World of Warcraft: How It Can Become a More Viable eSport

In today's eSports age, World of Warcraft seems a bit behind the times. How can Blizzard turn their masterpiece into a successful eSport?

Editor’s Note: You can watch the World of Warcraft Arena Championship in our live stream!

As we continue to discuss all things BlizzCon, the subject of Blizzard’s foray into the magical world of eSports must inevitably be addressed. Between the recent popularity of Hearthstone’s tournament action, StarCraft II’s historical international success, and the hope of Heroes of the Storm perhaps scoring a spotlight in the competitive MOBA scene, Blizzard has their sights aimed high.

And why not? The eSports scene is still finding its ideal nook in the mainstream entertainment world, but for those of us who are gamers, we already know there are millions of fans out there who are clamoring for more eSports coverage. Gamers, like sports fans, enjoy competition.

What better way to get a little dose of competition without having to invest all the time into becoming super awesome in your favorite game? Gaming is very much becoming a spectator’s sport, and Blizzard, like all game developers, would be silly to not to stake a claim in the visions of conquest and competition.

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There’s one problem. Despite Hearthstone, the possible future of StarCraft II, Heroes of the Storm, and even the next unrevealed Blizzard game (you’ll have news for us, right, BlizzCon?) all having obvious eSports potential, there’s one rather popular Blizzard game that hasn’t made any headway into the eSports scene yet. Any guesses as to what game I’m talking about? Yep—good ol’ World of Warcraft. What could Blizzard do to potentially change this up? Can WoW ever be suitable for eSports coverage?

First, let’s take a look at the most obvious eSports-ready aspect of WoW: the arena system. Sure, WoW has had some arena coverage in the vein of world championships and whatnot, but it’s never quite taken off in popularity like MOBA tournaments do. The problem is that WoW’s arena system simply isn’t that interesting to watch—3 v 3 mode especially. Compete in? Sure, maybe, if you happen to rock a good team makeup. But watch? Not really. Unless you like to watch teams gang up on X team member followed by a whole bunch of pillar humping.

Arena matches are basically fights that depend on team makeup, and as such, the fights themselves tend to be fairly simplistic. Rock, paper, scissors. Warlocks, hunters, and a pillar-humping healer, with a Rogue sometimes tossed in for good measure. Hybrid classes rarely get a chance to shine in arenas due to how maximized most team makeups tend to be. In the end it all comes down to which team can burst the first person down on the opposing team. Burst—as always in WoW PvP—is king.

This is partially an issue with WoW’s PvP system and partially due to class balance in general. MMORPG developers that try and balance their classes around both PvP combat and PvE combat generally fail at one or the other. The two game styles just aren’t that compatible. That’s one reason why MOBAs are doing so well in the competitive scene—they’re made with PvP specifically in mind (plus the developers have a lot fewer abilities to worry about balancing).

Even Blizzard realizes that WoW arena matches aren’t that interesting to watch. Despite the fact that Warlords of Draenor is adding in a spectatcor mode to arenas, in an interview with PCGamesN last month, Blizzard eSports head Kim Phan said that, “WoW 3v3 Arena right now is kind of hard to watch, in the form that it is. And so there are things that we want to evaluate.” As such, the Blizzard team is actively looking for new ways to approach eSports potential in World of Warcraft.

If not arena eSports action, what else could we potentially see? Competitive ranked battlegrounds? Possibly, but the same potential issues with predictable burst damage and predictable “flavor of the month” classes apply here.

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How about something in the realm of PvE? Competitive, spectator mode Challenge Modes (often referred to as “CMs”), anyone? What about coverage of the race for world firsts when a new raid wing is launched? Both of these PvE ideas are pretty interesting and bring up some good questions regarding WoW’s PvE combat in general. Is watching 5 scaled-down players blast through AoEing massive amounts of trash and fighting against a timer in a CM inherently interesting? Perhaps, but if arenas can be described as predictable, anything PvE-related is about 200 times more predictable.

If the Mists of Pandaria model of CMs went live as a spectator-type of competition, most of us who have done a few MoP Challenge Modes know how they’d pan out. We’d see teams of Brewmaster tanks and Warrior tanks rounding up all the things, stunning all the things, and killing all the things along with an AoEing Warlock or Mage and a Disc Priest. Hopefully, WoD will shake up the “perfect” CM team makeup a bit, but that’s besides the point. The point is that CM team makeups being that predictable to begin with is a bad, bad idea for anything that’s supposed to be halfway interesting in eSports coverage.

That same huge issue can also be said of world first raiding eSports coverage. Sure, let’s stack a few of the “flavor of the month” DPS classes and watch a raid clump up and die over and over. Yawnfest central. The fights would need to be fast forwarded through or highlighted to make this remotely interesting for most gamers. And that’s not to say anything on how boring the footage would be of the downtime in between wipes.

Unfortunately, the issue of World of Warcraft and eSports really boils down to the fact that WoW combat is far too predictable. While MOBAs have metas and “flavor of the month” champions and whatnot, the predictability between each given match is nowhere near the levels of any type of match or encounter in WoW. Players take more risks in MOBAs because death is just part of the game—and a way to grab loot quicker. In WoW, death is something that spells out the word “FINISHED” in all capital letters.

WoW’s class balance and gearing system also favors predictable damage and predictable, repeated strategies. Once groups find a strategy that works, they’ll keep using it—even when it comes to arena matches and battleground fights. That just isn’t inherently interesting.

WoW’s combat system would likely need to be reworked from the ground up in order to successfully create a type of environment that favors eSports coverage. We’re talking randomized instances, a reworking of the game’s death system, or unique sets of PvP abilities that don’t follow the same balance system that’s used for PvE purposes. Something like an incarnation of Diablo II-style randomized dungeons and WoW’s CM system could have a ton of potential for eSports, and be incredibly fun to take part in. All things considered, however, that’s probably something we won’t see anytime soon.

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Still, it’s fun to ask zany questions and wonder what Blizzard has in mind, especially when they say they’re exploring their options. We already know the development team is planning on WoW being around for the next 10 years. We’re going to need some cool, new features added. Come on, Blizzard. Randomized, competitive, gear-scaled, timed dungeons. Make them happen. I’ll be waiting (a good long while, probably).

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