The Rise and Fall of WoW as an E-Sport

I love WoW ladder PvP. In my eyes it is a fast paced game of skill and teamwork which requires a deep knowledge of the meta in order to succeed. To anyone who complains that WoW is too easy I would give them the following challenge – go forth and break 2k in any of the formats, whether that be 2s, 3s, 5s or Rated BGs. This is something I have never been able to do despite literally years of trying, and while I have come close, this milestone has always eluded me. So if you think the game is too easy and you want a challenge in WoW, give ladder play a shot. I'll wager you will get all the challenge you want and more.

There are of course players who have already done this, and perhaps they are now all sitting around complaining that the game offers no challenge to them. To these people I would say that the beauty of ladder play is that you can always go higher! If you have 2k then I'd say go for Duelist (top 3%) or even Gladiator (top 0.5%). The ladder is region wide now, so there are no excuses. Pit yourself against the very best. As for the top dogs on top of the ladder, they have the opportunity to become e-sports stars, earning real world money on the tournament circuit. They can become pro-gamers like Starcraft 2 stars SoS, Polk and Jaedong, and travel to international tournaments in Brazil, China, Germany, Poland and the US. How cool would that be?

Oh wait. Can they?

The purpose of that over-long preamble is to set the stage for the theme of this article, which is the rise and “fall” of WoW as an e-sport. I will cover the history of WoW in e-sports, speculate on the reasons of its demise, and make some predictions as to the future of this format. The idea for this article germinated sometime during the month of March while I was watching the Yaspresents and Armageddon WoW Arena tournaments on Twitch. Armageddon was held on the same weekend of March (15-16) as the finals of Intel Extreme Masters for League of Legends and Starcraft 2, and I couldn't help but compare the teeming crowds (see the picture below) at the Intel Extreme Masters (IEM) with the small production on offer at Armageddon. I dimly recalled the team of Evil Geniuses standing triumphant at the very same Extreme Masters event a few years ago, and started wondering why Arena was no longer represented at these premiere e-sports events.

A Brief (and Dodgy) History of WoW Arena as an E-sport

Football game? Nope, it's the crowd at the Starcraft 2 Intel Extreme Masters in Poland on the weekend of 15-16 March. 
It's pretty awe-inspiring to see how far e-sports has come over the years. The players earn more, the shows are becoming slicker and more professional, and the crowds are starting to look like...well, sports crowds!  Who would have thought that one day the best teams in the world would walk away with purses in excess of $1,000,000 for first place? Yet that is exactly what happens at the very top tier of the most popular PvP games out there such as Defence of the Ancients 2 and League of LegendsTournament prize money is also just the tip of the iceberg. Nowadays there are professional teams, salaried players, corporate sponsorships and broadcasting, all of which are beginning to rival, and in some ways eclipse, traditional sports. DOTA 2's annual tournament offers a prize pool of $6 million dollars, with the winning team taking home a staggering $3,000,000. That amount is mind-boggling, and rivals anything on offer from professional sports. There are quite a number of organisations hosting e-sports leagues and tournaments, but my intention in this article is to focus primarily on the Electronic Sports League (ESL) based out of Germany, the Korean E-Sports Association (KeSPA) in South Korea which sponsored the now-defunct World Cyber Games (WCG), and Major League Gaming (MLG) based in the US. These three organisations were chiefly responsible for supporting WoW Arena during its run as an e-sport in 2008-2011. 

The very first Arena season began in February 2007. It was introduced in the first WoW expansion of The Burning Crusade, and I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time. Speaking for myself personally I have to say that the only reason why I remained a WoW subscriber was because of ladder PvP, despite my own limitations as a player. Blizzard was able to secure seven more years from me as a subscriber based on the presence of their ladder PvP system. It came at a price, however, and that came in the internal schism between PvE and PvP which continues to this day. Balance, class design, population, playstyle and gear were all impacted in a way which radically changed the game forever.

