Wargaming's flagship title, World of Tanks, boasts more than 80 million registered players world-wide—a colossal number born not only from the game's simple-but-addictive gameplay, but also from the publisher's willingness to give the players what they want. Last week, Wargaming held the first ever World of Tanks Grand Finals in Warsaw, Poland, an event that will no doubt bolster the profile of both Wargaming and e-sports as a whole.
The Grand Finals has been a year in the works and came about as a result of a vision shared by Wargaming and World of Tanks players. The latter are a competitive bunch, and for some time they've been clamoring for more opportunities to demonstrate their skills. Lacking any other avenue, the player community took it upon themselves to hold informal regional tournaments; still, what they really wanted were more organized, official competitions. In 2012 Wargaming responded to their requests by holding the first international World of Tanks tournament.
More than 30,000 players participated in that event, and the winners took home $100K in prize money. Encouraged by the contest's success, Wargaming sank $8 million into creating its own e-sports league. It turns out, that was a good move.
This year's World of Tanks tournament started with a whopping 40,000 teams, which took the number of individual players from 30,000 to more than 200,000; this galvanized Wargaming into creating a separate, 40-person e-sports division. At the Warsaw event April 4th, Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi expressed his excitement about the new division and said “the future belongs to e-Sports.” He went on to compare e-Sports to the Olympics and said that e-Sports competitors should be given the respect afforded more traditional athletes. As he put it, “E-Sports is a very serious thing. You have to have skills, you have to be mentally fit.”
The decision to hold the Grand Finals in Warsaw stemmed in large part, from Poland's vast community of committed World of Tanks players. Working in conjunction with local officials (including Warsaw's deputy mayor who's also a World of Tanks player with 1,000 battles under his belt), Wargaming set out to honor those players and (I suspect) to increase Warsaw tourism. A mere handful of years ago, the city of Warsaw had a reputation for being unfriendly and unsafe; these days, the city is surprisingly clean (disregarding ubiquitous graffiti), construction of new modern buildings is going on everywhere, and the skyline is changing more or less daily.
Within the newly-renovated city center, the Grand Finals were held inside a cutting-edge movie theater within a five-story shopping mall, and the production was impressively theatrical. Competing teams sat facing the audience beneath a giant screen upon which matches were projected. Commentators sat at the back of the theater and kept up a running patter. The event's promo presentation extended well beyond the inside of the theater to include large hanging banners within the mall, large posters near bus kiosks around the city, and a massive Grand Finals image projected across the street on the Warsaw Palace of Art and Culture.
Though held in a fancy theater, admission to the event was free and as days passed, the theater became more and more full until it was overflowing with excited World of Tanks fans. Fans who couldn't fit in the auditorium watched matches on screens in the theater lobby or waited in long lines hoping to finally land a seat inside. Most of the attendees were Polish fans who turned out in droves to support Polish home boys Lemming Train. (I admit after starting out neutral, I ended up rooting for the American teams. Hey, you gotta support your own.)
Regardless of where the players or the fans came from, the Grand Finals made one thing clear; random battles among random players tend toward chaos, but when two tight-knit, professional teams compete, things are far more controlled. Professional players don't roll out and start blasting away like idiots—they carefully position themselves and wait for the enemy to make a move. Of course, while this is good strategy, it's not that exciting to watch. Fortunately, Wargaming created a tournament award system that urged players to action in the last moments of every match, and this resulted in some fairly nail-biting finales.
Sitting in the audience watching the rapt faces of the boys and men as the World of Tanks titans duked it out on stage, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement. Anyone who says e-sports shouldn't count as real sports should have seen it. The fans cheered, clapped and groaned at the triumphs and defeats of their favorite teams, and in between matches, approached the stage to collect autographs from their favorite e-sports athletes.
The matches and the excitement went on for three full days, but in the end the Russian commentator's prediction that the Russian teams would dominate came true; Sunday evening, Russian teams Natis Vincere (NaVi) and Virtus Pro crushed the other teams then came together to fight the last remaining battles. Both teams fought well, but after several close matches, NaVi took the stage holding $110,000 and the Grand Finals trophy. More moving though, than the looks of triumph on the winners' faces was the scene playing out back stage.
Kislyi had said before the event that for Wargaming, the Grand Finals were more than just another business proposition; that their success or failure would be a direct indicator of whether or not Wargaming is connecting with their players. Having pulled off their first Grand Finals, the Wargaming team had confirmation that what they were doing was right, and their jubilation as they hugged, cheered and patted each other on the back was clearly sincere.
This first Grand Finals was a big success, but if the World of Tanks audience keeps growing at its present rate, subsequent ones are bound to be even bigger. Wargaming is apparently counting on it, and has already increased its e-sports budget to $10 million for 2014. They also plan to work with professional World of Tanks players to keep improving the e-Sports experience. Although it's true that Wargaming's just cutting its teeth on this e-sports thing, the Grand Finals showed the company's enthusiasm and ambition make it capable of just about anything. It also suggests that in just a few years the fledgling Wargaming League could end up showing established e-sports veterans exactly how its done.