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The Art of War(craft): How WoW as an eSport can actually work

Zach Yonzon

If you're even moderately interested in Arenas, I hope you caught the live stream of MLG Orlando yesterday, hosted by GotFrag TV. The stream quality was much better than the one from the Worldwide Invitational, and it was truly entertaining, um... television. A lot of video entertainment is available through the web these days, and GotFrag TV has been providing topnotch coverage of the Major League Gaming World of Warcraft Arena tournament series. As a student of Arenas, I've found the coverage to be extremely fun and educational. This is competition at its highest level, where players actually get paid, or win money, for playing. And just like any sport, there are a few special elements that make it interesting to watch.

The stars

Every sport has its stars. You have athletes like Tiger Woods being the face of golf, or Kobe Bryant being the guy you either love or hate in basketball (for the record, I've been a Kobe fan since he got drafted by the Hornets in 1996), or even Maria Sharapova for tennis, who doesn't even necessarily have to win in order to be fun to watch (I mean, look at Anna Kournikova). Tournaments, when they're in a televised LAN format -- as opposed to online, such as the Blizzard-sponsored 2008 World of Warcraft Arena Tournament -- means that audiences will actually get a glimpse of the players behind the characters. Just like sports stars, these players need to have some special quality that holds the interest of fans. Let's go through a few examples.

Readers of Blood Sport are probably familiar with Serennia, touted as the "best warrior in the world". He is partnered with Neilyo, who has garnered fame through his numerous PvP movies and is arguably the "best rogue in the world". The pair are considered stars in the Arena scene not only because of their superior play, but because of their controversial dynamic. Serennia is wildly notorious for his nerd rage, and for blaming his teammates before self-examination. Neilyo, on the other hand, is more reticent but is reputed to hate the guts of his most unpleasant teammate. This duo managed to finish third at the Worldwide Invitational despite having to work with a third player they'd never played with before (their teammate, Glorin, had visa issues and failed to make it to Paris). Drama. Nerd rage. Winning. They have the elements of a reality television show.

Then there's Hafu. At one point, she was considered the top female gamer in the world when she hit top marks in all three brackets in the Bloodlust, or BG9, Battlegroup, long considered by many to be the most competitive Battlegroup in the world (or at least the US; in Europe, Cyclone holds that distinction). Despite whatever her (many) critics might spew out, the fact is Hafu is a girl playing at the highest level of the sport. Because she's teamed with two players considered to be among the best in their class (Glickz and Rhaegyn, Warlock and Warrior respectively), her detractors often criticize her for being "carried" along. But she's a girl, and girls need to get more love in this sport -- or the game, in general. Like it or not, Hafu brings an element to tournaments that none of the other gamers -- no matter how good they are -- can.

There are other players, of course. These few are just examples of the eSport's potential "stars". Every good sport needs a poster boy (or girl). Team sponsors look for players with ability and marketability. That's just plain business sense. When the Championship Gaming Series held its first player draft, the first pick was Vanessa Arteaga, a DOA specialist who also happened to be, well, an attractive female. Her recent victory at the 2008 World Individual Finals proves that her draft wasn't all marketing hype, either. Needless to say, no matter how marketable a player is, they also need to know how to play.

The story
What are stars without a story? As fake as professional wrestling may be, it's compelling to watch because there's a story. To a lesser degree, other sports have their own dramas and stories that keep an audience hooked. The same is true for eSports. While the true focus is always the gameplay, the side story of the players provides an interesting context. When Serennia and Neilyo won third place at the Worldwide Invitational with a player they'd never practiced with before, they were the highest-placing US team and many predicted that they would be win at MLG Orlando.

In a most bizarre twist, however, Serennia opted to play a Paladin instead of a Warrior or his usual tournament character, a Druid. Neilyo, the world's best rogue, played a Warrior. So despite finally playing with their regular teammate, Glorin, Serennia and Neilyo lost spectacularly at Orlando. Their first round loss was to Hafu's team, making it one of the most eagerly watched games in the series. Serennia's team lost again in the next round when he continued to insist on playing a Paladin. Despite what some players say about flexibility, sometimes you should play the class you know best. Their single win before being unceremoniously eliminated from contention was when Serennia went back to playing his more familiar Druid. As good as he might be with a Warrior or Druid, Serennia is one crappy Paladin.

This is drama because Serennia often makes bizarre strategic choices and bonehead plays that cost their team -- and he nerd rages on them. On camera. In the fast changing world of eSport team sponsorships, the next chapter in the partnership between Serennia and Neilyo might see them parting ways. Stay tuned.

The other eSport "star" I mentioned, Hafu, had her own story, too. Her team got sponsorship from MoB Gaming heading to MLG San Diego, but were subsequently dropped after the tournament for mysterious reasons. In Orlando, Hafu and co. returned to compete under their unsponsored banner Orz, and as luck would have it got matched up against MoB Gaming's new team, Shadowplay. Orz gave the Shadow Priest / Affliction Warlock / Restoration Shaman comp the smackdown in an entertaining show of eSports justice. Orz, who went to Orlando on their own dime, eventually went on to win the whole tournament, winning matches against heavily favored teams and even some grudge matches against some teams that have openly criticized Hafu for being "carried" by her teammates. Drama. Karma. Pure entertainment.

