World Of Tanks And The Future Of American eSports: A Look Back At The 2015 Wargaming.net Grand Finals
This past weekend, Wargaming hosted the second annual World of Tanks Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland. Thousands of people showed up to the free event to watch 12 of the finest seven-man teams from across the world battle it out for glory and prizes. Many showed up hours ahead of time to wait patiently in the calm (but slightly rainy) Polish morning.
It is a testament to the machine that is eSports that folks - men, women, many children and families - endured the long wait and iffy weather to come and be a part of something special. Much like regular sports, it would have been much easier - and with a better view - to simply stay home and watch the event via Twitch. Many did, of course, and at its height, the Wargaming.net Grand Finals was the fourth most watched event on the streaming site - with the top three slots all going to other eSports tournaments such as League of Legends.
The two-day event was a sight to behold. Technical difficulties and the Polish definition of 'air conditioning' could hardly quell the enthusiasm, which was just as high, if not higher, on day two. Anyone who stood amongst the masses, all eyes transfixed upon the gigantic mainstage screen, with 'casters giving a play-by-play in multiple languages, could not help but be impressed by where eSports have come.
"Last year we had 12,500 people joining in three days," said Mohamed Fadl, Wargaming's eSports coordinator. "Yesterday, we already topped this number in one day. We have to look for a bigger venue, a bigger system, a better system, something like this which gives people the quality they're coming for."
And what quality it was. In a stunning turn of events, the CIS/RU representative Hellraisers - formerly Unity - took the crown in decisive fashion against Chinese underdogs EL Gaming in 7-1 rout.
GameNGuide sat down with Mr. Fadl to discuss the future of World of Tanks in particular and eSports at large. Mr. Fadl look visibly exhausted - I had one of the last interview spots for the weekend - but his enthusiasm never waivered. Our interview was occasionally interrupted by ecstatic exclamations for the match between EL Gaming and Kazna Kru, and Fadl would go off into a commetator-like explanation of how this or that particular tactic worked beautifully. Some people do their jobs, Mohamed Fadl loves his. With a capital 'L'.
World of Tanks did not begin as an eSport. It was the creation Wargaming founder Victor Khasily about five years ago. The notion that it could be an eSport was a recent invention and though the crowd today was huge and massive, it was still a long road to get here. "Our eSports the first year was horrible. We were proud of it, but now looking back, it's like oh my, I don't want to look at my past. Because we were not really ready to be eSports. We wanted to do something and the players wanted esports, and we had no idea what to do."
Part of the problem, Fadl noted, was the lack of entertainment for the original mode, which pitted both teams against one another in a 'Capture the Flag' environment that often resulted in more than its fair share of draws. Sports, after all, should be exciting. To combat this, Fadl worked with many of the professional teams - some of whom were competing in Warsaw that day - and drew up a new 7v7 Attack and Defense mode, and that has made all the difference. "The eSports mode you see now, the very fast action, strategic, happened now the first time ever because the teams helped us create this. So I can say, what we see now is something I'm very proud of: very dynamic, very spontaneous, very fast, strategic, high skilled eSports game."
Even if you were a complete newcomer to World of Tanks, it's easy to see when a team is doing well or to know when a particularly great shot or cunning move was performed. Certainly at the event, the roar and applause of the crowd would note it for you.
Other people will notice, too. The very same weekend, ESPN streamed a Heroes of the Storm tournament on one of its online networks to divisive reception. Even certain ESPN hosts were firmly against the notion. But divisive or not, think back ten years, five years and you would hardly see such a thing happening on any major network. Maybe eSports needs television, but give it enough time and it just may be able to skip the whole thing. "I think it's a helpful step to show it on tv, not necessary, but helpful," said Fadl, "time will make a difference, because now we have tablets, we have iphones. The media comes to us very easy, accessible and digestible. Twitch, YouTube Live, all that's happening right now and I think we will get to the level that we are mainstream."
"The question is are we ready to be a part of it as games companies. or not?" asked Fadl. "Because it will happen no matter what we do."
eSports have been walking a long road to legitimacy ever since Starcraft II became a huge, stadium-selling tournament in Korea. Earlier this year, eSports were recognized by the Korean Olympic Commission as a "2nd tier Olympic sport", alongside Chess, Automobile Racing and Polo, to name a few. The move was met with both cheers for legitimacy and the stark realization that, while eSports can be impressive, they don't deserve their place alongside the more traditional Olympic athletes.
"I would love to make a big event because we work a lot already with our colleagues from Riot (the creators of League of Legends, the most popular game in the world), and Blizzard (creators of Warcraft, Starcraft, Diablo, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, etc). So ideally, one day we're able to make one big Olympics where we have all the big eSports games there and we invite everyone to come, meet the stars, enjoy the community, something bigger. Maybe not next year, hopefully within the next three years for me."
But, in order for a truly international tournament, you'll need representation from America. Sadly, both North American teams - Rulette and eLevate Black - were eliminated from the group stage in routs. Few people, besides us North American journalists, were saddened by the loss, but our national pride held strong.
North America has a hard time breaking into traditionally Korean or European dominated titles. Give us Halo and we will work wonders, but - much like non-American football - it is other games that rule the world. Starcraft II is dominated by Koreans. League of Legends' #2 ranked team is American, for sure, but the rest are a mix of Korean, Chinese and European teams.
"I think, especially for eSports, (American involvement is) a must," Fadl noted, "I can see now since we made these (multiplayer) changes in the US, our participating numbers and new players are skyrocketing right now, right as we speak. The last few weeks and months, because people participate in a new eSports mode more than ever before. And maybe that was what was needed for us eSports wise, to knock at the door of the US."
He added, "I don't want to say 'westernize it', 'eSportnize it' make it very adaptable for the casual guy to say 'Hey! This is something I can do, but it's as you say, easy to play, very hard to master. I strongly believe that within the next season or the year after we will see a very strong American and Asian market, because now our American league will play more of the Asian league and so they will push each other."
"World of Tanks will sooner or later have a super star from North America, a real superstar who would take the world championship or at least compete on a very high level with China. Asia will be the future with America, because America has a strong eSports world."
One thing to note - especially in America with its very individualized idea of not only the economy, necessitating our need to pay our own nearly everything - is that much like regular sports training, there is a lot more than just 'playing a video game' that these eSports athletes have to endure. It's hard to devote the appropriate amount of time to become the best when you have to pay rent. Wargaming recognizes this and will be implementing a new three tiered system where they will pay dedicated athletes to play.
Players can progress through the Bronze, Silver and Gold leagues, the last of which is the fully professional members of the community that can go on to win the $150k pot that was on tap for Hellraisers this past weekend. Wargaming will shell out $750k per region per season for participating teams in the Gold League.
"The top teams will get the biggest chunk for salaried pay. it's normal, it's the prize money salary, they get the biggest piece, it goes down to lower and lower," Fadl commented, noting that this is a stepping stone towards more financial independence "First, we help them to understand, 'Hey we give you money. if you do this, create a brand around you, we give them connections, we give them guidelines, we help them make the first steps with partners, contracts, sponsorships that they don't get screwed over." These kids - and many are kids, make no mistake - aren't businessman, "they're gamers like you and me."
"They need support to build that first step."
Behind us, Kazna Kru just pulled off an amazing victory with a risky pincer move during one of the matches. Mr. Fadl jumped out of his seat in amazement. eSports may have a long road to legitimacy, but for one two day period, it was the most important thing in the world to a small group of fans.
Mark my words: one day, you will be able to flip on the television and see a video game match. Like baseball, it will become a part of the national conscious. And Wargaming will be there, helping to lead the charge.