The Status of WoW

BY Andrew Miesner / January 28, 2010

The Status of WoW As an E-Sport

by Sascha “Yiska” Heinseich

Is WoW a viable e-sport? How does it compare to the other big e-sports titles such as CS, SC or Wc3? The debate is still open. First of all, we have to seperate the discussion into game mechanics and whether or not the community is ready. It begs the question if an e-sport is made by the developers, or the community.

Game Mechanics

WoW is a complex game. You have different comps, with different classes, with different skill trees, with different skills each on their own. To understand what is going on in WoW using more than “this guy has low HP, now he’s dead,“ you most likely need to have played the game and for more than a couple of evenings. Players need to know every icon of every ability. They need to know what they do, what their duration and cool down is and then process that and weave it into their strategy on the fly. It’s not much different from what the game demands of a spectator if he wants to understand what’s going on in WoW 3vs3 arena. If you missed a player using an important defensive CD, you will probably be unable to anticipate what’s going to happen. This really kills the spectating experience and I’m the first one to admit that WoW is a worse e-sport from a spectator standpoint than CS for example. You want shout-casters who play at a high level themselves to narrate through the confusion and information overload that can be World of Warcraft. That is not much different from Starcraft though and if you ask Tasteless, I think he would agree.

What else makes an e-sport? A fair and competitive game. Is that given in WoW? Let me elaborate.

On the level that the competitive tournaments take place, every player has access to all classes at maximum level with the same quality of gear. Many e-sports fans from other games don’t understand that the tournament scene and the live realm scene aren’t really connected. You don’t have to “grind” for gear to be a successful WoW tournament player. However many pro players train on live servers while the tournament realms are down. Ergo, investing time on live servers in order to get superior gear does not help you in any way.

Therefore the word “counter-combing”  is very misleading. Most players, even within the WoW community consider counter-combing to be cheap. From an objective point of view though, it is really nothing more than outwitting your opponent with a counter strategy just like it is the case in your sport Now, if someone says that watching people who stick to one class combination and master it is more enjoyable, I will have to agree. We at compLexity combine the best out of both worlds with our teams. coL.Red sticks to RMP, a comp that can win practically every game if the players play at a top level and have sufficient practice against all attending comps or are extremely good at adapting (theorycrafting). coL.Black on the other hand will always try to at least slightly outcomp the opponent with Flexx and Toez playing multiple classes at a top level and Twixz knowledge about the hunter class which often had a huge surprise effect. (ie. Flexx on Protwarrior against Button Bashers, Twixz using a special pet against RLS giving the enemy players a hard time). No matter how you look at it, technically from a tournament setting standpoint, the game is balanced because everyone is allowed to play whatever he wants.

Now, there are a couple of factors that make the game less competitive than other big e-sports and this is the so called “random number generator.” While it is present in every e-sport such as luck shots in FPS via recoil, or spawn point positions in RTS games favouring one player, the impact RNG has on WoW is arguably the biggest of any major e-sports. RNG is such an important part of the game, that it can and does decide games in tournaments. In WoW we have critical strikes (10%-50% chance depending on class and spec to deal double damage, dispell resistance (30%-60% on some spells), procs (3%-30% to trigger a core mechanic most of the time for extra damage), damage range (0,5%- 10% of players max health) and map choices decided by the random number generator. Big words if you don’t play WoW, but there is a pretty simply analogy which is often drawn when talking about WoW as an e-sport: Poker. If you have ever played poker, you probably know about bad beats when you hold the better hand and the last card on the board is that pesky Ace of Spades, which was one of 3 outs for your opponent. This happens in WoW as well and it happens fairly often. Now only very few situations depending on RNG in WoW have the ability to decide tournaments but sadly they do. Is WoW a bad competitive game because of that? Is Poker? I personally think both aren’t bad games. In the long run, the better player will win in both games and we have proof for that. WoW has a very established pro scene and the players that are currently sponsored are very often the ones who also qualify for tournaments. We have teams who are simply ahead of the competition such as Pandemic back when it all started and at the moment coL.Black, who has won 3 out of the last 4 tournaments. You can hardly argue against that. I know even some WoW pro players will disagree, but from on objective standpoint you have been outwitted by coL.Black.

What you can argue though is that the sample size of the games can be too small at times to be competitive. Most tournaments are played in a best of 5, rarely best of 7 system which some people argue is too small.

Another critique brought up by the community is that changes often occur before major tournaments, and some teams hardly have any time to adapt if their classes have been nerfed which probably is the best argument against WoW as an e-sport. Lately I heard a sponsored player say: “If they would stop making expansions for WoW and stop changing the game, the competition would become so insanely good it would be scary. Players wouldn’t have to adapt to constant changes“ and I have to agree. The “glass ceiling” of WoW’s skillcap is not even on the horizon yet.

Still when all is said and done, WoW is a competitive e-sport with drawbacks, game mechanics-wise. Is the community competitive? Let’s find out.