Just like in true (physical) sports, there are stories with the players. In many cases, the World of Warcraft Arena scene has a lot of haters and self-promoters. They play over the Internet, after all. But in addition to the players' stories, the MLG tells controversial stories with the game itself. Serennia's choice of Paladin exposes the class' weakness in the 3v3 format. As commentator Kintt explained it, a Paladin is a Big Mac compared to a Druid's Filet Mignon. The MLG tournament showed what worked and what didn't in class balance, and I'm pretty sure Blizzard has got its eye closely glued to the event.

The storytellers
In any sport, one important aspect is the commentating. This is one remarkable aspect of the GotFrag coverage of the MLG World of Warcraft Arena series -- the match commentary was very, very good. Kintt was the star player of team Pandemic who retired from competitive Arena play after the Worldwide Invitational. Kintt did an excellent job commentating along with Vhell, another Arena tournament veteran. The other commentator, Vansilli, was an MLG veteran but his inexperience with WoW Arenas prevented him from actually commenting on the matches. [EDIT: Vansili was actually a Call of Duty and CounterStrike broadcaster for years; although not a WoW competitor, an experienced commentator for eSports -- thanks to GotFrag director Alchemist!]

Both Kintt and Vhell were really fast and accurate on their commentating, so even if you couldn't catch all the action, you understood what was happening. This is key to eSports. A fundamental understanding of the game is required to actually grasp the complexity of the matches, naturally, but the commentators were so good that it made up for the speed of the game. Their analysis were fast and mostly spot on, with a few hiccups in mentioning targets and recalling spells, but were minor quibbles considering the pace at which they were talking.

I enjoyed all the live streams by GotFrag TV and it has been the most entertaining television for me for a while. I only began to truly appreciate the game as an eSport through MLG's management of the event and GotFrag TV's live stream. This is how eSports should work. Although there were a few subpar games from some teams -- with bizarre compositions like triple Rogue and questionable strategies like not using Nature's Swiftness at a critical time -- the tournament was extremely enjoyable overall. With commentators like Kintt and Vhell, it was extremely easy to follow the matches and more importantly learn from them.

The stream
All sports need a way to be seen. Although MLG has a deal with ESPN, the best way to appreciate the tournament is to watch the live stream. I've been critical of the Octoshape plug-in as a platform of choice for streaming, particularly in how the Worldwide Invitational was streamed, but the MLG coverage has just been spectacular. When it works, it's a really great platform, allowing the stream to be cached and replayed at the viewer's own pace anytime throughout the stream. [EDIT: Octoshape isn't required to view the streams, but is a first choice, according to GotFrag TV's Director of Broadcasting, Alchemist]

The spectator angles are a really exciting development for Arena matches, allowing players to see through the eyes of one player during the match. There was also a little-used omniscient overhead angle that allowed viewers to see the whole match, but I personally preferred the third person view which helped teach positioning on the maps and seeing the action up close. Blizzard has done a really good job of developing and enabling a spectator view in these tournaments, and I'm looking forward to refinements in their system. This is what every sport needs: a way to show off the game. Multiple camera angles. Instant replays. Live stream. Profit.

The sponsors
Like any sport, there are sponsors to keep the engine going. Team sponsors, tournament sponsors, advertisers for the broadcast... it's all part of the package. The major sponsor for the MLG PC Circuit was the HP Blackbird 002, which was plugged very heavily throughout the tournament. In fact, the grand prize for each leg was a Blackbird for each team member in addition to the $12,000 cash prize. The prize money was much smaller than the winnings in Paris, but the HP Blackbird 002 was a sweet bundle in the MLG circuit. And advertising does work, because even though I play on a Mac, I find myself wanting one just to play World of Warcraft.

Naturally, there's Blizzard, GotFrag, and incidentally MMO Champion, who provided an alternate stream that didn't require Octoshape. The live stream also had sponsors in the long breaks between matches. For an eSport to work, it needs more than stars, or their drama, or great commentators on a great spectator system -- it needs sponsors. Corporations willing to shell out money to make events like the MLG circuit happen.

Most importantly, there's you. There's us. We need to support these events, watch them, tune in and let those sponsors know their message is getting across. The more people who view these events, the more sponsors will be willing to invest in them. The more investment the Arena format gets, the more development and -- necessarily -- class balance will be brought into the fore. It's extremely entertaining television, and even fellow blogger Alex Ziebart, a self-confessed care bear, was enthralled by the matches (although not the long breaks).

Even if you're not big into PvP, I highly recommend watching replays of the MLG matches, as they do not disappoint. These are players playing at the highest level of the game, and there is something to learn from every match even if you don't intend to compete in the Arenas. More than all of the factors above, the most important element of a successful eSport is its audience. Although I know a lot of people think that Arenas have ruined the game, I sincerely believe that the more people who watch these tournaments, the better it is for the World of Warcraft.

Zach Yonzon writes the sporadically weekly PvP column The Art of War(craft) while watching live streams of Arena matches and teaching his eight month-old daughter Zoe Fable the meaning of peel, line-of-sight, and gib.
Zach rambles on and on about PvP in The Art of War(craft), where he talks about how you can make the jump from PvE to PvP or whine about his noobness in Arenas. He also occasionally writes meandering how-to's, like choosing the right targets in PvP.

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