This past weekend marked a gigantic development in the World of Warcraft Classic competitive scene with the conclusion of the first ever Summer Bowl, a multi-weekend battleground event with tournaments in both North America and Europe. Any group of 10 could sign up and join with their max level characters, and it was all viewable on streams that covered both region's qualifiers and finals over the span of three weeks.
As first outings go, the Summer Bowl seems to have been a big success for Blizzard. Streams on both Twitch and YouTube consistently had thousands of viewers, with the NA and EU finals attracting 50,000 and 70,000 views on YouTube respectively. Participation was also strong, with 845 total players registering for the Summer Bowl across both regions.
To see just how well this event went in the eyes of Blizzard, and what this means for the future of Classic esports, I spoke with Adrian Archer-Lock from the World of Warcraft esports team to find out more.
Victory at Warsong
"The Summer Bowl was a big success, but it's still early days for the WoW Classic competitive scene," Archer-Lock tells me. "We just concluded our first tournament and want to take some time to process what went well and what to improve for future iterations."
"I think it showed a ton of potential, there was a ton of good gameplay," he adds. "When it comes to WoW Classic in general, the thing with World of Warcraft—and this is why our esports portfolio is so diverse—the game is massive. There are dungeons, there are multiple different battlegrounds like Alterac Valley and Warsong Gulch, so I think there is a lot of potential to play around there. Again, I can’t share anything concrete at this stage, but we were very happy with this event and we do see potential there for sure."
As for specifically what's next, Archer-Lock has nothing to announce right now, and says that expectations should be for a slow, "staggered" approach. "What I would say is we were very happy with the sentiment around the event. It had lots of traction in terms of viewership, it had a lot of interest from participants," he says. "So I think all of these are really good signs, but again I want to put it with a grain of salt and not be like 'Woah, big event being announced right now.' We'll go away and take what we learned of what we can do better and what we would like to see going forward. But I’m very excited and optimistic about what's to come with WoW Classic."
So that's the future for Blizzard's involvement in WoW Classic esports, but what about grass roots competitive events? I asked Archer-Lock how Blizzard's official presence could affect the fan-built competitive scene.
"One thing I will say for me personally: I come from a grassroots community-driven background, I used to compete in tournaments, I worked on a number of tournaments in Europe for retail WoW years ago before I first joined Blizzard," he says."My stance is always that community tournaments are very important to the scene, and I think that's one that my team would back me up on."
"There's definitely lots of grass roots initiatives in the WoW Classic esports scene which is really cool to see, and I would always want to encourage those to grow and see what ways we can support them, rather than reduce them in any way."
Here's the thing with WoW Classic, though: It has an end point. The vanilla version of World of Warcraft is considered to have ended with patch 1.12, before the first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Blizzard could announce it's making new original content for the game or it could continue into The Burning Crusade, but it could also just stop updating WoW Classic when it gets to that spot.
"When it comes to game updates, that’s something I wouldn't be able to comment on," says Archer-Lock. "That's something we'd leave to the Classic team to provide updates. When it comes to the esports side of that, wherever the game goes, our job is to find entertaining and engaging content for the community to support the game, but also to support those dedicated players who put the time in. For us, it's always going to be a case of if there's stuff happening in the game, we're looking to see what makes sense and how to best support it."
As optimistic as Archer-Lock and the Blizzard esports team are, and as well as the Summer Bowl went, there's a major concern that could dissuade players from investing too much of their time in Classic esports: the sudden cancellation of official Heroes of the Storm esports events in 2019. This announcement caught many of the game's professional players off guard, and even now causes hesitation in those who might dedicate themselves to Classic esports.
Archer-Lock and the World of Warcraft esports team weren't involved in that 2019 decision, but I asked him how he can reassure players hesitant to jump into the scene over fears of it similarly evaporating overnight.
"Obviously with Heroes I won't be able to comment on that," he says. "However, for WoW Classic one of the things we really value as a philosophy is our 'crawl, walk, run' approach. We don't want to see one success and say, 'Hey, let's throw the kitchen sink at this.' We want to take a measured approach. I'm not saying that's not been done in the past, but for me personally I think that's the way that makes sense for these events. If we're seeing more success like we did with the Summer Bowl, we'd be take note of that and take it step by step. While I can’t say what WoW Classic esports look like five years from now. I don't think there's a single person on my team with a perfect forecast of that right now, I can take it step by step, take the successes as we get them, and go from there."
"I'm very aware that the community is always looking for Blizzard involvement and support in these things—so I would hope that would be a reassurance and they would appreciate that we are paying attention to the demand that's coming in. We are working very hard to see what makes sense and where we can go from what was a very good set of weekends."
Nothing is guaranteed, but it's clear that Archer-Lock and Blizzard hope to gradually build up to greater things. For now, they're taking things slow. "I'm very confident that we'll keep doing what makes sense, as long as events such as the Summer Bowl are successful and we're very happy with them, I can see more stuff coming for sure."