The Community

At the moment WoW has more than 25 sponsored teams world wide, but only about 10-15 are able to participate in international tournaments (not many of them either) where the travel cost is not covered by the hosting organisation, which is sadly only the case for Blizzard tournaments. That often means that team owners decide who goes to tournaments. Some multigaming organizations have people in charge who (no offense) can’t decided whether a team is good or not because they come from a different backround, or they pick players because of their marketability which they most likely gained from their movies, fair enough. Therefore from time to time you see not very motivated players who might have been top notch a year ago participating in major international tournaments. Lately though, that really hasn’t been the case. One big problem is that talented new comers rarely have the chance to make it into the tournament scene. There is the Blizzard tournament in which everyone can sign up for a small fee and participate in the online qualification rounds. That has been one of the only chances for an amateur team to get their names out there. Fortunately, MLG and the ESL both hosted online qualifiers last year, and some very impressive teams made it to the tournaments. One of them was BHMS, the wild card winners, which compLexity sponsored. In their first tournament showing they already made it into the top 4. Natural selection does still work, even in WoW.

Speaking of tournaments, currently WoW has 5 big event hosts. ESL, MLG, Dreamhack, Gom TV and Blizzard. That said, only two of those, ESL & Blizzard, host tournaments internationally. The ESL and Blizzard tournaments are have video streams  for spectators, and the viewer-count of WoW outdoes pretty much every PC-game at the moment, yet you can get the feeling that WoW is more of a side project running at those tournaments. Despite the immense marketablity, WoW is still treated very oddly. Most people argue that this is because of the crowd WoW attracts. While you hear the Halo crowd at MLG tournaments scream and shout, the MLG WoW finals didn’t even have an audience live at the event. This is of course also because of the nature of the game. The fans are international and if a tournament is not near a teams home country, their fans probably won’t attend it. Is that a sufficient explanation? Some people argue that the crowd WoW attracts does not really enjoy a tournament atmosphere. It is apparent that the average Halo fan who played the game on the console with friends sitting next to him is more vocal than the WoW fan that plays an RPG. Fair enough, but WoW still gets more viewers on live video streams than Halo. Isn’t every sport, that has enough people enjoying it, a sport worth supporting?

(Good news: It looks like some of these tournament hosts will in fact have more WoW tournaments this year. MLG is rumored to host 6 which is 2 more than last year for example.)

Not only do some tournament hosts treat WoW as the “step-child” of e-sports, but that is also very much the case for sponsors too. While many pro CS-players recieve salary, a year ago a WoW player was lucky if he had a contract that lets him keep 60% of his prize money.  The situation has gotten a lot better though, and I really don’t think that the pro crowd is really all that demanding. They just want to play the game. WoW roster lineups change from tournament to tournament, and therefore contract conditions can’t be on par with other e-sports and they understand that. That said, WoW players train just as much as other e-sports pros. According to Button Basher’s Orangemarmalade they trained 3500 games for the MLG Finals in Orlando. An average WoW game lasts 2-4 minutes, add in 1-5 minutes queues and you will realize that they invested some serious man hours.

Often you hear even pro players claim that the game is “a joke”. While it can be pretty frustrating to lose games, matches, or tournaments because of RNG, and I can understand the players anger to a certain degree. It’s pretty much the equivalent to “dumb cheese” in RTS games and “nice luckshot” in FPS games. It’s what we people do, we tend to blame the environment. Hate the game, not the player. The mentality of destroying the sand castle for the next kid on the play ground is pretty widely spread in the WoW community though. Because of the amount of hours many players have invested in the game, some of them develop an elitist attitude. This is of course not a WoW specific issue. You have your naysayers in your respective community as well, I’m sure. Despite what many WoW pros will say in interviews, I can assure you that the majority of them still enjoy the game and enjoy being part of the competition.

What needs to change?

First of all, WoW needs a permanent full year tournament realm. Only there, the game can evolve and become truly competitive. If that were the case leagues could establish not only for the pros, but also for the amateurs. If you think of your favorite sport, chances are you played it in some form yourself at some point in a more or less competitive environment. It would also improve the training conditions. While you can practice in online servers, some strategies or even computerss just don’t work the way they do on the tournament realm.

Moreover WoW lacks one major feature that pretty much all other e-sports games have: Demos/Replays. Now one might argue that WoW movies already kind of fulfill that role, but the ability to switch between players much like in CS or SC is still a different quality of spectating. If teams had the possibility to go over the game they just played together from everyones point of view and talk it over not only the quality of competition would increase, but so would the viewing experience for spectators and it would become infinitely more fun.

Also the game needs to be more consistent and transperant so players can predict weeks before the major tournaments what will happen to their classes so they have time to come up with working strategies. Having core abilities change days before an LAN tournament is not only annoying, it is crippling.

In conclusion, WoW is already a great e-sport, but as with everything in life there are always things to improve on. I for one enjoy watching every match of & and a couple of other teams. If both the community and the developers work hand in hand to even a greater extent than they already do, WoW will flourish.