With eSports steadily gaining ground as live entertainment, World of Tanks' player-centric strategy seems to be working. The Wargaming League Grand Finals—the third of its kind—took place last weekend in Warsaw, Poland, and was far and away the biggest one yet.
Having attended each of the Grand Finals since their start in 2014, I've seen the event grow exponentially. The first was held in a movie theater, a venue that was quickly overwhelmed by attendees who mobbed the lobby for two days, hoping seats would open up. In 2015, the venue grew but so did the audience. Lines snaked outside the building as fans waited in the rain for up to six hours for a seat. This year, Wargaming took no chances and held the tourney at Torwar Stadium, a 4,000 seat arena that gave the majority of World of Tanks fans a good view of the action.
Wargaming's known for over-the-top theatricality, and this year's Grand Finals supported that reputation. Day one began with an opening ceremony featuring smoke, strobing lights, rows of pretty models and guys in glowing Tron suits twirling digital batons. The ringmaster to this colorful circus boomed out a welcome to the “Ladies and Gentlemen, boys and girls,” attending the show, a greeting that fit the collected crowd. Where eSports in the U.S. might be more niche, with an audience made up mostly of hardcore male gamers, the Grand Finals attracts fans of all ages and both genders. Husbands and wives with small children and even infants were a common sight at the event, and everyone seemed equally excited.
Wargaming seemed to plan for this by setting up attractions other than the show on the main stage, including a long line of gaming stations, an area for players to experience World of Tanks in VR, and two real tanks—a Sherman and a T-34-85—for fans to climb into. The company also seemed to rethink its merchandising. Last year, the Wargaming shop featured cool but expensive items like sweaters and bomber jackets, that cost upwards of $100. This year, the shop contained much more fan-and-wallet-friendly items like t-shirts and sweatshirts.
The competition began after a welcome by Wargaming's Head of Global Competitive Gaming, Mo Fadl, who set a dramatic tone by saying, “Players will walk on this stage—legends will walk off.” Among the wannabe legends were eleven teams from Asia, South America, North America and Europe, all hoping to topple the reigning champions, Hellraisers. The challengers trooped out on stage and stood at attention while Hellraisers made their Vegas-style entrance, complete with videotaped helicopter landing.
After the fanfare, the tourney began in earnest with what proved to be a prophetic fight between Hellraisers and their main rivals, Na'Vi. Since its inception, Wargaming's made several changes to World of Tanks' eSports to make it more accessible to non-players. While commentators have always been there to explain the action, the addition of brightly-colored tank camouflage helps spectators understand developments by clearly differentiating teams. This year too, audiences witnessed the addition of physics, Tier X tanks, and the Wargaming Fantasy League.
Teams proved they were there to compete, with matches frequently being forced into tie-breakers. Wild Card Brazilian team, Red Canids and North American team, Eclipse were two teams to watch, the first because of the rare inclusion of South American teams, and the last because of the team's overall youth. Eclipse, AKA “The Boy Scout Team” is made up entirely of teenage players, among them New Jersey's Ian Taylor. Taylor risked his school career by attending the tourney since doing so added four more absences to his record than are allowed in the New Jersey school system. Faced with repeating his junior year of high school, the dedicated Eclipse player still came to Poland while back home friends and family urged the school board to bend the rules. One hopes the campaign succeeds since Eclipse's inexperience eventually caught up with them, and sent them to a disappointing ninth place.
Despite their youth, Eclipse's performance was more or less on par with other North American teams who've made it this far. The last two Grand Finals proved tough for NA players as Russian players steamrolled over them and this year continued that trend, with both North American teams being knocked out by the end of Day one.
Day two began with boom sticks a'boomin' while a back-and-forth struggle between Hellraisers and Russian team, Tornado Rox raged on stage. The battles went on until well after 9pm, punctuated by giveaways that made fans scream, chant, wave, and even whip their shirts off and jump around like silverback gorillas in hopes of winning free stuff. As a sort of intermission, Wargaming even staged a World of Warships exhibition match between World of Warships all-star teams, Team Germany and The Dead Admirals. The match proved a nice break and was a good test bed for Wargaming, who hopes to make World of Warships the focus of its expanded eSports roster. (One player also attempted to start a new trend in cosplay by dressing up as a Japanese aircraft carrier.)
After nine hours of tension-filled competition, the final match came down to fan favorites Hellraisers and Na'Vi. The two teams alternated wins, ending with a score of 6:6 and pushing the tourney into a dramatic tie-breaker. In what had to be a gut-wrenching development, Hellraisers' MVP applewOw slid down a hill and found himself stuck between rocks, unable to move. That opened the door for Na'Vi to recover from what should have been a clear loss, to win the round and the tournament.
After the confetti fell, Na'Vi humbly took the stage to receive their accolades, their trophy (a massive hand-made “monolith”) and an impromptu shout of “Na'Vi!” by Wargaming CEO Victor Kislyi. When asked during a post-Finals press conference, what they planned to do with the $150,000 prize money, Na'Vi players said they'd all earmarked the money for a nice vacation.
And so the third Wargaming League Grand Finals came to an end with happily chattering audiences and the sound of popping boom sticks. Huge as it is, Wargaming continues to be healthily self-critical and admits it's still feeling its way when it comes to understanding eSports and addressing the needs of its singular audience. The company's clearly a quick study, as this year's bigger venue, fluid presentation and high production value demonstrate, and once it tosses World of Warships into the mix, Wargaming will no doubt become a major force in the field of eSports.