Last weekend saw Moscow play host to the Wargaming.net League Grand Final, with 12 teams battling it out for victory and a slice of the $300,000 prize pool. It’s taken years of practice and intense training for the 96 players to get to this point, representing the top flight from the 2016-17 season.
But, away from the intense action at the VTB Ice Palace, a small contingent of passionate fans gathered at EXP, a newly-opened gaming venue in a quiet suburb of North London. Nurturing the community is a big deal to any online game, and the studio behind World of Tanks is no different, with the local community team hosting an event where players could watch the finals on a big screen, cheer on their favourite teams, and even take part in some competitions of their own.
Why attend in the first place when the finals are being livestreamed? It turns out there’s much more to the WoT community than just battles, as I discovered when I took up an invitation to see for myself. While the games themselves play an important role, the opportunity to meet other clan players, get to know the face behind the nickname, arrange team battles, and even plan for the upcoming Tankfest were all hot topics.
More than Tanks
When I think of eSports, I tend to think of a young crowd of teens and twenty-somethings, cheering on their heroes and idols. But, looking across the crowd as the community managers welcomed them in, there’s no clear age group. Fans of military history and former armed forces members mingle freely with metagame analysts and console diehards, brought together with their shared passion of the game.
That’s not to say that the Grand Finals are irrelevant, as people still crowded into the auditorium to watch European team DiNG fight it out against Russian favourites Tornado Energy. But the atmosphere felt almost like a family birthday, with the on-screen carnage serving as a great excuse to meet old friends and make new ones, but in that unique party atmosphere that comes from being gamers with a shared bond.
It’s a sentiment that’s shared by Lee ‘WOTboys’, a military veteran who discovered the game some three years ago, when he told me about the first time he met his clan mates. “We’re in our fifties, and they’re all in their twenties, and we all just got on straight away, because we had this connection through the game.” As well as becoming a regular streamer, he’s also founded Gaming Awards, manufacturing licenced merchandise based on in-game awards and achievements.
Contributing to that unique social feel was the EXP venue itself, with a summer barbecue smell wafting in through the windows, and stacks of board games behind the bar where you’d normally expect rows of spirits. In almost every sense, this was a gaming den for players of all types, which makes it hardly surprising that it’s rapidly becoming a popular spot for all sorts of meetups and hangouts.
But then, Tanks
I was surprised by the lengths that Wargaming.net went to making the experience accessible to newcomers like myself, using a mixture of strong commentary and multiple camera angles to explain the tactics and techniques being played out on the battlefield.
More importantly, it’s also serving as a source of inspiration for players, encouraging them to try organised clan play, and giving longstanding veterans a renewed interest in the game. Ember_Prime told me how he started out on a US server in open beta and racked up 30 thousand battles, but recently started his own European clan to focus more on team matches. “3-4 months ago, I almost quit. Today, [I have] 80 active players in the clan. I’m happy, they come in, they enjoy it, I can give them what they ask for.”
After recently breaking into the top 300 bracket, he explained how the focus is different compared to random battles. “We help each other, protect each other, push together. [Understand] what we’re doing wrong.”
Others at the event were eager to learn from that expertise, including Penitent Paladin, who explained how he generally tends to watch videos and livestreams. “I found that the more I watched, the better I got, by hearing other players take apart the plays.”
Another player, going by the name Raider00, was initially sceptical about the format, as each shot fired can vary significantly due to random fluctuations. “I’d never watched a competitive World of Tanks game before, and I wasn’t convinced you could base a competitive game around random values. The way you play here is completely different to a public game. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it’s convinced me about the competitive side. I might try and get into it now.”
As the Grand Finals action unfolded back in the auditorium, Tornado Energy quickly became the dominant team, securing two rapid victories through aggressive play synced across the team. DiNG managed a counterattack in the third match by slowing down the pace of play, allowing them to carefully plan and execute tactics. That success was short-lived, with Tornado pushing back and piling on the pressure.
Ultimately, that combination of aggressive pressure and strong team cohesiveness resulted in victory for Tornado Energy, winning the overall Grand Final 7-2. Egao, a veteran player from Russia, explained to me, there were several times where DiNG had the upper hand, but failed to capitalise on it. “At some point in time, they fall apart. Probably it’s a lack of training – they’re a young team.”
Road to Tankfest
While it’s clear that the Wargaming.net League inspired a fair number of players, there’ll always be a group that sticks to their own thing. For some it’s a recognition that they still have a lot to learn, but for others there’s that feeling of playing your own game, as WOTboys described to me. “I prefer random battles, but in a platoon. I like to play it my way, and I don’t care if I get called a noob, because it’s my game and I’ll enjoy it my way.”
Then again, being part of a community offers the chance to learn. After teaming up with some talented players in other clans, WOTboys said his own skill increased. “I like to platoon with players better than me, because then I learn. Over the last two years, my game has improved massively because of that one-to-one tuition.”
For now, though, the local crowd is getting geared up for Tankfest at the end of June. Not only is it a chance to see their favourite vehicles in action, but it’s also a chance for them to share battle stories and find new challengers to team up with or fight against.
And, just in case the locals choose to flex their skills, there’s also a 3 vs 3 tournament running, with the finals to be held at the fest itself. While Bovington might not be as glamorous as Moscow, I’m sure that the battles will be just as fierce, and the victories just as sweet. Either way, I’m sure that there’ll be plenty more humour, banter, and community stories emerging from the weekend.