World of Tanks in Warsaw: Day 1 of the League Grand Finals

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Sometimes, it can be difficult to appreciate the things you don’t know. Things like maths and science, subjects traditionally well out of my comfort zone – those don’t count. It’s not hard to appreciate the wonder and beauty of, for instance, the machinations of putting a man on the moon. Or the ingenuity behind the construction of a modern monolith.

But sitting here in the press room at the EXPO XXI centre in Warsaw, Poland, I’m finding it difficult to appreciate the hundreds gathered outside. They’re wedged in a concave formation between an outdoor viewing area, similar to what councils and cities set up for major sporting tournaments, and two tanks, a spectacle attendees at PAX Australia will have become accustomed to.

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World of Tanks (WoT) is great at taking you out of your comfort zone, though. The sheer fact that over US$300,000 will be shared amongst the final three teams is staggering. This is a game that people said couldn’t be turned into an eSport, a game that even Mohamed Fadi, Wargaming’s director of eSports, said wasn’t built for competitive play.

Some people still say WoT isn’t an eSport – but then, at what point does the shoe start to fit? When players start winning five figure prizes? Six figures? What about when a company spends US$3 million on teams playing in the highest echelons of their league, money that isn’t influenced by advertising revenue from its Twitch streams or sponsor partnerships?

It helps immensely that, after much trial and error, Wargaming has found a model that sticks. Adopting the attack/defense and 7/42 model, the latter of which later transitioned into the more efficient and equitable 7/54 format, has given WoT a sense of belonging within itself. It no longer feels like WoT is fighting against itself, sacrificing the spirit of the free-to-play juggernaut for the sake of eSports.

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Other games and companies have played their part in that, though, and Wargaming was all too happy to pay tribute. Even during a time that Victor Kisyli, the founder and chief executive of the multinational developer, said was “our weekend”, both Kislyi and Fadi made a note of thanking the work Blizzard, Valve and Riot Games had done in pushing professional gaming forward.

“We’re not alone; we just started recently,” Kislyi said in his opening remarks. “Companies like Blizzard, like Valve, like Riot Games, they are also pushing eSports really very hard – and I’m happy to see their success. Because their success is a good base for our success, and I hope our success is helping them as well.”

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The arms-open approach in eSports is wonderfully bizarre, especially since only minutes later the Wargaming CEO bluntly pointed out that the company was in the business of entertainment and, quite obviously, a business first and foremost. It certainly explains, at least in part, the demise of events like the World Cyber Games and, earlier this year, the complete shutdown of the World eSports Cyber Games.

Jeff Royle, director of global business development at peripherals giant Razer, left the door open a little wider, suggesting that while organisations who had tried and failed with the festival-like approach (such as the Cyberathlete Professional League and the Championship Gaming Series come to mind, although their downfall was due to other factors) had jumped the gun, a return to that atmosphere was inevitable. “Each individual [eSport] … those are what’s going to feed into a larger event. At some point, that will happen, I see that down the road,” Royle said.

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“We don’t know when that’s going to happen – that’s going to take a lot of investment from the developer to really push their game out there, get the fans on it, build up the player base and that’s got to happen with each one of the developers that’s making these games … We’re going to figure it out, who knows when it’s going to happen, but we’re going to keep trying,” he added.

Watching teams clash on the massive stage, awash in the default colour pallette for live tournaments of red and blue lighting, it’s difficult to envision a unison of an international sporting event and something that many gamers refuse to acknowledge as an eSport. Even some WoT players I spoke to, including one of the representatives from ELEVATE, the United States’ number one team, refused to acknowledge eSports as a sport at all, despite Kislyi’s insistence otherwise.

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But that doesn’t matter today. What matters is the intercontinental battles between teams from Europe, South Korea, China, North America, Russia and many other corners of the globe. It’s sad that an Australian team couldn’t break through the APAC finals to be here, considering their past performances last year and the cultural significance of the ANZAC centenary.

Perhaps it’s for the best. It’d be heartbreaking to see the Australians go out on the first day, or worse, be completely trounced like RG.Gaming from China, who failed to win a single set in their two matches. Only one match has gone the distance, while seven matches – more than half of all games played in the group stage – were 5:0 clean sweeps, perhaps an indication of the sheer advantage the Russian and European scene holds over their intercontinental rivals.

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Have there been any real upsets? Not being a doyen of the WoT scene, I cannot say. But the frequency of fast-paced, all-out battles increased substantially as the first day wore on. And for a game often criticised even from within for encouraging campy, defensive play, surely that is the biggest sign of success for the finals thus far.

The author’s flights and accommodation to the event were paid for by Wargaming.