Ladder PvP quickly carved out a large demographic of its own, effectively creating a game within a game. There now exists a large and vocal demographic in WoW which only plays the game for the PvP element, constituting enough of the subscriber base that Blizzard has continued to cater to them over the past seven years. It wasn't long before the big organisers took notice. The golden age of WoW Arena as an e-sport was between 2008 and 2010. During this period ESL, MLG and WCG supported the Arena format and made it part of their regular circuit. This period also coincided with the peak of WoW's popularity. In October 2010 during Wrath of the Lich King WoW peaked at over 12 million subscribers world-wide, a figure which will surely never be surpassed again.

Evil Geniuses, at the last ever ESL tournament to host WoW Arena in Hanover, Germany in March 2010.

Arena had a three year run at the top, but sadly it wasn't destined to last forever. Both ESL and MLG dropped WoW in 2010. The last ESL tournament featuring WoW was the World Championships held in Hanover, Germany in March 2010, and this is actually the tournament that I remembered when I first started thinking about this article. MLG soon followed suit by dropping WoW from their National Championships in Dallas in November 2010. The last MLG event featuring WoW was in October 2010. WoW's last hurrah on the pro-circuit was in the World Cyber Games in 2011, held in Busan, South Korea. Since that time WoW has been restricted to Blizzard's own Blizzcon tournaments, which to be fair, are nothing to be sneezed at. The 2012 Battlenet World Championship was a particularly grand production in Shanghai China, on par with many of the bigger events hosted recently, complete with sizeable prize pools, an opening ceremony, and a march of the athletes (erm, players) walking out with their national flagsWhile the scale of Blizzcon continues to rival any events held by third party organisers, it is not the same as being recognised and legitimised by established international cross-gaming leagues such as ESL, MLG and WCG. WCG itself folded earlier this year, so perhaps even the legitimacy conferred by these organisations are a paper distinction at best. There is a big difference to the state of WoW now, however, and to its exalted position in 2008-2010 where everyone wanted to play it, broadcast it, watch it, hold tournaments for it, and pay the top players good money for doing well at it.

Limitations of WoW as a Spectator E-Sport

In my opinion. WoW Arena had a number of fundamental limitations which prevented it from establishing itself as a staple of e-sport:

I. Bad Spectator Client

The biggest obstacle in my mind is that the Blizzard viewing client is poorly designed. The standard client utilises a player point of view (PoV), which continually changes between players as the game progresses. It would have been better served by a top down view or a floating camera above and separate from the players, such as the one utilised by the Yaspresents tournament. Such a client would have created a stable frame of reference for spectators. As it stands, the first battle spectators have to fight is to understand the spectator client itself. The constant jumps between PoV to PoV is tremendously confusing. Movement and positioning are crucial elements of Arena play - one of the biggest defences a healer has against offensive CCs is positional play in the use of LoS obstacles or range management (i.e. moving away from Cyclone attempts or short range Blinds). Similarly, DPS have to have good situational awareness in order to avoid overextending into bad positions, or to swap onto enemy targets who are vulnerable. One of the things that separates good DPS from great DPS is their ability to recognise when one of their team mates are in trouble, and “peeling” (i.e. using defensive CCs to buy them a few seconds, or swapping onto the enemy to relieve pressure) for them. Unfortunately, attempts to showcase this in a logical manner are scuppered by the horrendous spectator UI. How can anyone appreciate great positional play when we have no idea where the players are standing at any given moment because of the rapidly changing PoV? Having a static camera would quickly establish several paradigms of Arena play which are not immediately obvious with the current spectator client. People would see how healers are careful about not being too exposed; they would see how DPS are careful about not overextending, and how overextending is brutally punished; they would see how players move in to CC to set up kills; they would see the counter-moves by the healers to avoid being CCed; they would see when a team is in full aggressive kill mode, and when a team is playing super defensive; the list goes on.

