The following editorial contains views that are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Allakhazam.com
Depending on where you live and where you come from, you’ve probably heard of the growing community of professional e-gamers; cyber athletes who rake in the cash by playing the games that they love (or end up hating because they play them so much). I say depending on where you live and where you come from in this case because if we imagine that you hail from, say, Korea, the country that invented the “I-can’t-see-your-fingers-they-are-moving-too-fast” syndrome and the ailment known as “I-can-micromanage-better-than-a-computer-itis”, then you’re probably more than well aware of what I’m talking about. If, on the other hand, you’ve just emerged from your rock, blinking and confused at this internet substance, then I’m willing to bet that video game athletes aren’t something that you saw coming.
Either way, this article is not aimed at discussing the growing market that comes from professional FPS or RTS gaming. Rather, it is aimed at the new, acronym-awkward professional MMO PVP athlete (I might as well just say World of Warcraft e-athlete). In particular, this article is aimed towards answering the real question: is MMO PVP a viable path in e-athleticism, or is it simply an awkward date-my-daughter scenario being forced on us by some very influential people? I say influential people in this case because it’s very difficult to ignore a path that is being padded and endorsed by guys like Intel, Blizzard, Dell and NVIDIA. The awkward daughter-date, of course, is our charmingly self-titled “30 second lifespan” World of Warcraft Arena PVP.
By the way, feel free to believe that you can become a professional Guild Wars player, but last I checked, a 160GB IPod and high end portable speakers do not pay for ones rent (unless you live in that one house that accepts rent only in the form of IPod commodity, then you would be totally set).
Back on track; for those of you who don’t know, World of Warcraft is the only MMO that has been able to capitalize upon its PVP aspect to actually create tournaments with significant monetary rewards ($75,000 for first place in the 2008 Blizzard Arena Tournament). Because of these fantastic rewards, a few teams have emerged with ‘sponsorships’ to play World of Warcraft PVP professionally, but in reality, they are sponsored in name only. To date, there exists no World of Warcraft player who can live on tournament winnings and sponsorship salary alone, unless they live with their parents and go to High School (hello Hafu). As well, sponsorship salary means $0 here, because there also does not exist a sponsor confident enough in the marketability value of WOW PVP to offer a team a ‘full sponsorship.’ Most sponsors these days will pay for tournament entry fees and travel costs to attend offline tournaments (although it is rumored that some teams still pay for themselves), but if there is no tournament to attend, then there is no money involved. The existence of tournaments and sponsorships, however, does hint at a possible career that one could pursue in the World of Warcraft arena. But is this a doomed dream to chase?
Looking at professional gaming right now, the most successful games are, hands down, RTS (Real Time Strategy) and FPS (First Person Shooter) games. In particular, Counter-Strike, Quake, Starcraft and Warcraft are some of the big money games when it comes to going professional. You could call Guitar Hero a game, but we won’t. We can also say that when e-sports start to be picky as to what it means to be a ‘legitimate’ e-sport, we are at the pinnacle of irony, but we also won’t say that. Ignoring these things we’re not saying, what is it that makes these particular games so marketable?
FPS games are very common tournament games because they reward attributes that we normally value in our society. Quick reflexes, strategic thinking, accurate movements and in-depth knowledge are all things that are found in people we admire outside of the video game world. Look at the quarterback who can throw the ball with pinpoint accuracy, or the kung fu master who catches a bullet and transforms it into a delicious bowl of rice; they are applauded and appreciated for simply being above average in abilities that society values. FPS games are very similar to this because even though the movements are virtual, the traits required are similar enough that we can be amazed by exceptional players.
RTS games are similar in this manner, except they require more knowledge of the game to really appreciate. The first time I watched a professional Starcraft game, I thought it looked nice, but I felt like my friends were really over-reacting about that single tank thing who took out a swarm of little insects. After I learned about the gameplay mechanics and how to play Starcraft, you can imagine how my head exploded when I witnessed the two vultures being perfectly micromanaged to take out fifty-bajillion-zerglings. In truth, however, despite my inability to appreciate what was clearly a ‘supa-awesome’ demonstration of Starcrafting abilities, RTS games do not require much extra knowledge to understand, and we can at least appreciate that zerg rush! (“Was that supposed to happen?”)
