NJ: You mentioned during the press conference, having made changes to the tournament rules to accommodate Western gamers. If Western gamers have such different expectations, how did the changes affect the way Asian gamers feel about/play the game? Or did it?
MF: Right now we've changed our eSports modes completely. We've made it much effective yes, for the West, but we could see now with companies like Riot, League of Legends, that's made for Western gamers but is tremendously successful in Asia. So our point of view is if you make a game that's fun on a global scale, especially West and Russia, and it works for both of them, sooner or later Asia will adapt. In the past, Asia had its own style completely but World of Warcraft changed that completely.
Wargaming.net's eSports Director, Mo Fadl
I worked for NCSoft so I know this. The Korean style especially, there were very special kinds of games they liked but now with World of Warcraft, they've changed the whole kind of level of—I don't have to grind anymore. I play for fun, I play for success, for achievements—a new style of Western gaming. The Western market has such a strong influence in Asia, so I think if it's successful for the West, it will go over in Asia. It just needs some time to hit that point of critical mass which we are now trying to get.
NJ: You mentioned changing the modes/working on them with the Russian teams. If they were doing well with the modes as they were, how excited were they to help you change them?
MF: We thought they would be the biggest road blockers because we work with all the teams on a global scale, but the Russian teams are the real superstars. Why would they want to change a system that helps them earn cash and be superstars? But the funny thing was, the Russian teams, they were so on top of it, they were like, “Yeah, this is a completely different style!”
They are very proud because they have the skill. They think, “It isn't the mode that makes us the best. It's our teams, our skill. So bring us this mode. It's a completely different mode, it's very fast-paced, strategic, technical, we need to adapt to everything, but we will show you we are the best. We will show the world, no matter what you bring us, we will be the best.
And [the mode has brought] a few surprises. We've seen a few teams that are underdogs beating even Russian teams. The gap here gets bigger or smaller. This year the American teams have played a lot with Asian teams because the level cap is different than Europe and Russia. We moved this regional lock—we'd put it in and we had Russians teams playing in Asia and they were not very helpful for the ecosystem because they'd come in and smash everyone and it wasn't good for the ego of the teams.
They work so hard, and in the end it all comes down to your self-esteem. We need to now grow this circle of Asia, U.S., together and they can compete, get their own stars, because I'm pretty sure out of this [gestures toward the competition stage] we will see completely different kind of team coming out. These teams come out as winners. They compete on an international level and they prove themselves.
This self-esteem, it's strength. Then you can face a Russian team as well, eye-to-eye. Like Kazna Kru or Schoolbus, they look at the Russian teams and they say, “We're not afraid.” Two years ago, I can promise you, they didn't want to play. European teams didn't want to play the Russians. We had a big issue there. Now they just say yes. And now the Russians are like the big guy in the school. They see the other guys are getting fitter and they are standing up—then they realize they have to go back to step one, [they say] “We have to do our job really good, otherwise we lose our face.”
NJ: As video game tastes change, how does Wargaming's eSports League plan to stay relevant?
MF: This is one of the key points all publishers, all eSports participants have to admit. We must find a common agreement. Normal sports have thousands of years of evolution. Over hundreds and thousands of years certain sports developed. And now we have this football, soccer, hockey—they're all there. Esports have a very short life cycle, so that's why we try to find a common base. We work a lot with our colleagues Riot and Blizzard because we're all friends and we're all ex-Blizzard and ex-Riot so have a circle of guys who try to find a common ground.
Color themes [for instance] represent eSports. [People say] “blue and red makes sense because I've seen it before.” We say, “the stage should be like this.” There are things we should not be trying to keep for ourselves. It's better to share with everyone in the industry because it helps the people at home understand what we're doing.
NJ: So specific to World of Tanks though – what do you do if the public decides they want to watch a different kind of game?
MF: Esports needs an audience. Esports is eSports because of the viewership. If your viewership decreases—which will happen—because we're not 100% like a sport. We're dependent on technology. We have a human factor, but we can only make it happen because of technology channels. So this will change, but I think it's a healthy change because we're right now in a very crucial phase of evolution of entertainment. Changes are always good.
NJ: Players are often so invested in their own personal desires. Do you find players are constantly asking for their own countries to be represented in World of Tanks?
MF: This is a hard thing because in history there are so many tanks that come off the same tank tree. We always have to think what's in the best interest of the game, for balance because for the devs, our game has this DNA, this is what they believe in, this is the game they created. Esports, we are a bit more like the black sheep. We have the freedom to say, “Hey, I'm a punk, look at me!” [laughs]
But the devs, they have a clear vision and I don't even want to go out and say, “This tank will be the next,” because the devs will say, “You fool!” [laughs]
NJ: You seem to be encouraging Wargaming.net League players to be fairly autonomous—to pursue their own careers almost independently of the League while training them how to do that. What's the most challenging thing eSports players have to learn to do?
MF: Finding sponsors is hard because a lot of them [players] are stepping up from nowhere. They have no idea how things work in the business world. They don't know which sponsor is good for them, which is not, which deal is good for them, so we created a handbook on a global scale about partners, about visibility, about what to look out for. We give this to each team on the Gold League and we sit down with them, each regional head and we say “Guys, this is the sponsorship. If you get a sponsor, tell them 'we have these streams running with Wargaming League. If we play, here's your visibility.'”
To promote them, we help them to find the right partners as well. They say, “Hey, we would like to have a technology partner,” and we look and say, “What kind of technology partner fits their needs and vice-versa?” and we try to connect partners with teams. It's an education for them. Some teams don't need it. Like Na'Vi? They have a massive company behind them. But many new teams step into this world of eSports which right now is scary because there's a lot of money, you don't know who can you trust.
NJ: You're essentially talking about teams becoming their own brand, and that raises any number of questions such as, “Once a team has established its own brand, how is ownership of the brand determined? And what happens to the brand if a team member leaves?”
MF: This is very hard. They have to make the team its own company and brand, corporate-wise, but we don't want to push this on them too fast, we don't want to scare them. At first sit down with them, they are contracted with us, they don't have to worry about taxes or any of that—we cover it. Then maybe the next year, the teams that are the second year in the top league we say, “Now is the time to take the next step. You should start to promote yourself, you should form a limited corporation, etc.”
NJ: The taxes alone must be a nightmare.
MF: This should change as well. We're still so old-school-minded, our laws and everything. We have a new world that's so close together, but our restrictions and taxes and laws, they make it so hard to really come together.
NJ: So when do you think everyone will know eSports will have truly arrived? That big entrance Na'Vi had, coming in by helicopter—how long will it be before eSports players start dating Victoria's Secret models and being accused of using performance-enhancing drugs?
MF: [laughs] There's some article I read saying, “Oh yeah, they're using some certain vitamins that make the brain work faster....”
NJ: Do you think there will eventually be some kind of regulation or testing of eSports athletes for such things?
MF: Most likely. Already we have very strict regulations about what they can bring onstage with them. No phones, no this, no that. The regulations are starting already. In another two years when they get to a really high level, where top players have a yearly salary of millions, then you'll need this.
[but about eSports players as rockstars] As Na'Vi was coming down in the helicopter, all these journalists with cameras came running and I saw the [Na'Vi] guys, they were so proud. Everyone was taking pictures and the players were like superstars for like, twenty seconds. And with the other teams [watching], you could really feel the electricity because [they were thinking] “That could be us.”
NJ: Yes, I noticed the kids here, the fans really treat the players like heroes. They want autographs and everything.
MF: Yes, It's beautiful, because these guys they work so hard, they deserve it. These are simple guys. They're like, they work in the supermarket, you know? But as players, they're living the dream.