Spectators will eventually be able to learn how to “see” these things with the current spectator UI, but this is a demand the game shouldn't impose on newcomers, especially if we want to grow our audience base. Conan O'Brien's attempts to commentate on tournament matches during Blizzcon 2013, while being derided by some, clearly illustrates the barrier this client imposes on potential spectators. While it was amusing to see O'Brien ham his way through the tournament, it should be obvious that the current client is a massive impediment to the growth of WoW as a spectator-friendly e-sport. The spectator client is not for the existing fans, because they will put up with whatever crap gets thrown at them because they like the game already. The client should be designed with newcomers and casual spectators in mind to showcase the game in a way that is easy to understand. By this criteria the UI used by Blizzard is an abysmal failure.

II. Obscure Decision Making

Decision making in SC2 is easy to understand. Base building in the first two to three minutes tells the spectators what build and army composition each player is going to utilise, and player skill on both the micro and the macro level are easily apparent. The slow ramp up time of SC2 gives the commentators time to explain the build, units and possible ramifications, and the top down view is intuitive enough that spectators who don't play the game can still follow the action. Decision-making in WoW Arena, by contrast, is much more obscure. Even if you know the game it is difficult to follow what is actually happening. WoW Arena is a death match. Coordinated burst, pressure and crowd control are used to force defensive cooldowns (CDs), and eventually land a kill. Viewed in this way WoW can be seen as a game of CD management, with the majority of kills being landed by the team which manages its CDs better. The problem with this game as a spectator sport is that the use of CDs is something that happens largely off-screen, and it happens in super-fast succession. It's not like a card game like Magic or Hearthstone where the ability being played is quite obvious (i.e. visually represented by the card played on the table). CDs have small visual cues and icons associated with them (i.e. players who are bursting turn red, or a recipient of the monk's Life Cocoon becomes surrounded by a massive green bubble) but unless you are an experienced player who knows the meta-game quite well, these cues in of themselves won't mean anything. Further compounding this is the fact that CDs are used quickly and in rapid-fire succession, which makes it even more difficult to follow what is happening if you are a newcomer to the game. Even experienced commentators like Azael can be taken by surprise by sudden kills which seemingly come out of nowhere. Experienced players can see kill opportunities or know when their team is on the back foot, but the ability to read the play takes hundreds of games to develop. I subscribe to the Skill Capped website in order to watch videos of high level matches being broken down and dissected by top players. It is not uncommon for the commentator to spend 10-15 minutes explaining their decision-making in a particular match and have the actual match play out over 30 seconds when played in real-time.

Unlike Magic the Gathering, the use of CDs in Arena is hard to follow, happens largely behind the scenes. and occurs in super-fast succession.

Healing is also an integral part of Arena, but the problem with this mechanic as a spectator is that it is largely invisible. Monks are the most spectator-friendly of healing classes, because their channelled heals create a clear graphical link between the healer and the recipient. Other classes have no such mechanic, which further adds to the enigma of Arena to the untrained eye. People can watch one match and see two melee train a target to no discernible effect. These people could watch a similar game and watch two melee absolutely flatten the same target. The difference between the two examples could be attributed to five factors - i) whether or not the melee were using burst CDs; ii) whether or not the target was using defensive CDs; or iii) whether or not the healer was free casting or in CC; iv) whether or not the healer was using healing CDs to bolster their healing effectiveness; and v) whether or not the healer was in LoS. All the factors which determine whether or not a kill is landed are largely invisible, or require a deep and specialised knowledge of the meta-game which newcomers are not privy to. The use of LoS is not immediately apparent because there is no graphical representation of the healer healing his/her target. Even spectators who are conversant with the use of LoS have a hard time determining the relative positions of the players because the spectator client jumps around from PoV to PoV. The gauge of effective healing is displayed primarily by the movement of the health bars, and the simple fact that the character doesn't fall down and die. This does not make for exciting viewing, and it also seems to make landing kills random when it is anything but. There is rapid-fire decision-making happening behind the scenes which differentiates the good and the great, but spectators are not privy to this.

