to-play smartphone games. Television ads for Monster Strike, a cooperative mobile RPG, played on almost constant repeat, while you couldn’t spot a bus in the centre of Taipei that wasn’t emblazoned with an over-the-top video game character.

Professional gaming even has pride of place on TV, with the Taiwan eSports League (TeSL) having occupied a regular spot on Sunday nights to broadcast, for the most part, StarCraft and League of Legends. World of Tanks, despite hundreds of thousands of players calling the Chinese server home, isn’t quite there yet, even internationally.

ARETE’s captain revealed during the press conferences – which was really more of an informal gaggle at an internet cafe – that none of their players were full-time professionals, a staggering admission considering their success and Wargaming’s continued efforts to gain a foothold in the country considered to be the mecca of eSports.

It hasn’t quite worked, although World of Tanks has come a long way ever since the Cypriot-headquartered company decided to officially promote their free-to-play MMO as a professional venture. “We never planned to run eSports in World of Tanks when we created the game,” Wargaming’s eSports director for Europe and North America Mohamed Fadi said last year.

But after a couple of years, the kinks are starting to be ironed out. Introduced over the last year, the attack/defence mode, coupled with the 7/54 rule dictating how many and what tiers of tanks teams are allowed to use, has seen World of Tanks reform into a surprisingly-nimble game.

Rounds are seven minutes long, with teams battling it out over the course of nine sets. A mandatory break is enforced after the fourth set, although given the low round timer – a single Counter-Strike map or one League of Legends match could comfortably last for half an hour or longer – it often felt like the downtime between matches was longer than the games themselves.

However, that was more an indictment of the gap in skill amongst the teams competing – the Koreans, as expected, comfortably coasted to the US$60,000 first prize – than the format itself. In truth, the structure suits the game as much as it suits World of Tanks‘ demographic, which sports some of the oldest gamers to grace a competitive stage.

One of the oldest players at the regional finals in Taiwan, for instance, was a staggering 39, married and with a family. It’s not a mix one could envision being present in any of the teams competing at The International or fighting it out at the LCS. But gamers over the age of 30 are a common occurrence in World of Tanks, which is part of what makes Wargaming’s efforts so intriguing.

Having a viable eSport for gamers once their reactions and wrists become too frayed for the demands of Starcraft or Call of Duty is an exciting prospect. It speaks of an industry that is slowly maturing, finding a way to properly accommodate the true gamut of its audience instead of relentlessly courting the attention of 18-25 year olds.

As my trip to Taiwan showed, however, the broadcast value of World of Tanks still has plenty of room for improvement. The statistical dumps and flourishes on player profiles that often fill the downtime between matches was absent during the Taiwanese broadcast, something the event sorely needed particularly given how one-sided most of the matches were.

The event itself was beset with some technical difficulties, although running five live separate language streams, as well as a separate Wi-Fi connection for press, will tax your resources. But most of the quirks can be put down to experience; now that Wargaming and TeSL better know their limits, efforts can be redoubled into producing an even higher quality event down the track.

Considering Taiwan’s location, both metaphorically and geographically, it’s brilliant that Wargaming is even trying at all. The little island nation is a perfect gateway into what is already the largest demographic of gamers on the planet, while having a populace more primed to accept eSports as a legitimate venture.

After all, if a free-to-play MMO about tanks can attract the attention of millions of gamers every day, then the sky truly is the limit. All Wargaming, and eSports in general, requires is time – and fortunately, thanks to their business model, they can afford to take as long as they need.

Wargaming covered the author’s travel and accommodation costs to the event.

Alex Walker is the regular gaming columnist for ABC Tech + Games. You can follow him on Twitter at @thedippaeffect.