Wednesday, March 19, 2014

[2014] Why did World of Warcraft fall out of eSports?

I remember staying up late to watch IEM European World of Warcraft streams on my second monitor whenever my favourite team would play (Button Bashers). The most famous of them all was Orangemarmalade -- One of the best mages I've ever seen to play World of Warcraft. His partners were Numberone (Discipline Priest) and DKer or Hyren (another incredibly top tier rogue from Korea).

As we look at eSports today, the most watched games are League of Legends, DotA 2, and Starcraft 2. World of Warcraft used to be in that list but what made it fall off? Some of the core aspects I've come to think of are watchability, game patches, as well as, game design balance.


Spectator mode for World of Warcraft was great for anyone that actually played arena, understood the deeper mechanics that go on in high level arena games (2200 rating+), as well as, recognized clutch plays like spell stealing hand of sacrifice, faking casts, vanishing blinds, vanishing cheapshots, intervening freezing traps or spell reflecting deep freeze. 

The average eSports watcher wouldn't catch on to these amazing plays from professional players because the view of the matches didn't show that brilliance. Seeing top tier Frost Mages put out an incredible amount of crowd control and do damage at the same time was always exciting to me. Watchers of the tournaments would end up seeing a Rogue perspective where they are jumping up and down, stunning the other rogue, while the other players were running around the screen. It was just too messy for anyone to really get into. 

If we look at hockey, it's very easy to see how breakaways can be exciting, the camera zooms in, the sports commentators start yelling with excitement in regards to an opportunity of scoring a goal, as well as, the crowd jumping on their feet. 

Inconsistent Patch Dates

Every time there would be a tournament, Blizzard would release a new patch for World of Warcraft which included game balancing updates that had huge impacts on PvP. Sometimes, they would actually change around shared diminishing returns, like polymorph with hex. This basically made it so that Shamans couldn't play with Mages because of an overlap of crowd control categories. When teams practice together, they usually create a bunch of characters with the class they are strongest with, level up to max level, and gear them out. The thing is, this rigorous process actually ends up happening in a patch for a few months up until MLG or IEM. Eventually, a week before the tournament, a major update to their classes could end up weakening their composition to the point that it doesn't become competitive -- so they have to hustle and take on new classes just to try to take advantage over the new balancing changes. This was tough on the players -- imagine having to practice 16 hours a day doing arena with your team composition (rogue/mage/priest) and have an update decrease your mage's damage output and decrease your discipline priest's healing output.

Class Balance

Being a competitive professional player means you're willing to play whatever with the highest effectiveness (classes, gearing, specs) and exploit whatever to win (including arena queue dodging). In this case, there was a time in WoW's arena history where all top teams across all battlegrounds would play RMP (Rogue Mange Priest) because of its inherent strengths of non-overlapping crowd control. 

Sap, polymorph, fear bomb, counter-spell, blind, cheap shot, gouge, kidney shot, deep freeze, and ring of frost. Adding to that, discipline priests were one of the most aggressive healers that could put out a lot of damage whenever they needed to get a kill. This usually included power infusion + holy fire + smite. It was truly amazing to see the most aggressive discipline priests like Hydra and Bilian play.

It was truly difficult for any top 3s team to defeat RMP except in one particular patch which buffed beast mastery hunters and enhance shamans. This paved the way for the legendary "Beast Cleave" 3s composition. Only 3 days after the patch, all the top arena rankings on all battlegrounds had Beast Mastery Hunter, Holy Paladin, Enhance Shaman. The forums were flooded with "please fix burst damage on enhance shamans and beast mastery hunters" -- Every arena match you would hear Blood Lust (ARARRGHGHH), the spirit wolves would come out and the Beast Mastery Hunter would pop BM -- and your mage would be dead in a global before he could even Ice Block. Incidentally, one could say most of the patches that came out were really to address PvE issues -- to help diversify raid compositions (bring in more enhance shamans instead of stacking rogues or fury warriors as DPS). Blizzard did a great job of addressing these issues and I agree with them for taking the right approach -- to focus on the larger set of users on World of Warcraft -- which happened to be the raiders.

The eventuality of World of Warcraft in eSports

With MLG, IEM, and ESL dropping support for World of Warcraft around 2010 due to game balance issues, inconsistent patch times, and watchability issues -- naturally, PvP became less popular with World of Warcraft's user-base. Looking at the lessons learned, in order to make a game truly eSports friendly, there are two core aspects that really make it enjoyable for audiences: watchability (how easy is it to understand what is going on) and game balance. Naturally, MOBAs like League of Legends, DotA, and soon Heroes of the Swarm are easy to watch and I definitely see these games growing in viewership in these games in the coming years.

The future of competitive gaming is dependent on the viewership and the competitive spirit behind eSports. Riot Games has done a fantastic job of making League of Legends what it is today -- the most popular eSports game in history (although, you could say Starcraft was pretty big too). Ultimately, I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot from Blizzard Entertainment when Heroes of the Storm launches, as well as, the launch of Hearthstone on mobile devices.