III. Constantly Changing Meta

WoW Arena imposes a further demand on potential spectators based on its constantly changing meta. Unlike pure PvP games which can devote all their energies to balancing around player combat, WoW has to juggle between the conflicting demands of PvE and PvP. There is ample evidence that Blizzard found it extremely difficult to balance the PvE and PvP elements of the game, leading to the famous comment by Rob Pardo in 2009 in which he stated that Arena was the biggest mistake in the game's history. Add to this the pressure to innovate with each new expansion as well as the need to balance between nine, ten, and eventually eleven separate classes each with three specs apiece, and it's no wonder that balancing was a nightmarish task for Blizzard's PvP team. WoW is notorious for “flavour of the month” classes and compositions. The current MOP meta is dominated by wizard cleaves, meaning compositions composed primarily of spell casters supported by either resto druids or resto shamans. Looking at the team comps in the finals of the last three major Arena tournaments, a theme starts to emerge:

i) Blizzcon 2013 – MiR (frost mage/resto druid/shadow priest) vs. Skill Capped (affliction lock/resto druid/shadow priest);
ii) Yaspresents 2014 – Skill Capped (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid) vs. Started from the Bottom (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid);
iii) Armageddon 2014 – Skill Capped (affliction lock/elemental shaman/resto druid) vs. Three Amigos (affliction lock/frost mage/resto shaman).

Not a melee in sight, and if you're a paladin, monk or priest healer you are out of luck. More importantly however, the changing meta creates further demands on would-be spectators which limits the game's accessibility. Even if a spectator took the time to learn the meta, he/she could find that everything he/she knew was redundant three to four months later with the release of a new patch or expansion. To be fair, SC2 and LoL also have a constantly evolving meta, but the advantage that these games have is that they only have to balance for PvP, and their evolution is usually incremental in nature. WoW is a PvE MMO first and foremost, and the demands of the PvP base is not their first priority. Furthermore, changes to the WoW meta can be quite radical, leading to far-reaching changes to play style, composition and even viability.

IV. Competition and Alternatives

Competition from other titles presents the biggest barrier to the return of WoW Arena as an e-sport, and oddly enough, most of the competition will be coming from in-house. Blizzard recently just launched Hearthstone, and is planning to release their own multi-player online battle arena (MOBA) in the form of Heroes of the Storm. When you factor in Starcraft you can see that Blizzard has three titles they can push as tournament games, with WoW Arena making up a fourth. It makes more sense for Blizzard to devote most of their resources to their newer titles rather than to allocate them onto an ageing 10 year old gaming format. MOBAs represent the current apex of e-sports at the moment, and while WoW Arena can be described as a type of MOBA, it is old, arcane, and competing with younger, sleeker and established titles such as DOTA 2 and LoL.

The End of WoW as an E-Sport

The question for me becomes not one of why WoW was dropped as an e-sport, but rather how it became an e-sports at all given all its disadvantages. How does a game which is hard to watch, difficult to understand and requires an up-to-date knowledge of a rapidly changing meta become an e-sports at all? For me, the fact that WoW Arena was an e-sport during the halcyon days of 2008-2010 appeared to be a historical fluke based on its amazing popularity at the time. WoW was at the peak of its popularity, having peaked at over 12 million subscribers world-wide, and the big organisers at ESL, MLG and WCG probably wanted to tap into this demographic. Blizzard already had an impeccable pedigree when it came to producing popular e-sports by 2008. Starcraft had become a global phenomenon, and the current MOBA craze which is enthralling millions of players around the world has its roots in Defence of the Ancients, which began its life as a Warcraft 3 mod. Perhaps ESL, MLG and WCG thought Blizzard was onto another e-sports winner in WoW Arena, and they acted as all sensible organisers would by jumping on the proverbial bandwagon.

