World of Warcraft has breached the barrier between gaming and popular culture, and is now breaching the esport barrier in a similar way. By Michael Oliver.
I’ve spoken in the past about the significance of Warcraft III in the world of esports. Not only is it responsible for the illegitimate child of the MOBA genre, but its rightful heir has become one of the greatest video game releases of modern times: World of Warcraft. What began its life as a hugely popular MMORPG, has evolved to develop its own esport formats through the competitive spirit of its players. It is truly fascinating to see an originally focused PvE (player vs environment) title of defeating computer generated enemies evolve over the years to also house a competitive PvP (player vs player) duelling system. In this piece I will shed light on the pivotal moments of the game’s history that led to its current esport success. Whether you’re someone that enjoys a duel between players or one that has a love for killing mobs and raiding dungeons as efficiently as possible, World of Warcraft esports has a home for each kind of competitive player.
PvE to PvP
On November 23rd, 2004, the US saw the release of World of Warcraft (WoW), coinciding with the 10th anniversary of the Warcraft series. Within weeks the title became the fastest selling US game in history, selling over 240,000 units in a single day. The game became a phenomenon in the industry by its insane popularity through the 2000s and became a part of popular culture (the classic “Make Love Not Warcraft” S10 E8 of South Park comes to mind). Its fair enough to say that WoW is known for being home to one of the first perfect multiplayer PvE experiences, with an addictive and rewarding format that has seen players sink thousands of hours into its world. Kate Cox at Kotaku quoted in 2012 that players had accumulated a total of, “5.9 million years” of play total time at that point.
As the popularity of esports rose through the 2000s with the likes of DotA and Quake, it was natural in WoW’s evolution to shift into the competitive format. As the game was entirely PvE with players cooperatively completing quests and killing mobs, Blizzard had to incorporate a new competitive PvP system. The ability to enter combat and start a duel with another player had been in the game near enough since the beginning, but there was little incentive other than to mess around or show someone who’s boss. In time, an honour system was added, which allowed players to increase their stats with each victory, so others were aware of your deadly nature. Despite this iteration, there was still little motivation from players and fans to begin a competitive PvP community.
Then in March 2005, all that changed with the introduction of dedicated battleground arenas. These arenas included a further layer of competitive play, enabling 5v5 matchups in an esport optimised area. The following years saw a growth in popularity amongst this format and gave rise to an avid PvP fanbase hungry for glory. The dedication of this fanbase was rewarded with regular updates that gradually refined the PvP game mode over the subsequent years. Changes included; changing the staple format from 5v5 to 3v3, as well as adding new features such as a MMR (matchmaking rating) system and creating the options to add custom team names and images.
As updates were released and new seasons added to the PvP arenas, the popularity of the game mode was pushed into the realm of esports. An official World of Warcraft arena tournament was held at Blizzcon in 2007, showcasing Blizzard’s official acknowledgement of the then new esport. There was a hefty $40,000 up for grabs, and the event was the first of many esport tournaments to push WoW into the mainstream of esports. The upward trajectory of the game’s popularity as an esport continued and by the 2019 WoW Arena World Championship where there was an average viewership of 45,000 and a whopping prize pool of $330,000 — it had most certainly arrived.
Whilst the popularity of the PvP arenas rose, there remained a group of equally competitive players that were dedicated to the original PvE style of play. Raids and dungeons were core to WoW, and through the initiative of the players themselves, the time trial format was borne from the love of PvE. This subculture was home to the top band of players that wished to be known for their prowess and speed at cutting through waves of enemies in game. Dungeons and raids were such places where mobs were plenty, and quickly became core to the experience of World of Warcraft after its release. Within the time trial community, becoming the guild/party to hold a record time in a specific raid/dungeon was a highly sought-after title. Time trials enabled an esport level of competitive play for those that were orientated towards the traditional WoW formula as opposed to PvP arenas.
Record times were posted on forums with proof to be challenged by those who believed they could beat it and it wasn’t long before Blizzard themselves acknowledged the popularity around this culture. As a result, Blizzcon 2011 saw a raid competition between the two guilds Blood Legion and Vodka, showcasing the time trials within an esport format for the first time to a live audience.
Another form of the WoW time trial formats were Levelling tournaments. These represent a more obscure subculture of time trials esports, but are equally as interesting. With a relatively simple premise of obtaining as much XP as possible in a certain time period, levelling competitions display a unique level of prowess and knowledge around the game. Similar to the speed running community, levelling requires an extensive understanding of the game’s mechanics and refined approach to gameplay. Some of these tournaments can be up to eight hours long, so require a great level of both concentration and patience. This unique category of time trial demonstrates the potential for esports to be a home for any kind of competitive gamer, whether you like killing other players or just want to hit mobs the whole time.
The World of Esports
Considering the huge success of WoW as a game and young esport, it has yet to fully breakthrough into the top band of competitive titles. Newzoo ranked WoW as the second most popular core pc title based on unique players per month, but doesn’t appear on their top 10 list for most viewed esport games on twitch. The lack of the game’s esports popularity when compared to its insane player base can be a bit confusing, but that is exactly the problem the game has. When players think of WoW, they instantly go to the PvE and Co-op side of things. When someone mentions WoW on twitch, they assume it is famous personality like Sodapoppin streaming a raid rather than a PvP arena tournament. The very name of World of Warcraft is the downfall of it as a title in the esports industry.
How can this issue be solved? One possible change could be a separation of the two. Rather than be a part of the main game, the PvP arenas and time trial formats could break away and become standalone titles. Counter:Strike and DotA began their lives as modifications of other titles, and it was only when they broke away that they achieve their true success.
All this considered however, It is safe to say that WoW has had a massive impact of the gaming industry in many ways. Its release showcased the potential in connecting people from every background, and has since been a staple entertainment in the lives of many. By housing a mixture of competitive formats that benefit all kinds of players, Blizzard have created an outlet for almost every competitive spirit for every type of gamer (near enough). The blessing of choice is an uncommon one in the esports industry, and Blizzard are offering more game modes than anyone. WoW esports has become a microcosm for what the wider game itself represents; it’s your world to be what you wish it to be.
Cox, K., 2012. Nearly 6 Million Years of World of Warcraft Healthy for Players’ Brains. Kotaku, 3/07/12. [Available at: https://kotaku.com/nearly-6-million-years-of-world-of-warcraft-healthy-for-5891421]