With boots on the ground during the recent World of Tanks Grand Finals 2016, we had the chance to talk with Mo Fadl, head of Global Competitive Gaming to learn about the current eSports scene and what the future holds.
MMORPG: Last year's event was bigger than I think you guys were expecting. How did you go about planning for this year?
Mo Fadl: So last year we had thousands of people not making it into the venue. The thing is, we do not sell tickets. We have a very small number of premium ones, like 200, with some special content included in those tickets, but thousands of seats are free. Last year it was very hard to estimate how many people would come. So last year on Saturday—Saturday's the big day—there was a crazy queue system. We had over 3,000 people queueing and it was hard for them all to get in. This year we went three times as big as last year. Last year we had 1,400 seats, this year we have 4,000. This time we also have a queue for families. I'm a father myself and last year a lot of kids, mothers and fathers were queueing up for a long time and that shouldn't happen. So now we have queue's for families with kids under eight years old so they get fast-tracked in right away.
MMORPG: Along with changing venues, have you changed anything about how you present the competition to make it more accessible to non-players?
Mo Fadl: Yes. Our audience around the world is different than other games. The main core are men with families, ages 28-54. Other eSports events are structured, focused heavily on the young audience, 16-24. We don't want fathers, or mothers for that matter, to have to make a call between their hobbies and their lives so we make the event more open, two days, three days. People can come and outside we have gaming areas, we have the VR area, we have food. Communities can hang out, meet together. It's more like a convention more or less. We have to adapt to our community.
In the beginning we thought, “to be eSports you have to be young and sporty and fresh” and we tried to force something on our core community which they don't use. They don't really use Twitch and YouTube. More mature players, many of them their first game is World of Tanks. We learned over the last three years that we need to adapt to our players' lives. They don't have all day free, eight hours to play, no. They have like an hour between wife and kids and work.
MMORPG: Today you're holding a World of Warships exhibition match. How are things going in terms of turning that game into an eSport?
Mo Fadl: We have enough players. We need to step up to build an infrastructure that can feed into this funnel of eSports. What we want to show today is the tremendous potential. Normally, in World of Tanks, when I'm destroyed I go out and go back in [to another game]right away. World of Warships is different somehow. It has this momentum, it's so big. You see the action happening, the ammunition flies for like, twenty seconds and you see torpedoes coming and it's like, “5-4-3-2-1.” The game has so much tension. Everyone, even my mother, understands it's a ship, a torpedo's coming and there's a countdown. As a human you start to count along with it until something happens. This is unique because of the emotion.
MMORPG: Last year you talked about supporting pro players. How has that been working out?
Mo Fadl: We learned a lot. What we want to do this year is create a union for the players. We want to teach players this is how you protect yourself. Not only for publishers and developers but for partners. Some teams have very fishy contracts and we tell them what parts of these are dangerous. A lot of partners don't have bad intentions, but some players were saying, “The partner gives me fifty bucks per week,” and we realized the players were giving the partner visibility and reach that's worth $10,000. The first year we helped players create their brand. Now we want to help them know their rights so no one can screw them over.
MMORPG: You've recently started a new World of Tanks e-magazine. Was that meant to connect with this older audience?
Mo Fadl: We brought a new kind of player into the gaming world. We have to determine what it is they want. Do they want TV, magazines, or are they up to Twitch? We made a very good test run with Battle Viewer. We put all the channels, everything on one page so the core audience opened one page, like a TV setup more or less. We realized that the majority of our audience will not go to Twitch or YouTube. They're not used to it. They don't understand the concept of live stream but (with Battle Viewer) they're like, “hey this is my game, it's entertaining and I understand it very easy.” So whether it's this or a new magazine, we have to adapt to our core community and see if we can connect them to the next generation of tomorrow. Yesterday I saw fathers with their wives with kids and babies on their laps, and I saw a father talking to his son and saying, “Look son, this is the tank I play and this is how I play it.” It's beautiful.
MMORPG: Speaking of the generation of tomorrow, Eclipse is a very young team. They're all teenagers and I heard one of them is in trouble with his school for coming to the tournament.
Mo Fadl: That's something we don't want. When players are that young, school has to come first. Even with pro eSports players making a lot of money, education is important.
MMORPG: What's interesting is that school's often make concessions for traditional athletes but they still seem to think video games are unimportant.