Whether the game could establish itself at the highest levels was basically up to the game itself, as it certainly had its shot in the big leagues. In my opinion, the limitations of the game as a spectator sport meant that the game could not sustain itself at the highest level, and as WoW began to wane in popularity and DOTA and League of Legends began their own meteoric rise WoW was dropped from the circuit. It also has to be pointed out that while WoW had over 12 million players at its peak, not all of these players were PvPers. It is hard to know what percentage of the player base actively pushes rating on the ladder or are actually interested in WoW Arena as an e-sport, but apparently it wasn't enough for the decision-makers. ESL and MLG dropped WoW at the end of 2010, followed shortly by WCG in 2011.

In hindsight it appears to me that WoW Arena did not have the critical mass of players required to ensure its growth as a viable e-sport. Starcraft was adopted by Korea while DOTA became a massive hit in China, and the support of the gamers in these countries fuelled the growth of these respective games both domestically and on the international stage, which in turn made the amazing world-wide success of League of Legends possible. WoW Arena's best hope was to be adopted by North America and Europe the same way Korea took to Starcraft and China embraced DOTA, but for whatever reason, the game failed to capture the imagination of the e-sports viewing public during its run in 2008-2010.

The Blizzard Conspiracy

There is an alternative hypothesis as to the fall of WoW as an e-sport, and it is hinged on the premise that Blizzard itself pulled the plug. I mentioned Rob Pardo's quote about Arena being the single greatest mistake in WoW's history, and it is worth re-stating here:

It has to be stated that this was said in 2009 at the VERY height of WoW's popularity as an e-sport. Pardo realised that it was no longer possible to cut ladder PvP from WoW now that the genie had been let out of the bottle, but the same wasn't necessarily true for supporting the format on a tournament level. Perhaps they recognised all the issues Arena had internally, and rather than putting a flawed product out on the world stage or spending the resources to fix it, they decided to pull the game instead. Adding weight to this hypothesis is the fact that the Armageddon tournament in March 2014 was the FIRST Arena tournament since MLG in 2010 to be officially sanctioned by Blizzard. It is hard to understand why Blizzard would not sanction any tournaments for FOUR years, unless it was for the simple reason that they just didn't want to. Perhaps Blizzard got fed up with balancing the game for an international stage. Perhaps they didn't want to spend the resources on developing a spectator UI. Perhaps they asked for too much money from the organisers. Perhaps they wanted to spend their time and money on SC2, which was already a proven success. Whatever the reason is Blizzard remains silent about it. I have been unable to find official statements from either ESL or MLG as to why they decided to drop WoW, but there are a few clues scattered here and there on ageing forums. One theory proposed is that the ESL and MLG were waiting for Cataclysm to launch (December 2010) before they reinstated WoW back to the active roster. Another theory is that they were waiting for Blizzard to create a new spectator client. If either are actually the case then it is apparent that four years on and two expansions later, they are still waiting.

Fast-forward four years to the present and we suddenly see an about face from Blizzard. Brian Holinka (lead PvP designer) and Kim Phan (head of Blizzard's e-sports division) gave a very frank and illuminating interview at the Armageddon tournament (linked above) in March 2014 in which Holinka commented on the topic of playability versus “watchability” which lies at the heart of Arena. From the interview, Blizzard seems to be adopting a supportive but “wait and see” attitude – Holinka acknowledged the defects of the spectator client and identified it as the problem which most urgently needs fixing to make WoW Arena viable as a spectator e-sport. As to whether or not Blizzard will be actively pushing Arena, Phan made it clear that they are handing the ball to the community, and will react based on the level of support generated by the audience base. Kim Phan also stated on record that MLG has approached them with the proposal of reinstating WoW Arena once the new spectator client is introduced in Warlords of Draenor (WOD). This is great news for Arena fans, and if it pans out, it will be the start of the road back to e-sports recognition.

