Last weekend hosted the biggest eSports event in Wargaming history – the World of Tanks grand finals. We sent Ben to sunny Poland to watch the teams do battle and discuss the studio's plans to invest millions in eSports.
Wargaming.net has offices from Sydney to Singapore and a player base of 60 million, but their recent tournament in Poland was the biggest eSports event in their 16-year history. I speak, of course, of the Wargaming.net League Grand Finals. It was bloody massive.
From April 4-6, 14 teams waged war in World of Tanks for the chance to take home $300,000 and a safe-sized trophy carved from steel intimidatingly called 'The Monolith'. These were the best of the best: Fnatic and SIMP from America, Energy Pacemaker and E-Sports Club from China, ARETE and NOA from South Korea, PVP Super Friends and UAD from Southeast Asia, Na'Vi and RR-UNITY from CIS region, and Lemming Train, Team WUSA, Virtus.pro and Synergy from Europe. These eight-man teams (and they were all men, late teens to twenty-somethings) qualified from a pool of over 300,000.
If you didn't know, World of Tanks is based on 20th-century warfare and contains more than 300 armoured vehicles from USA, Germany, Soviet Union, GBR and China. There are manoeuvrable light tanks, all-purpose medium tanks, and giant tanks, with teams combining the three classes. The man behind it all is Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi.
“This is a new frontier,” he says. “We are pushing the cyber Olympic concept…It's not about getting a bunch of money from tickets because there are no tickets here. It's to install this perception in the minds of the general public that eSports is cool. Those guys are rockstars, those guys are celebrities. The Investment [of $10 million] for us is pushing the perception.”
And push it they did. The grand finals took place in Warsaw, Poland, in the shadow of the Palace of Culture and Science (the story goes, by the way, that this was a gift from Stalin. The Polish President had a choice – he could either have a full metro system or the biggest building in Poland. He went for the building, buttering up the dictator by saying that a gift from the mighty Stalin could never be hidden under the ground. Today, the palace is a cinema and Warsaw still doesn't have trains).
Set inside a mammoth shopping complex called the Zlote Tarasy, entry was free for the thousands upon thousands of eager spectators. Queues into the iMax-sized auditorium averaged 30 minutes, but teams also competed in a roped-off area outside that punters could watch from the cinema's sticky-floored foyer. Fathers took sons, boyfriends took girlfriends, kids posed with eSports contestants outside for pictures.
For Mohamed Fadl, eSports Director of Europe and North America, it's “pure sports.” “You don't even need to say 'eSports'. The team work together so hard. Every move they make is for a reason. And when they got the result you can see the joy in them.”
“Even snooker players, they regard them as sportsmen. So in the end, you can say, 'What is a sport?' Just running in circles? No, sports is competitive, measuring yourself, your body, your mind, to reach a goal. And these guys are doing exactly that.”
You just can't imagine something on this scale for even Britain's biggest games. Case in point: the deputy mayor of Warsaw showed up. “It's a deep pleasure for me because I'm also a player,” he said during a Q+A. “We're always improving our performance. My colleagues are much better. I'm not above average even.”
“eSports are a very huge part of our market. The audience is more than one million coming from Poland. It's involving not only young people but people my age.” Imagine Boris Johnson bumbling up to the CoD championships and telling everyone his Prestige level. It wouldn't happen.
These finals were streamed in more languages than ever before - English, Polish, Russian, Korean and Chinese. The prize money was in dollars, and both the commentators and the analysis panel broadcast in English. WoT players on YouTube are forced to speak English or face marginalisation. Simply, if you speak English, you'll reach a bigger audience.
Oleksii Nogin from Synergy spoke to me in, yes, English, on just why World of Tanks is more popular in Poland. “Eastern people, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarus, we have a history with tanks. We had a lot of wars and tanks are part of our lives now. We all remember what was going on, we all remember tanks were involved. It's interesting to see them moving, like living machines. We feel them, we know what's going on. It's not like something out of space. It feels normal for us. So that's why the game is popular in Eastern countries.”
Kislyi has his own thoughts on his game's popularity. “WW2 was the greatest conflict of all time. It was in this part of the world where thousands of tanks were doing strategic pincer moves back and forth. This is our history. But give it time. We have a presence in everywhere apart from South America and Africa, and 3,000 people working for us…Plus this is a guy's game. 98% of our players are guys. They love tanks, they love tactics, they love strategy. They love to blow stuff up.”
Though the scale and scope was undeniable (I talked to a random bouncer outside a nightclub and his professional frown turned to a frantic grin as he enthused about the game), the sport side of it is hard to grasp. The main problem with the game as a spectator sport, for me, is its pace. Players, however, seem to spend nine minutes of the ten hiding, then the last minute fighting until one team has more tanks left than the other.
This has been somewhat addressed by Wargaming. Prize money was removed from the pool and set aside for each match. You could win it by something called The Blitz Mechanism, i.e. rushing opponents. This, in theory, promotes aggression, but even this didn't curb the amount of bush hiding, which appeared to be a prevailing tactic.
Also, unlike past years where the prize was based purely on the team's final position, here it's based on rank. The fewer losses, the bigger the prize. Although the maximum a team could make was $300,000, it went down if they unglamorously scraped through.
Everyone has a favourite eSport, and World of Tanks isn't mine. Regardless, the Grand Finals were buzzing. Take the very first match pitting hometown heroes Lemming Train against the established might of Synergy.
Before the match, a video package revealed team ratings—a tale of the tape, as it were. Synergy were given high marks for aggression, while Lemming Train edged it in communication. Meanwhile, as the teams chomped energy bars and discussed strategies below the giant cinema screen and blinding lights, montages of them clothed in sponsored gear folding their arms and looking moody played.
Lemming Train ended up edging it with a dramatic final kill half a second before time. The crowd erupted. A great start to the tournament.
Later came the story of the Korean underdogs who managed to take a game from the Russians, a win that pleased Fadl. “I was very amazed. Everyone was like 'Wow, how is this possible?' This shows you that eSports is evolving. That they could even beat them once is a massive statement to the eSports world that Asia and Korea, they were able to beat the strongest team in the world. That makes me happy - we're getting there.”
And, in the final that pitted the Ukranians Natus Vincere (Na'Vi for short) against Virtus.PRO there was yet more drama. Virtus.PRO, lagging behind in the rounds, needed to be aggressive, and in the last minute they blitzed their opponents. One last member of Na'Vi managed to hold out though, and as the last second ticked down on the timer, you could see the agonized expressions of the losers' faces even from the very back of the hall.
So, on Sunday evening, after three days of sweat, tears and Red Bull, Na'Vi clinched it. Confetti streamed from the ceiling, laser lights shone,music played and the CEO Victor himself took the stage to tell the room, “I have seen bad men tonight!” The Grand Finals were slick, competitive and seemed to have the entire city of Warsaw talking.