Mo Fadl: That will change. The U.S. is the first country to give visas to eSports athletes. A whole generation, I would say of the last ten years has grown up with this kind of content. Tomorrow they're going to be the voters, the moneymakers and they're used to this kind of entertainment. We all have to catch up to this, including the government. It's evolution, it's technology, it's the next step and we have to adapt to it.
MMORPG: Twitch has been making a lot of deals lately with games that are very different from Wargaming's. If your audience doesn't buy into Twitch, what's your strategy to push Wargaming's eSports brand?
Mo Fadl: We're still going forward with Twitch but also with YouTube, Hitbox, Facebook. We work very closely with all of them now. It's a tricky thing. I prefer that we focus on building a bridge between the mature generation we have now in our game and the generation of tomorrow. We have to make our content easier for our core players to digest. We need Twitch and YouTube but we need to change the face and the user friendliness so it fits our audience.
MMORPG: How did you integrate the Wargaming Fantasy League into the Grand Finals?
Mo Fadl: The Fantasy League is heavily used in the U.S. It's a very big thing in the American region. One of the things we want to implement within this year is to put it in all regions because the community is crazy about it. Often the U.S. or Korea is leading something new and the rest of the world is catching up. With the Grand Finals we have teams from around the globe together for these two days to make this very intensive short term Fantasy League.
MMORPG: Are there prizes?
Mo Fadl: That's a very good question. To be honest, this is a detail we're not aware of because the North American teams are driving it as a regional activity heavily. They have prizes, I know that, but what the amount, what it is I don't know.
MMORPG: Do you think the Fantasy League could help with that?
Mo Fadl: A hundred percent. Fantasy League in the U.S. is massive, but in Asia and Europe for the more mature audience it's not that common. Now the next generation, the young generation, they're completely into it. We realized if we take the Fantasy League concept and put it around the globe for World of Tanks, in an appealing way for our core audience then those core guys will say like, “It's a mini-game, I have young sports guys and I can put them into my team” like a sports manager. It's a very strong tool.
MMORPG: It seems like a good way to draw in people who don't play the game. Lots of football fans for instance, don't actually play the game.
Mo Fadl: We see tremendous engagement on the Fantasy stream chat. This is the beautiful thing that eSports has compared to other entertainment sources in the past. Before, we had passive digesting of content. Now suddenly, people actively engage in the game. They've made their own game around the superstars who play and they can contact the superstars, chat with them, have a direct connection. They have a bond with them that's way stronger than anything we've seen before. Players are impacting their entertainment and that's unique. Maybe one day we'll have ten million viewers watching and they'll get to decide, “Hey, let's go right, let's go right!” and the pro player will see that his chances are better if he follows the viewers' directions.
MMORPG: There's a VR station here at the Grand Finals. What is Wargaming hoping to achieve with VR?
Mo Fadl: VR is a crucial part I believe, showing us the next step of technology. It's the next level of entertainment. It's not there one hundred percent for me personally, but we are ready for this technology, we see it coming. It has crazy potential. Suddenly I am the pro player, I'm there with him, I see what he sees. Long term, I would say within the next five years these devices will completely change.
MMORPG: Last year we talked about how the Eastern European and Russian players were in significantly higher skill tier compared to the North American players. Do you think that's changed at all?
Mo Fadl: The Russians and Eastern Europeans are like the Koreans were in the past in other games, but other regions are catching up to them very fast. All the teams that are playing today have a chance to win. EL Gaming, they won the Rumble in the Pacific and the U.S. you can see an improvement. We're in the second day, and we have a U.S. team in this round. The Americans we learned, can beat any team if they control their emotions. The young Americans, whether they're getting nervous or doubting themselves, it affects their gameplay. But when they say, “Hey guys, let's just go through it,” they destroy. If they get better at this, within the next three years, with experience on the global scale, they will be one of the top teams in the world.
MMORPG: You have a Brazilian team this year, Red Canids. Are there a lot of South American World of Tanks players?
Mo Fadl: There's a massive South American market. They play on American servers. The Brazilian player base is very competitive and they have crazy passion and dedication. It's their first time on the big stage like this and they did very well. Underdogs come out of nowhere and not this year, maybe not next year but maybe in three years there will come out of nowhere a wild card and they will smash faces. (laughs)