World of Warcraft is one of the most popular games in the world. Millions of players log in each month, and it would be near impossible to find someone who at least hasn’t heard of the game in some form. It defined a genre and refuses to roll over to the countless competitors that have risen up over the years. Yet the esports scene surrounding the game is almost nonexistent, why is this the outlier?
Unlike many other games, WoW didn’t grow with an esports scene in mind. Blizzard had little to no reason to push the game into the spotlight. Starcraft (and subsequently, Starcraft 2) has always been in the spotlight when it comes to Blizzard esports. Even then it wasn’t the most heavy handed effort we’ve ever seen, which ultimately meant that WoW got nothing. Whether or not that was the right decision somewhat remains to be seen, as the company seem to have started the extremely late road into esports.
WoW is pretty much the unloved third or fourth child of Blizzard when it comes to esports. Starcraft will soon leave the nest, and the company has since turned its attention to Overwatch, currently struggling through it’s own growth period, and Hearthstone. The latter has a much more casual vibe, enticing new viewers in with easily read gameplay and understandable mechanics. The much more complicated and difficult to follow WoW is still in esports infancy when compared to their sibling titles.
This week however, Blizzard extended a hand to the WoW esports scene. Latin America got handed a regional qualifier, while prize pools got increased across the board. You can check out all of the changes to the coming WoW Arena season by clicking here
Last year Blizzcon played host to multiple tournaments, one of which being the WoW arena championship finals. Lineups at the tournament were battling for their share of $250,000. A respectful prize pool in the current esports climate, and yet there were very few top tier organizations in attendance.
Around 20,000 people tuned in for the ‘Road to Blizzcon’ qualifying tournament, a disappointing turnout for any other game, but for a WoW arena tournament qualifier this was actually on the upper echelons of what would have been expected. The main tournament sat between 30,000/40,000, which sounds good, but it’s safe to say that a Blizzcon hosted tournament should expect a boost of viewers. And it’s while watching that it becomes abundantly clear as to what the main stumbling block to WoW esports is.
It’s damn near impossible to understand what on earth is happening. Even for someone who plays the game, gathering even the slightest concept of who is winning the match can be challenging. WoW has two main aspects, PvE and PvP, if you don’t engage in the latter you may struggle, even if you put hours on hours into the former. League of Legends can be a struggle to newcomers, but easy notifiers like the kill score or towers destroyed can indicate which way a game is swinging, no such thing exists in WoW arena.
Even with a basic understanding, it still seems much harder to appreciate some of the high level play on display when watching WoW. Each class brings a unique skillset, made up of countless offensive and defensive abilities for very specific situations. A casual viewer could easily miss the deciding play of a game, or a moment of brilliance from one of the participants. In reality these moments are hard to miss in other games. An ace in Counter-Strike or a pentakill on League of Legends flashes onto the screen and even the most casual viewer knows something big has happened. Baiting a crucial spell interrupt? Not so much. And where’s the excitement if you’re missing out on those moments?
This clip shows the climax to one of the games in the Blizzcon finals, but for a non hardcore viewer, it’s near impossible to understand what is happening
The fans have their own problems, but even the playerbase has issues to overcome. Every game has a ‘meta’. A standard way that the game is played, with only the best or the extremely dedicated able to perform on the highest level outside of these parameters. Games like League of Legends and Overwatch often have issues with champion balance, forcing players to learn a variety of the 20+ (Overwatch) or 100+ (League of Legends) champions. WoW however only has twelve classes, and rather than four or five abilities, these classes are equipped with much more than what’s available to three fingers on the keyboard. Mastering a class takes months of practice, and only the best have the capability of multi-classing, very rarely more than two though. If your class goes under the radar of the devs, it can be very tough to be competitive.
Despite all of that, the real inconvenient truth about WoW esports is that it suffers from the exact same problem that the game has. It’s a niche market. Most people either hate the game or love it with a passion, and that attitude is amplified when it comes to the PvP aspect of the game. If you’re not all-in, you’re out. This game was never meant to be an esport. Putting $280,000 on the line will garner the interest of the hardcore, and if that’s what Blizzard wanted then bravo to them. The diehard will appreciate it, but this will barely interest half of your own player base, let alone anyone outside it.
The solutions are unclear. Similar to Overwatch, an updated viewing interface is crucial. Neither game has a clearly visible ‘here is how the game is going’ scoreboard, though that may not even be possible in a game like World of Warcraft. Improvements have been made, some of which include the addition of small cooldown indicators, however once again, if you’re not an avid player of the game, the icons on those indicators that represent spells and abilities will mean nothing to you.
We’ll have to see what Blizzard has in store for World of Warcraft in 2017. Throwing in a bigger prize pool isn’t going to get more people tuning into the tournaments, so there is definitely still work to be done. Even with these issues, it’s exciting to see Blizzard give some love to one of their oldest games, and I, along with many others, are waiting in anticipation to see just how big this esport can get.