Professional gaming or eSports? Does the distinction matter any more?
No matter who you spoke to, whether it was one of the players, a member of Wargaming’s product team, the director of eSports or the CEO himself, Victor Kislyi, the message was the same. ESports has arrived and it doesn’t care what you, ESPN, or anybody else thinks: players are getting paid tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of dollars to compete.
Getting the infrastructure around eSports to that point, however, takes time. It’s been especially long for World of Tanks, a game that Wargaming themselves admitted they never envisioned as a competitive venture until well after it started to gain traction.
But jumping on the eSports bandwagon makes sense. Mohamed Fodi, director of eSports for Wargaming, pointed out that the company’s own projections – which he later clarified were compiled with the assistance of other companies, including Blizzard, Riot Games and Razer – showed the global audience for eSports would grow to 145 million by 2017.
That’s coupled with the US$750,000 Wargaming plans to pay in salaries, from this year, to every region. “We will split it up, partly it will be based on your ranking – the better you are, the more money you get – the other, we get the teams helping creating content, helping creating brands around them,” Fodi said.
“The teams will start creating streams, brands around them, then partners will see it, we connect them, partners with big teams, they will get sponsorship from Twitch, they will get money from Twitch, YouTube, and this will give them a massive foundation of money, a massive partnership which they can use even if there is a downfall, even if there is a hard time they should have enough money to sustain [themselves].”
But not everything is capable of being an eSport and not everything can replicate the success of World of Tanks – particularly World of Warplanes, which every Wargaming executive was happy to admit was, in Kislyi’s words, a disappointment.
Maxim Chuvalov, product manager for World of Tanks, told me that the company had gone into Warplanes effectively with blinkers on. “[World of Tanks] is really a phenomenon in the whole world, not only for Wargaming, and we really treated that World of Warplanes should be of the same status, of the same success, but the game, that 3D environment, is very hard for players to master,” he said.
“That was our biggest mistake, that we treated it as a mass product. But the setting of a game, such gameplay is a niche thing. And we are trying to fix this, so right now we’re focused on a very niche community that is staying with the game, so financially as a game it does OK but it’s completely far away from World of Tanks. And we should have treated it in such a way from the beginning.”
Kislyi echoed the same sentiment, even going as far to publicly apologise for World of Warplanes when he wasn’t pressed on it. In a response to a question from freelancer Alice Clarke, Kislyi took a general enquiry and, without provocation, expanded it to address Warplanes.
“We were a little bit euphoric – we shouldn’t have been – after the tremendous success of World of Tanks, we thought we could just roll out game after game just using this formula, a little bit of arrogance. And we were making announcements a little too early,” he explained.
“We should have had a little more humility. So when you make too many announcements and [become] arrogant a little bit, then you become hostage of your own announcements and arrogance and you push things, you think you’re invincible, you release when you’re not supposed to release, you go from closed beta to open beta when you’re not supposed to, that’s how you make mistakes.”
But Wargaming were at pains, not just in interviews but over the course of the entire event, to stress how much they had learned from their mistakes. The event itself was a case in point, with few technical issues and zero delays save for a minor snafu during the opening match where the main screen wasn’t synchronised with the two in the grandstand.
It helps that, even with group stages using the best of 9 format, the groups had only three teams each, with only one tie-breaker required (that ended up being the closest match of the first day). Curiously, the team that ended up squeaking through – Hellraisers, who entered the weekend as the 2nd seeded team from the CIS territories – finished up proceedings with an utter demolition of their Chinese opponents in the final.
Perhaps the most positive outcome of the second day’s play was the variety of matches and the genuine tension on offer, not just because of the cash that was at stake but the actual skill level between opponents. On the first day, six matches were a demoralising 5:0 – including Na’Vi’s obliteration of EL Gaming, the latter of which ended up finishing 2nd – while two others were barely a contest at 5:1.
On the second day, only the 3rd/4th playoff match was a wipeout, which is often the case in these events considering the emotional rollercoaster players and teams go on after losing a semi-final. Every other game, however, went to seven sets or more, with only the finals themselves resembling a blowout at 7:1 (having used a best of 13 system, instead of the best of 9 format).
And despite the score, even the finals were exciting, thanks to the Chinese team’s penchant for all-out aggression. It helped that the Russians met them in kind, albeit with some slight tweaks, meaning that most of the games resulted in several tanks encircling each other. Tactically, it might not have been the most nuanced of matches – although the communication and skill required to regularly focus fire opponents in such a scenario was impressive – but it was certainly watchable, a trait not often attributed to World of Tanks.
The only negative I could see from the matches was the lack of diversity among the tank selections. Not a match went by without T-54s accounting for the bulk of both teams, although occasionally an IS-3 or an AMX 50/100 would appear almost as an outlier. The presence of artillery was pretty rare too, although that’s something I suspect would be rare in competitive play anyway, given how much coordination is required to protect the artillery at this level of competition.
But Wargaming, as they say, are working on it. The 7/54 model has certainly made World of Tanks more watchable, even if the formula isn’t quite perfect yet. Most importantly of all, however, it’s crystallised the eSports element of the free-to-play juggernaut, something the community has been wanting for years.
Question is: will World of Warships follow the same competitive route? Given the excitement around the state of the game already, you can bet Wargaming is thinking about it.
The author travelled to the event as a guest of Wargaming.