Beyond the concept of accessibility, what else is it that really allows games like Starcraft and Counter-Strike to become commodifiable industries, whereas games like my beloved Natural Selection or Sins of a Solar Empire are not even mentioned in CAL? (RIP CAL-Delta NS). While some people will disagree with me here, there is also the idea of balance and variety. Games like Starcraft are interesting because there is an endless amount of strategy that can be placed into the game. Peek over at Counter-Strike, and you would understand that there are also a vast number of plans that can be executed every round. Fake rush B, then go to A? Camp in base for 45 seconds, then rush B? Jump on each other and sit in a corner with pistols!? As we can obviously see, opportunities for strategy and counter-strategy also make these popular games what they are.
Likewise, the concept of balance can be applied here. If I were to build a thousand Zealots (ground units), and my opponent decided to build thirty Wraiths (flying units) and then float his base around, there is absolutely no reason why I should win. I was completely 'out-strategized', and therefore the win goes to the superior player. Likewise, if, in Counter-Strike, if my team is simply better than the opposing team, then there is no reason for us to lose unless the other team plays much more strategically than we do. In all of these examples, therefore, we have the concept of strategy and skill always triumphing; pure, blind luck is rarely, if ever, a factor.
Looking over at World of Warcraft, do we see these concepts being played out? After chatting with a few associates in the World of Warcraft PVP world, the general consensus is a big fat slobbery no. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that professional World of Warcraft-ing is a hazy “never gonna happen” kind of thing, but I definitely believe that it will take some serious work before we can see it develop into a self(read: not Blizzard)-sustained e-sport. Why? Well, looking back at these key factors that go into popular e-sports, World of Warcraft suffers a little bit in all categories, but most noticeably in terms of accessibility.
I will be the first to vouch for the fact that, despite what Blizzard may think, World of Warcraft is not a very spectator friendly sport. I myself used to play a lot of top-end arena, and I often had a spectator or two, just because I would play in the presence of friends (typically they were waiting for me to finish...). I can recall several instances where I would emerge from a match - rosy-cheeked and flush from victory - and I would flash a grin at my audience sitting beside me.
“Did you see that!?” I would declare triumphantly, poking one finger at my screen. They would merely look at me with blank stares, uncomprehending.
“Was that a bad Warlock?” they would ask; careful, so as not to enrage me but clearly puzzled at what just happened. At this point I would realize (as I have many times before) that they did not understand a single thing that just occurred during the match despite the fact that they play World of Warcraft.
Quite simply, a lot of what happens in a World of Warcraft match occurs within the blink of an eye, and is often difficult to spot unless it is carefully analyzed. I don’t mean this in the sense that people can’t appreciate a well executed ‘train-the-priest-to-death’ plan, but I’m also relatively certain that nobody appreciated my recasting Rank 1 Thorns (“why are you wasting mana on that buff?”), or my deliberately faked casts to draw out counter-spells (“why do you keep screwing up your casts?”). From here we can see that subtlety in WoW is much more prevalent than your average Starcraft or Counter-Strike match; we can notice vulture micro-management and super-fast-awping, but it’s a different story when it comes to catching fake outs and strategic down-ranking on the fly. This leads me to my next point about the accessibility of WoW: the hilarious commentators.
I remember watching a few professionally commentated WoW matches myself, and they typically consisted of hazy “I'm going to describe the situation exactly as everyone else sees it” platitudes, with sparkling gems like “it looks like the Mage is Ice Blocked!” Do me a favor; watch the Starcraft II Battle Report, and you’ll understand just how much difference there is in terms of accessibility. Perhaps Blizzard should find some arena commentators (*raises hand*) that are both knowledgeable and engaging, and then we could potentially go beyond “the druid is drinking!”
After that, you can come back to me, and we can finally discuss why I can’t expect to live beyond 30 seconds, or why some classes can't even viably consider competitive arena play. These are big issues, yes, but if the game isn’t accessible to begin with, I’m fairly certain that no amount of class balancing will fix that.
Christopher "Pwyff" Tom