One has to ask, however, why Blizzard waited so long. It is hard to reconcile the theory that Blizzard pulled the plug on e-sports Arena at the end of 2010 with the supportive tone now espoused by the current team of Holinka/Phan in 2014. It seems slightly schizophrenic and self-destructive, but it has to be remembered that companies are not unified, monolithic entities – they are composed of people, people can have disagreements, and opinions can change over time. My own personal “tin foil” theory is that even at the height of its popularity in 2008-2010 an internal battle was taking place within Blizzard over the role, and even legitimacy, of ladder PvP within the greater game. The image that comes to mind is that of someone grabbing a tiger by the tail, and wondering how to let go. Blizzard introduced Arena, suddenly realised how much work it entailed and the problems it introduced, thought about dropping it, then watched in horror as it took on a life of its own and grew its own audience and became an e-sport supported by the big leagues. Realising that they couldn't just arbitrarily remove ladder PvP any more, they did the next best thing and pulled it from the tournament circuit in order to keep the various issues associated with Arena in-house and away from the e-sports limelight. It is one thing to be criticised by your own player base; it is another to be criticised by the entire gaming world when your game is held up to close scrutiny. The great tragedy of this ideological battle (for PvPers) is that by the time the dust settled and PvP became an accepted part of WoW's identity, the chance to establish the format on the world stage had been lost. Regardless of whatever steps Blizzard takes in WoD now, it would seem that they squandered a golden opportunity when they failed to introduce an accessible spectator client at the opening of Cataclysm.

Future Directions

Watching all the remaining die-hards on Twitch make earnest and passionate declarations to grow the community fills me with mixed feelings. I'm a big fan of WoW Arena, but I have serious doubts as to its ability to ever make it back to the big time. I still watch all the tournaments on Twitch TV, and keep track of who the top players are for each of the classes. Nonetheless I am quite pessimistic of WoW Arena's ability to make it back as a top tier e-sports outside of Blizzcon and community run tournaments for all the reasons enumerated above. There is hope in PvP-Live's continued support of the format, and in the proposed changes in Warlords of Draenor. The addition of a spectator-mode promises to make tournaments more accessible, but this is a feature that has been implemented almost four years too late. If this feature had been implemented in 2010 or earlier then one of the major impediments to WoW's success could have been circumvented. The period between 2008 and 2010 is not just WoW Arena's golden period. It also represents a missed chance to educate the public about the game. Perhaps Arena was never destined to stay at the top given the issues listed above, but there is a school of thought that says that there was a tremendous opportunity to establish the game and its meta at the top in the same way Starcraft had captured an audience. As it is the window of opportunity has closed, and it may never come again.

Arena already has a devoted community, and as long as Blizzard keeps hosting Blizzcon Arena will always have a large premier tournament in which the top players can showcase their skills. It cannot be underestimated how large Blizzcon is as an e-sports event – the prize pool on offer has been on par with the biggest events any of the other major organisers have offered, and Blizzard has adroitly positioned it as the apex of the World Championship Series of Starcraft 2. However, while Starcraft has taken on a life of its own outside of Blizzard, WoW Arena seems destined to remain the province of a hardcore audience, and its eventual fate tied to the fortunes of the MMO and the parent company which spawned it. The ONLY major tournament hosting WoW Arena this year will be Blizzcon, while Starcraft 2 is played all year around and supported by both ESL and MLG with numerous tournaments boasting prize pools in excess of $100,000. By contrast both Yaspresents and Armageddon struggled to raise a $10k prize pool for their respective Arena tournaments. Whether or not the proposed changes in WoD as to the spectator client and the overhaul of class mechanics will revive the flagging fortunes of WoW Arena remains to be seen. As it stands 2014 is another write off for WoW Arena as a major e-sport. I can't help but feel some sympathy for the players who have worked their way to the top of the Arena ladder and experienced the highs of tournament play. While SC2, DOTA 2 and LoL players continue to be lauded and rewarded for their excellence in their chosen games, the top WoW Arena players can only look on in quiet envy. Their fate is akin to ageing prize-fighters reliving their prime, as the golden years of their sport fade further and further into the past.


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